In their article, Besnier and Brownell discuss the concept of liminality and the differentiation of game from ritual. They reference at least one scholar who warns against the overuse of the word ritual, likely believing that if the term is applied too indiscriminately, the social power and influence of “true” rituals might be considered less valuable. However, it seems to me that the idea of profane rituals exist largely for this purpose: to describe behaviors that may not have the same spiritual significance but still follow the ideals and principles of a ritual. Sports do seem to fit this criteria in most if not all ways. The behavior is stylized, repetitive, and formal; the sport is performed earnestly as a social act; displays are held at specific times and places, and include specific language particular to them. So, while most modern sports are secular and non-spiritual, the roots of certain sports (as discussed in the article) often have religious qualities, and either way, all sports today provide an experiential encounter that reflects ritualism. Because of this, I want to explore to what extent sports can be mapped onto the stages of a rite of passage.
Arnold van Gennep’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to his construction of a pattern detailing the phases within a rite of passage. Here, a rite of passage occurs when an individual changes their status and seeks to legitimize the new status through a series of behaviors that make it recognizable within their community. Gennep’s stages are outlined in the graphic, as well as a non-sport example to better illustrate the concept. While this structure is likely not applicable to every single sport, I believe these stages are largely relevant to the experience of an individual who seeks to become part of a team (rather than a fan or an observer). The first step is separation, which can be either literal (physical separation) or social and symbolic. This indicates a shift away from one’s old status and
defines the goal or eventual outcome, which in this case is to “make the team.” While this may be facilitated by outside parties like a coach or other administrator, it is often a self-selecting process, where individuals want to be part of a select group with the knowledge that they will have to vie for one of a limited number of spaces.
Next comes the phase of liminality, which is the key transition stage in the shaping of a new identity. It acts as a form of social limbo, because the individual in a way has no status. For an aspiring athlete, this would not technically be true; one might still hold the status of student, for example, as well as its subsequent role, during the time that they are competing with their peers for a spot on a team. However, their status has still been called into question, and is no longer a static fact. An essential part of this stage is a process that includes both education of the initiate and some sort of trial to be passed. Such education would necessarily be learning the finer parts of the sport, studying lineups, practicing new strategies, etc. The trial part would be the tryout itself, a challenge that the individual has ideally been psychologically and physically prepared for, but that they ultimately must complete themselves. In some cases, hazing might also fall into this category.
Finally, the act (or acts) of reintegration follows to conclude the process. At this point, the individual is prompted to “re-enter” society with their new status; often, the status is designed to be displayed in some way, such as through a jersey, team bag, etc. As long as the individual’s performance of this new status and associated role are deemed sufficient, they are accepted into their new status by the general population. The only problem in applying this to sports comes in the fact that in most rituals, individuals are assumed to ascend to a new status, whereas in the case of tryouts, some people often do not make the cut. Nevertheless, this one minor divergence does not invalidate the other arguments or the larger function of sport as ritualistic behavior. For that majority that does become part of the team, the pattern they follow mirrors numerous transitions they will experience in their lives, from the biological to cultural. The ultimate goal of acceptance and conformity is served, as individuals integrate themselves into a new community that redefines their identity both physically and socially, thereby fulfilling the primary purpose of a ritual.