Julie Byrne, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).  xvii + 291 pages, $22.50 paper.

 

An article in a 1974 issue of Sports Philadelphia asked the question: “How many men are on Philadelphia’s best basketball team?”  Answer: “None.”  In fact, there had not been any men on Phillie’s best basketball team since 1972, when the women’s basketball team of Immaculata College won the first of three national women’s college basketball championships.  Julie Byrne, an assistant professor of religion at Duke University, contributes to the growing study of “lived religion” by crafting a comprehensive account of these unheralded Catholic women in O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs.  She examines the ways in which young, female, Catholic basketball players both accommodated and resisted the “larger Catholic milieu” of Philadelphia from the 1930s to the 1970s (10).  And with over 130 surveys and interviews of former players, Byrne concludes that Immaculata basketball players found personal pleasure in the game of basketball, as well as ways to collectively experience the cultural constructs of class, gender, race, and religious identity.

 


"The game of basketball set female players apart from an ideal Catholic womanhood by confirming 'a new athletic feminine identity.'"

Byrne begins the story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs by configuring young female athletes within the history of Philadelphia Catholicism prior to the Second Vatican Council.  However, she finishes her historical introduction with the admission that a chronological narrative limits her intention to find the continuities among women basketball players throughout the twentieth century.  At that point, Byrne shifts her attention away from historical contingency and instead draws upon the personal experiences of former players in order to render a composite picture of life as an Immaculata Mighty Mac.  And nowhere did young Catholic women create a more common identity than on the basketball court.  Making the basketball team at Immaculata meant making a new identity in the eyes of Philadelphia Catholics, from priests and sisters to parents and friends.  The game of basketball set female players apart from an ideal Catholic womanhood by confirming “a new athletic feminine identity” (54).  It also provided young women of different backgrounds with an “equalized space” that effectively “inverted and diffused the hierarchy of class Immaculata players negotiated every day” (72, 74). 

 

Once on the team, the Immaculata Mighty Macs continued to live according to a special set of circumstances that centered on bodily and religious experiences.  The culture of Roman Catholicism certainly imposed gender standards upon girls and women that often stood in contrast to the actions of female players on the basketball court.  Yet, as Byrne demonstrates with her characterization of women playing basketball, the actual application of ideal gender roles is another thing entirely from the multiple ways in which individuals and small groups act upon those given ideals.  The game of basketball served as a venue for Catholics in Philadelphia to reconsider the conception of women as modest and gentle future mothers.  The game also permitted the Mighty Macs to extend their Catholic identities onto the basketball court, since, “like everything at Immaculata, basketball was religiously infused” (113).  Byrne goes so far as to describe basketball as a “parareligious institution” or a “parallel Catholic universe” in the sense that the space of the basketball court opened players to forms of Catholicism outside the confines of Sunday mass (115).  It also opened young Catholic women to the non-Catholic and non-white worlds of their opponents.  “Short of endorsing feminism,” therefore, “they pushed beyond traditional Catholic limits, hinting to the press of a world in which no particular activity constituted—or comprised—womanhood” (204).   

 

Byrne’s “new Catholic history from ‘way, way below’” reminds historians and ethnographers of several concerns facing the study of “lived religion” in the United States (209).  First, individuals and small groups always experience an improvised form of religion that breaks the boundaries of ecclesiastical supervision.  For this reason, Byrne asks that we “look away from specifically religious practices” and look toward the small-scale politics of everyday life, to activities like basketball, cooking, chatting online, and shopping at Wal-Mart.  Second, ethnographers, or those who interpret the lives of religious people, face quite an obstacle when it comes to casting an accurate depiction of their subjects.  Byrne demonstrates the difficulty in narrating a story like that of the Immaculata Mighty Macs when she makes general claims about their thoughts or actions and then admits that very few players would agree with her interpretations (16, 24, 86, 98, 113, 115, 139, 164, 172, 187, 211).  And third, the consolidation of ethnographic and historical methods is not as easy as it seems.  Byrne’s insight into the religious lives of “ordinary people, and particularly the lives of American Catholics in the twentieth century, reveals the value and potential, as well as the pitfalls and difficulties that come with such an interdisciplinary approach.  With both the engaging subject matter and methodological questions in mind, O God of Players will suit the interests of a wide audience, from undergraduate students to veteran scholars of religion in the United States.

 

Michael Pasquier/Florida State University

 



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