Share it

Monday, February 6, 2012

Superbowl Sunday

As you all know it is Superbowl Sunday, a fact that might have escaped me had someone not told me last Sunday at lunch. Twenty years ago, when I was teaching a M-W-F class, I made the mistake of assigning work over Superbowl weekend. Students were quick to chide me, except for the one working mother in the course who shot back to all the eighteen-year-olds, “I have a job, children, go to school and I get my homework done, so you can do yours even if is Superbowl Sunday.” What I failed to realize in my utter lack of sympathy for the sports enthusiasts was that football in America isn’t just a pastime. Wednesday I watched an old episode of “Designing Women” that first aired in 1990, where a character on the way to a college football game explains: “In the east, football is a cultural exercise. In the Midwest, it’s cannibalism; in the west it’s a tourist attraction but in the south it’s a religion.”
Given that the New England Patriots are squaring off against the New York Giants, I suspect the religious fervor has spread to the northeast. Though it may seem an exaggeration to compare football with religion there are similarities. Both have organized behaviors, specific rituals, congregants, sacred spaces and objects, feast days (have you noticed the grocery displays this week?), sacrifices (especially if we consider the injuries of players), music and dance (think half-time), and specific clothing and accessories that identify adherents. Football like religion, sports its own zealots. Here in Massachusetts, nary a Giants’ fan would feel safe walking the street tonight with the wrong garb on. I’ve seen the scowls aimed at Keene State students from Connecticut who dare don a cap or jersey with a New York team insignia.
According to the anthropologists John Monoghan and Peter Just, religion offers a way of dealing with difficult conditions, “Providing a set of ideas about how and why the world is put together that allows people to accommodate anxieties and deal with misfortune.”
For the upwards of 163 million Americans expected to tune in to this evening’s game, most of whom probably follow the pro season and college games, football may well offer a world view, or at least a rich combination of morality play combined with ongoing narrative, where in the words of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: “One of the things we want every fan to feel in the country is hope when the season starts that their team can end up holding that Super Bowl trophy. And one of the stats we’re most proud of in the last nine years we’ve had at least one team go from last to first.”
While Jesus purportedly said, “The last shall be first,” the Superbowl makes it so.
Embedded in the uncertainty, enshrined in the bookmaker’s odds, is the possibility of redemption. On the field is religious drama reprised where the prodigal son returns to favor and the hardworking son cheated of his birthright can be restored. Pain and effort are rewarded but so too fate plays its role. And now that “Tebowing” has entered the common vernacular, football includes prayer.
Consider this headline from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Catholic Herald: “For Some Faithful, Football is a Religion.” Reporter Gene Horn draws this comparison, a bit playfully he adds:
Football is an obligation … a ritual … like Saturday eve or Sunday Mass.
Biblically speaking, there’s an Exodus. Like the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan, all highways lead to the promised land of Green Bay. All local streets lead to a favorite sports bars for big-screen action. All doors at home lead to the living room or den for three hours of fanatical whoopin’ and hollerin’.
Horn goes on to compare uniforms to vestments, the pre-game pep talk to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, the referees to the Pharisees, ticket sales to the offering (and if we consider pro football generates ten billion dollar a year even the otherwise pious might stoop to envy).
On a more serious note, Margaret Wente, of the Canadian newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail, writes in a commentary entitled, “College Football Is America’s True Religion,”
[W]hen the legendary college football coach Joe Paterno was fired for overlooking the alleged sexual abuse of young boys by one of his assistant coaches, the Penn State campus erupted in riots. The students weren’t rioting because of outrage that powerful men appear to have turned a blind eye to brutal sexual assaults on children. They were rioting because the board of trustees had turfed out their revered JoePa. The university’s president had been fired too, but nobody cared about that. Thousands stampeded through the downtown area. They tore down light poles and overturned a television news van. “The board started this riot by firing our coach,” one student told The New York Times. “They tarnished a legend.”
College football is the true religion of America. And college football had no greater saint than Joe Paterno, the man who put Penn State on the map and produced a cornucopia of wealth for the region known as Happy Valley. Penn State students and alumni have huge amounts of pride and a substantial part of their identity invested in their football team.…
Both the church and football claim to inculcate the moral values that shape boys into men. And in both cases, the powers at the top decided to protect the brand instead of the kids.
You can tell a lot about a civilization from its monuments. The Greeks built temples to the gods. The Romans constructed roads and aqueducts. The United States built railroads, skyscrapers, majestic post-office buildings and public libraries. Today, it builds temples of worship called football stadiums. This may not be the end of empire, but sometimes it feels that way.
If we step back and unpack the devotion to football, at the collegiate and professional levels of course we discover mammon. According to last week’s segment on “Sixty Minutes,”
“A quarter of the league's revenues—about $2.5 billion, still come from ticket sales with another $2.5 billion coming from licensing fees on everything from footballs and league apparel to shot glasses and ice scrapers. Bud Light is reportedly spending a billion dollars over six years to be the official beer of the NFL.”
But something else is going on. “Under league rules the teams are required to share most of their revenue with each other.” “Sixty Minutes” reporter Steve Kroft asked Commissioner Goodell, “That’s socialism, isn't it?” to which Goodell replied, “It is a form of socialism. And it’s worked quite well for us.” I wonder how many adherents of pro football think of that as they cast aspersions on the president, the Occupiers of Wall Street and anyone else who suggests that a more equitable distribution of resources might lift all Americans.
Beyond the almighty dollar, which has an undeniable following itself, football is obviously more than a generator of revenue and hope, heroes and tribes; it functions as a magnet for community. When the University of Michigan played Notre Dame, 115 thousand fans packed the stadium. Tonight, 163 million American views will congregate around TV sets in homes and sports bars, and ABC news recently reported, “In small towns and big cities alike, high school football is something like a religion in Texas…On any given week, the University Interscholastic League of Texas estimates that there are close to 600 high school games across the Lone Star State, involving nearly 40,000 players — 100,000 if you count the non-varsity game.”
Families sit in the same seats their parents did, not unlike church pews passed down for generations. Football forms the framework for community, identity, belonging. It affords rules and roles that lend clarity amid changing mores. Game time becomes its own strange expression of the Sabbath when cell phones might actually get turned off or at least ignored till half-time. 
All this suggests not that America is going down the tubes, succumbing to ad campaigns for Bud Light and the official licensees for NFL apparel, not even that our adulation of sports superstars means we’ve turned into a nation of vapid couch and stadium potatoes. No, it indicates that humans, not just Americans, still hunger to feel a sense of membership, an affiliation with an organization where even the underdog can win, where the least and last can reach the front of the line. The devotion to football suggests at least to me, an affirmation that the multitudes long for communion—we long for the spirit to be made flesh, for what is holy to be largely in our midst. For the fans and players who assemble in the rain or cold or dark to fulfill a promise, the ancient religious concept of covenant comes to life. 
The exodus reporter Gene Horn spoke of in his lighthearted piece for the Milwaukee Catholic Herald has serious correlation. In the Exodus story, God enlists Moses to free the Hebrew people from the bondage imposed by Pharaoh so the Hebrew people can enter into a covenant with God based on fulfilling responsibilities, not shirking them. As much as many Americans have become conditioned to convenience and easy excuses, as much as customer service all but disappeared, there is something to be said for the teams and fans filling a cold rainy stadium, refusing to renege on their commitment. As annoying as the traffic jams and noise before and after game time are, we can take heart that Americans have not lost our capacity for collective voice. We don’t turn out to vote en masse; we rarely fill the Washington Mall or truly block the streets in response to the pressing social issues of the day. We often appear complacent to our global neighbors; but if we could harness the our devotion to football, if we could transpose our hunger for heroics to the men and women who show up day after day, night after night for shifts mopping the emergency room floor, or cleaning the restrooms of every stadium, if we extend our tribal allegiance from the Patriots to the planet, riling ourselves up over carbon and greenhouse gases as much as players and referees, if we would sanctify time in our week the way do Monday night football, think what could change.
As Unitarian Universalists we alternately despair over the extremes of secularized consumerist values on one end and religious fundamentalism on the other, wondering where is the middle ground for sane spiritually enlightened people seeking harmony and balance. I am the first to admit, as a person with zero interest in football, or any sport, that I have ignored the religious implications; but if I look closely enough to notice the millions who prefer to congregate in a stadium or in front of a TV to vicariously experience the unpredictability of assured struggle rather than to assembling in church to actually participate in it, I can’t help but wonder how that might shape our liberal religious future. We take such pride in our lack of creed, our lack of a central faith narrative, which allows the individual to search singly, but clearly the adherents of football, don’t seek a singular path. Yes, tens of thousands line up to watch the Boston Marathon, but Bud Light isn’t spending a billion to be official brew of long distance running. Football is a team sport that coalesces around the concept of cooperation within a team in order to beat the opponent. For all its stars, football acknowledges the grunts, the interdependent web of players and coaches, owners and fans. 
Think of all the team insignia apparel and accessories. People long to belong. Where is our team apparel? Where in fact, is our brand? What is the core identity to which a believer can adhere? What sustained and common goal unites us not just for a season but for decades? Why is it kids and septuagenarians can recall legendary sports scores, statistics, and team line-ups but few among us can memorize our principles or covenant? 
We needn’t glorify the intense competition or stadium brawls football engenders; nor should we promote tribalism. But we could learn from the enthusiasm and loyalty apparent and try to glean how we might create the sense of purpose and connection fans experience.
Football fans gather this festival day, with special dishes to share and specific rituals to follow, and by midnight tonight, another Superbowl will be over. Either Giant-Nation or  Patriot-land will be exultant and the rest will be left like Job to find meaning in despair. I don’t say this facetiously. For those who genuinely care about football, the Superbowl occasions having to wrestle with disappointment. The outcome of a championship game compels people to make sense of what befalls them. 
When a football team loses, fans feel they’ve lost something too, in a way that fosters a level of connection otherwise unlikely. Two weeks ago I mentioned almost half of the country experiences some level of poverty—but really, who gathers the next day at the well or water cooler to bemoan that? But tomorrow Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere will rehash the game. More energy will be devoted to a single evening of football and multi-million dollar ads than a year’s worth of sermons in church. 
The few of us who won’t be watching can spend the evening pondering what the religion of football has to teach us: about what makes time sacred and why people happily spend money; what incites such fervent dedication, and creates community and identity across such a disparate population. And for all the fans glued to the television, may the incarnation of glory on the field inspire the same zeal for fairness, opportunity and teamwork everywhere else. Nooshi-jon.