The Church of Football

I’m not much of a football fan–I went to a Mennonite high school, so I never really learned enough to fully appreciate the sport, and my Super Bowl tradition consists of rooting for whoever everyone tells me is the underdog and making sure I’m around when the commercials are on. I am, however, slightly fascinated by the role that professional sports (and athletes) play in our culture. It’s a civil religion I’ve participated in on rare occasion; mostly I just observe from the sidelines.

Robert Lipsyte, writing in The Nation, makes several correlations between Christianity and football, including sainthood and the variety of ways in which it is experienced:

Given the chance, I’d watch the Super Bowl with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who knows about Baal and ball. Twenty years ago, in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a Liberty University Flames game, Dr. Falwell told me: “Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you’d be slow getting up after he tackled you.”

He had me at “sissy.” The rest was revelation. The muscularity of Dr. Falwell’s evangelical Christianity was a perfect fit with football, another win-or-lose game. For Americans, war hasn’t produced a real winner for more than 60 years. That’s why we need football. But let’s get back to Dr. Falwell. “My respect for Catholicism and Mormonism goes straight up watching Notre Dame and Brigham Young play,” he told me. He hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus informing the nation that “the Christians are here, we’re not meek and we’re not going to fall down in front of you. We’re here to stay.”

While we wait for his Holy Bowl to show us how to kick the other cheek, we do have the gospels, saints, and rituals of the Super Bowl, arguably the holiest day of the American calendar. Nothing in sports draws us together as surely–not elections, the Academy Awards, disasters, terrorist acts, or celebrity deaths. The Super Bowl is a melting pot hot enough for atheists, Sodomites, and Teletubbies to become one with the Saved, if only for a single Sunday. But that’s a start.

You can find the rest of the article here. Enjoy the game.

Comments (2)

  1. carl

    As a football fan (and more particularly, a still-somewhat-giddy-from-our-first-Super-Bowl-win lifelong Indianapolis Colts fan), I feel a slightly guilty sense of responsibility to comment on this post :-) Thanks for bringing up the topic, Lora.

    So here’s my thing. There’s no question that at one level (probably the dominant level) football is just what Falwell thinks it is: a violent, male, macho, win-or-die-trying stand-in for war.

    At the same time, of all the major team sports football is by leaps and bounds the most complex in terms of strategy and coordination, by far the most intellectually difficult to coach or play. It’s the only major team sport where the phrase “chess match” really is a legitimate description of the kind of strategic thinking and counter-moving both the coaches and players have to be able to do on every single play in order to be successful.

    It’s on this latter level that I enjoy watching and studying the game (well, that and the emotional attachment I have to the Colts from growing up watching them play). I’m no fan of the violence (it makes me sick when commentators celebrate “big hits” or whatnot), I’m certainly no fan of the massive amounts of money involved (though I contribute to it by watching), and I also think that sports in general do serve as a kind of civil pseudo-religion (Noam Chomsky talks about them as a surrogate to distract “the masses” from real political activity).

    All of which leaves me more or less confused. Is there any integrity in watching football (and occasionally playing football computer games) because I’m interested in the strategic game itself, even though I can’t find much else to like in the whole production? Or is football simply nothing more in the end than a flat-out expression of male violence, and if I’m working to become a nonviolent and anti-sexist male, nothing but disowning it entirely would have integrity?

    To put things in less polarized terms, where does football fall on the continuum from “mostly harmless vice, don’t be such a perfectionist” to “it really reinforces male violence, ditch it now”?

  2. eric

    I’m more interested in the Jesus sissy bit. I couldn’t care less about football. It’s so similar, and yet so different, from everything I’ve been saying about Jesus lately.

    I think the clues point to a somewhat small and unhandsome little Jesus. I think it’s not very likely he’d even hit you on the football field (for reasons not limited to culture and chronology). And yet, the man had some verbal bite, and a lot of insults to throw around.

    Jesus probably was a sissy, but Jesus was one bad-ass sissy.

    (Just like Luke Skywalker?)

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