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Denver Broncos quarterback and outspoken man of faith Tim Tebow may have lost his chance for this year’s Super Bowl ring three weeks ago, but if you think that was a season-ender for the holier voices of football, brother, you don’t know this game. The Super Bowl is a hairsbreadth away from a pulpit sermon: the game in which Tony Dungy won XLI “the Lord’s way,” Most Valuable Player Drew “Breesus” Brees declared that “God is great” in XLIV, and the bookies had God as the 3/2 favorite to be thanked first by XLV’s MVP.
The Super Bowl is merely the sport’s high holiday. The entire season is filled with talk of the spirit. Some of the sport’s most electric non-Super Bowl moments have been christened “the Immaculate Reception,” “the Holy Roller,” and “the Music City Miracle.” And even regular season games often don’t end without one all-or-nothing “Hail Mary.”
When the topic of faith and football comes up, though, commentators admit that it seems a rather odd place for the gent from Galilee to show his face. After all, what does a violent, competitive, money-driven spectacle have to do with a man who talked meekness, peace, and poverty? That odd cultural mash-up seems to get thrown into sharp relief around this time every year, whether through a controversial Super Bowl ad, a new church promotional gimmick, or the very public faith and private foibles of a team, coach, or player.
But those who quibble with the national sacrament of football should simmer down. Big spectacle games are made for professions of faith, and holy language is exactly the right fit. The “sacred game” has been our earnest, mortal invitation to the divine since time immemorial. Though pigskin may not be kosher, reverence is certainly called for. Veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte had it right when he tried to squash our perennial ambivalence with a comforting dash of dogma:
Any Given Sunday is reserved for those who have been saved, who have accepted that so long as there is an American Empire, football will be its religion and the Super Bowl its Holy Day.
Can I hear an Amen?
When fans praise the Lord at the game or when the quarterback sees God at work on the field, they have the anthropological record in their corner. Peoples across all times and cultures have reserved a space in the bleachers for the Almighty. Consider the sacred courts of the Aztecs and Mayans, where ulama was played with a ball symbolizing the sun and the players themselves represented the forces of life and death. For the year’s most important games, players were decapitated, their blood feeding the cosmic order and their skulls hung on ready-made courtside racks like championship banners. Or consider the sumo match: even as it’s practiced today, after thousands of years, the mat still calls for ritual sand purification and a ceremonial stomping to scare away ominous spirits. This is prayer-as-sport, according to historians, and was conducted for the amusement of the gods.
There are countless more examples. Why? For one thing, games are like rituals: they share a close structural kinship in elevating ordinary human activity to something cosmic and divine. Both add a mystical layer of meaning on an enclosed space: that little chalk line represents much more than ten yards anywhere else, in the same way that walking from your pew to the altar means far more than walking that same distance from the sofa to get another beer. Both games and ritual also demand that everyone pay a strict obedience to non-logical rules. Sociologist Roger Caillois argues that a game is basically an agreement to go from point A to point B in a way that vexes our sense of what’s easiest. (Anyone who has walked a labyrinth should see the parallels there.) And both games and religion, more often than not, pose mighty struggles with rewards that go beyond mere material enrichment. Whether it’s a win or eternal salvation, you can’t put the real prize in your pocket.
And football, like any well-designed game, is a profound metaphysical meditation exactly because it depends on a frustrating balance of skill and chance. A player can train until all the passes and plays become second nature, but in the end, some factors are just out of his hands. On game day, as in life, free will must cast its lot and see where destiny lets it fall. With the world watching, can you really put everything on the line without saying a little prayer?
The anthropological record, therefore, shows that sport for human beings just is religious practice. Rather than being shocked at the religiosity of the Super Bowl, we should rather see it as perfectly natural expression of our humanity.
Yet, we would be wrong to deny a tension between the brutal gridiron and Judeo-Christian values. How did a largely Christian America end up with football, of all sports, as its sacred game?
Maybe nations have a ludic religion, too, expressing how we play and what we celebrate while we’re on the field.
Therein lies a tale with more questions than answers. Ball games and the God of Abraham have a history fraught with distrust. As early as the third century, the Jerusalem Talmud stated that Mount Simeon was destroyed because the inhabitants used to play ball there. The specifics of that reasoning have caused two millennia of heated debate among rabbis. Is a shabbat ball game a violation of the melakha of carrying an object? Does a ball that bounces on the ground violate sabbath laws of cleanliness? (The latter is thirteenth century argument that modern scholar Saul Berman cheekily calls “an end run” around the issue.)
In fact, that early Jewish ambivalence may have had more to do with distancing themselves from the Greeks, who were religious sports fanatics. The Olympics and other Panhellenic games were high holy festivals where races figured prominently in ritual. (The lighting of the modern Olympic torch is the vestige of a running sacrifice to Pelops.) For the Greeks, who saw opposing forces as part of the divine scheme, the rowdy back-and-forth of sports and contests may have made for a very fitting holy rite.
Jewish resistance to pagan sport probably has something to do with why the early Christians stayed clear of the holy games popular in their times. But Rome didn’t make things easier. The empire adopted the Greek love of games and transformed them into gruesome spectacles, with Christians becoming one of the attractions. For nearly two hundred years, they faced damnatio ad bestias—thrown into the arena with vicious animals, for the delight of a bloodthirsty crowd. According to Tertullian, his fellow Christians quickly began to avoid the arena—and sports as they knew them—entirely.
It is admittedly a strange paradox, then, that the United States, a largely Christian country, has embraced a brutal and bloody colossal-arena sport. Though there may not be a straight shot to a clear answer, a few ideas may buy us some yardage. First, the early part of the twentieth century saw a rapprochement: a wide embrace of a phenomenon known as “muscular Christianity”—an attempt to make the culture of Christ welcoming to brawny he-man types. Ministers began to inject a dose of testosterone into the pulpit, as captured in Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, and sports figures fit the mold perfectly. Second, in the 1970s, television gave a tremendous boost to both televangelists and football, with the rise of Jerry Falwell on the one hand and Howard Cosell on the other, opening up opportunities for synergy. Evangelists could bring their message to the wide audience of football, and football could gain the loyalty of Christian fans by becoming more Christ-friendly. The increasing coziness between these two growing cultural forces led Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford to write a long critique of the nascent phenomenon of high-profile religiosity in American sports, which he dubbed “Sportianity”:
Sportianity, as this brand of religion might best be called, is thoroughly evangelistic, using sport as an advertising medium. The idea is simple enough: first, convert the athletes, who are among the most visible individuals in our society; then, use these stars for what is generally known in the business as "outreach," an up-to-date rendering of the old-fashioned phrase "missionary work." To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.
Pointing to such leads might suggest our holy embrace of Super Bowl Sunday is no more than a series of happy accidents. According to this story, the American chapter of the God of Abraham gradually loses its distrust of sports and warms to popular culture at just the time that football rises to become the nation’s mass spectacle.
But I’d like to propose another theory, a higher hand of providence that made this yearly spectacle a cause for more-than-secular celebration. Rousseau coined the term “civil religion” to describe that quasi-religious set of values and ideals that form a center of a country’s political life. Maybe nations have a ludic religion, too, expressing how we play and what we celebrate while we’re on the field. If so, football certainly does a knock-down job of telling the American story.
It gives us heroes. We’re a nation fueled by everyman success stories, whether they’re movie stars, entrepreneurs, or social radicals. And football gives us the quarterback as the quintessential leader—unique in the world of sports as a player who is at once brawny, fleet, in the thick of it, and possessed of the smarts to scan a complex field and guide his team with crack decisions.
It gives us grandeur. Other nations may make fun of our outsized shoulder pads and helmets, but we love our gear and the heft it gives us. Our warriors on the gridiron gird on their bulky, pricy, high-tech equipment in the same way that our armed forces don their helmets, flak jackets, and packs to fight for our freedoms. And the stadiums where they clash are a cultural trope in themselves, their colossal sizes and distances attempting to represent the largeness of the globe.
Football also tells our story. We’re a nation of hardened immigrants and pioneers. To face the unknown frontier takes a delicate balance of qualities: tactical smarts and brute courage, and the power to assemble a team of allies. And it moves ahead in fits and starts, sometimes in painfully small, measured steps and other times in great gains.
Finally, it calls for hope. This Sunday, only one team will go home winners, and the rest of the league will return to lick their wounds, train harder, and hope for a resurrection next season. And when next season starts, you can bet the talk on any Sunday will be about redemption, the failings that haunt us, and the blind faith that this year is our year.
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