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Sacred Super Bowl?

February 5, 2018

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” (Isaiah 40:31)

I wasn’t planning on watching the Super Bowl last night. I’m astonished and impressed by the perpetual skill of the Patriots, but I don’t like them; and since they were heavily favored to win (again), I was going to skip it. But my wife wanted to see the Super Bowl commercials, so we went ahead and watched the game. Wow. Definitely one of the best football games I have ever seen. And even better: the Eagles won.

I have mixed feelings about NFL football. On the negative side are the following:

  • It is physically devastating to the vast majority of players. We have long known it ruins knees; now we know it also ruins brains.
  • The NFL tried to cover up and deny what it knew–or suspected–about brain injuries.
  • The NFL owners are greedy tyrants who pressure cities into building expensive stadiums the cities can’t afford.
  • The NFL is a shameless self-promoter trying to convince us that football and football merchandise is the most essential basis of our social life.

Because of these and other factors, my zeal for football has waned over the past three decades. On the other hand, I still find NFL football compelling for a variety of reasons:

  • It is the ultimate team sport of physical skill, complexity, and strategy.
  • It combines periods of tension when the teams are doing their secret planning in the huddle and brief periods of explosive energy when the ball is snapped.
  • It combines two completely different methods of offense: the run and the pass.
  • It combines different methods of scoring: touchdowns, field goals, extra points, 2-point conversions, and safeties.
  • It combines three different sets of players per team: offense, defense, and special team.
  • It has an odd-shaped ball that can bounce in unpredictable ways.
  • It has colorful accoutrements and ritualistic displays.

But what I find most intriguing about NFL football, especially the Super Bowl, is its religious aura and function. In cities such as Indianapolis (where I pastored for 19 years), the church schedule has to accommodate the Colts schedule. Commitment to watching the Colts is often higher than commitment to attending church for many otherwise active churchgoers.

I am intrigued that we personally identify with a team simply because it plays in our city or in a city near us. Somehow, its successes become our successes, and its failures become our failures. In the late 1980’s I was on cloud nine for 24 hours after each Bears victory, and I was literally depressed for 24 hours after each loss. I had melded with a group of men I had never met, knew little about, and had almost nothing in common with. How weird is that?

I am intrigued by football’s religious patriotism . The game begins with the national anthem and the unfurling of a giant American flag across the field. These must be respectfully treated by the players or accusations of sacrilege will rile the nation. Clearly, the football game (and other major team sports) function as a civil religion with sacred rituals that must be respected.

At the end of the Super Bowl last night, as the Lombardi trophy was being carried past the Eagles players, each player touched or kissed it in a kind of ecstasy. It was moving to watch. Then the trophy was brought up to the stand and the coach and key players were invited to make short speeches. The coach thanked “Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior,” and three players gave “the glory to God.” Clearly, this was a sacred event.

I am pretty sure God did not give one team victory over the other (much as I wish God would). Nonetheless, the Super Bowl functioned in a somewhat religious way. Rituals were observed that created a sacred time and place and assured all was done “right.” At the end, supporters of the Eagles felt a collective salvation, and supporters of the Patriots felt a collective tragedy and abandonment by the forces of the universe. Those officially representing the Eagles, who received salvation, gave God the ultimate credit.

“But it’s only a game,” I say to myself. But what is a game? A game is a structured counter reality with its own set of rules that we enter into, and it enables us to experience unique and collective ecstasies and salvation. Does that not sound like religion? The ancient Mayans played a ball game that was completely entwined with religious ritual and meaning–and played to the death. The ancient Greeks played sacred games at Olympia for a thousand years, and those games imposed on the many warring Greek city-states a collective peace and a sense of collective identity. To say “it’s only a game” is to misunderstand what games are and what they do to us.

I’m still trying to unpack all of this, but I am coming to recognize that our collective sports do function as a kind of religion with their own sort of experience of the sacred. A game is a pale imitation of genuine salvation–wholeness for all of life and relationships–but it is perhaps a step in the right direction, bringing together strangers into a brief unity, and undeniably thrilling in its moments.


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