Happy Super Sunday! Super Bowl Sunday is the high holy day of American Civil Religion, bordering on holiday status. I often joke that if I were elected president, I would make the Monday following the Super Bowl a national holiday. Want to write me in? Theologians and scholars of religion have paid increasing attention to the connection between sports and religion and spirituality over the past few decades. Mercer University Press has a running series of books that explore the connection. One of these books, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, edited by Joseph L. Price, includes a variety of essays on baseball, football, basketball, hockey and wrestling, and a couple of essays on sports and religion in general. Two of Price’s essays, “From Sabbath Proscriptions to Super Sunday Celebrations: Sports and Religion in America” and “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival” offer insight into this holiest of days.
In the first essay, Price examines the myriad ways in which sports and religion relate: sports conflicting with religion, sports commingling with religion, religion conscripting sports, sports co-opting religion, and sports supplanting religion. In this final segment, he discusses the evolution of institutionalized sports in America to something of a religion itself and how this allows for Super Bowl Sunday to become such a sacred day. He writes, “It is possible, as we have seen from several of our earliest examples of the fusion of sports and religion, for sports to co-opt the allegiance elicited by religion and to become, in effect, a religion as such.” He continues, “[…] Institutionalized sports have become such a dominant religious force in America that they indeed constitute a religion, secular or profane though it might be” (34, 36).
The essays that follow bear out examples of religious devotion to sports from college basketball to professional wrestling. Price’s essay about, more of a reflection on, the Super Bowl is a more than fitting one. He begins by tracing the long history of sports’ relationship to religion or the spiritual, citing Greek attitudes towards the Olympics or the Mayans intertwining of sports and their sacred stories. For many modern day Americans, “the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth” (137). If anything, the hype surrounding this event is more intense than anything accompanying an ecclesiastical ceremony. What church service have you attended that has a FOUR HOUR LONG pre-game program?
Yet the event itself, as do most football games, bears distinct similarities to a church service. Price writes, “The invocation is a series of political rituals: the singing of the national anthem and the unfurling of a fifty-yard-long American flag, followed by an Air Force flight tactics squadron air show” (138). The event is complete with its own saints as well with the return of Hall-of-Famers who are celebrated in the pre-game show, at the coin-toss, and at half time. Price even links the game of football to America’s concept of manifest destiny. Teams must work together to advance the ball into their opponents’ territory, a conquest of land so to speak.
Price claims, “Amidst the ritual of the forceful quest, there is the extended ‘time out’ of half time, a time of turning from the aggressions of the game to the fantasies of the spirit” (139). I disagree, as would the NFL, with Price’s assertion that this half-time celebration is a time of innocence when compared to the violence on the field. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfuction secured less scandalous performances for perpetuity. Although I must admit I would rather listen to Tom Petty than Rihanna.
The connections between sports and religion are strong and cannot be ignored. If you are still skeptical, listen to the language used throughout the day to describe the athletes. Commentators use divine, invincible language to describe players and plays. Watch the players knel in the end zone after a touchdown for a quick prayer. Listen to the players and coaches in post-game interviews. Chances are, you’ll hear God’s name tossed around just as much as the football.
The Super Bowl kicks off at 3:30 ET today on FOX. The pre-game talking heads have already begun.