Is American Football a Religion? (Revised and Republished from 11/4/2018 and 2/2/2019)
For the second time I choose to reprint this piece because nothing has changed. When it was first written last year’s Football season was underway. The same thing now, our first major religious gathering coming tomorrow. Football season consumes a great deal of many people’s energies, transforming themselves from their everyday lives into radical followers of sects of truth. There are saints and demons in these faiths. There are prayers and alters to kneel down upon. There is hatred–true, genuine hatred–of those following different gods, worshipping blasphemous lords. There are even high holy days. The first revision of this piece was made on the eve of last year’s Super Bowl. Once again, I believe it is something to think about.
This essay originally appeared on 11/4/2018, as the 2018–2019 American Football season was still young. It was a thought I had had about Sunday–formerly the day when people went to church (regardless of the fact that this is supposed to be God’s day off–why does he want to hear about how you masturbated to a picture of your aunt when she was young, much less forgive this?) And it seems like we can make a case for this–football as religion. Since we can proclaim our political parties and even pop cultural obsessions newfangled faiths, football certainly has a more organized system to follow. We even drink beer from a chalice, and celebrate the body of our lord by consuming its spicy wings.
Tomorrow is the Religion of Football’s high holy day–the Super Bowl, where an annual messiah is named and we spend the off-season either worshiping or denouncing the Lord, impatient until the bloody revolution next fall. (As an aside, the fact that the New England Patriots eventually went on to win the title yet again last year, there are plenty of people who write this off as Lord Tom Brady returning yet again. This season there is great anticipation that with the abscence of Saint Gronk and the growing animus between the Lord and the likely betrayal of Julian “Judas” Edelman, the Reformation might just be upon us.)
We have a long religious tradition here in America. In fact, the Pilgrims who started arriving in the 1600s were settling not so much to establish a new paradise, but a land they declared the New Jerusalem. They were religious fanatics and nobody liked them back home at in England. They came to the new land and demanded loyalty to their faith, which was suddenly free to be practiced.
Religion has always been important here, more often as an excuse for savagery and cruel oppression, than as anything resembling faith or a better way of living, or hope, or forgiveness of your sins. Church has traditionally been harsh and corrupt every place in the world. But in America we were allowed to follow any faith, or at least on paper. Religious bigotry and prejudice were thus allowed to flourish unsanctioned. Holy war occasionally broke out in pockets, justified by the winner’s victory over whichever sort of infidels they were battling.
Football in America is without a doubt a very powerful faith. We prepare for Sunday. We often dress up, or even go further than that, painting our faces and bodies the colors of the Lord we choose to worship. And there are rituals; complicated, nervous expressions of devotion, where belief is internalized, as though without performing this sequence of prayers you are betraying your God.
And it is not only on Sunday. On Saturday many people declare themselves followers of their favorite messianic college team, seeking to discover the new Jesus who will save their own faltering NFL team in the future while maintaining a cultish loyalty to whichever school they attended sometimes in the increasingly distant past. (By the way, if you have not seen it, there was a drunken stooge in Philadelphia who vowed that he would eat shit if the Eagles won the Superbowl. When the Eagles finally won, this fool scooped up a handful of horseshit lying in a mound on the street, which was filled with a Mardi Gras-like celebration of joy, and he smeared it all over his mouth to the rhapsodic, almost spoken in tongues encouragement of his fellow worshipers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9bhrp-9k-Y). If this is not religious devotion than nothing is.)
College Football, in many ways, prepares the true believer for the NFL. It is a different sect of the same religion (the gospel of Penn State, or Ohio State, or Notre Dame, et cetera). And then there is Friday night, the high school game. Sometimes this is every bit as popular and fundamentalist as all of the others, usually in small towns where there is nothing else to do on the weekend. These communities are similar to those quiet, eerie burgs where everywhere you look you see a another church.
At high school Football games, fights often break out, mostly between the adults sitting on the sidelines. Sometimes these parents are so loud and domineering that they distract their child on the field, and the kid gets knocked over or passed by. This leads to the parent screaming in rage–“What the fuck was that?” Sometimes the father even runs on the field to shove their son, humiliating them with the shouts of a frustrated football fan. They may even call the child ‘worthless,’ picking apart their teenage (sometimes even younger) self-doubt, and turning their child into an ugly, angry mess very likely to bully others the same way their father bullies them, and that they will someday bully their own children.
Football also has additional holy days. The NFL for many years has declared Monday nights yet another holiday. It used to be only on Thanksgiving that we could all watch the Cowboys and the Lions play, to give the awkward family get together something to talk about and unify over, making the silence of disinterest in one another a little more tolerable. But now there are games every Thursday, a further expansion of the church of American Football.
I am not condemning American Football by any means. I’m a fan too. I suppose I go to my own church every Sunday (as with everything, I am not especially religious. I do not go to every service. I will not wear a costume. I don’t even have a favorite team, more of a mild interest in the parallels to real life I imagine through the brutality of a game taken far too seriously.) I even play in a fantasy Football league, which is another style of worship, best left to another commentary on the impact of this nonsense on the actual professional world of sports (it grows year after year in the guise of so-called sabermetric gurus, transforming the way that the games are played in reality when a player, let’s say in baseball, becomes more interested in a meaningless stat like WAR–and I will not explain what this is to make my point–over the basic need for an RBI!) I even won a fantasy championship one year, and a few hundred dollars, out of the many years I have been doing this with old friends I rarely see anymore in person. And the truth is, our obsession with aligning our teams in order to win takes up even more time, time to watch replays and study on the days there are no games being played. This whole expansion of Football into the realm of everyday life further justifies my belief in American Football as a very deep religion, complete with the judgment of the true believers, and the Heaven and Hell in the afterlife of a season.