At least 60 percent of Americans will join in the festival, some with detachment, others ecstatically. On few other days will stores and restaurants be so empty and only on Thanksgiving do Americans eat more food. Every year the Internet buzzes with petitions demanding recognition of the Monday afterward as a federal holiday. Super Bowl Sunday is the highest of high holy days in the church of the NFL.
For over thirty years professional football has drawn more fansin both stadiums and living roomsthan baseball, the purported “national pastime,” basketball, auto- or horse-racing, soccer, or hockey. It generates astonishing amounts of money, an independent television network, and an ever-widening audience acting as ersatz coaches in internet fantasy leagues. NFL officials negotiate television contracts exceeded only by recent federal bailout plans.
ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio’s recent book, How Football Explains America (Triumph Books, 2008) provides a bracing assessment of the connections between American life and its favorite sport. The offensive huddle embodies the constitutional right for free association. With its complex shifts in rhythm and emphasis, the “west coast offense” parallels the Monk and Coltrane jazz classic “Straight No Chaser.”
Following World War II the nation satisfied its need for strong yet understanding leadership not only by electing Eisenhower but by celebrating the Cleveland Brown’s groundbreaking coach, Paul Brown. The Sixties’ convolutions were reflected by two popular quarterbacks: the quiet, dutiful Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets’ flamboyant, rebellious Joe Namath.
Paolantonio makes the provocative claim that football’s proactive attitude towards integration upsets the mythological stories of Jackie Robinson’s entry into baseball. Robinson’s bravery with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers appears even in literature for first-graders. Few Americans remember that the preceding football season had witnessed the return of black players after a fourteen year hiatus. Pro football lacked a singular prophetic figure like baseball’s Branch Rickey, who carefully orchestrated his sport’s integration, and its integration occurred with far less fanfare but far more success.
Football explains America, Paolantonio argues, through its fashioning in light of national experience. In the nineteenth century, soccer and rugby came to be regarded as boring holdovers from the pre-Revolutionary era. Yale’s Walter Camp developed football as a violent but nonetheless rational game orchestrated by one manthe quarterback. The quarterback would direct his teammates in the acquisition of the opponent’s territory, and failure to make progress (with four downs to go ten yards) meant surrendering the ball. He envisioned the position as a contrast to the brute strength dominating rugby and the fluid unorchestrated movement of soccer.
Football emerged in America just as the frontier closed. Thwarted from pursuing the real thing, American men ever since have turned to the field to replay a myth of struggle and conquest. Thus quarterbacks stir the American imagination: Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, and the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, who have won the past two Super Bowls.
Originally, football was envisioned as a vehicle for moral improvement. It reflected America’s purported Protestant character and embodied both individual and communitarian values like teamwork, individual effort, manliness, and integrity. But problems arise when violence is glorified instead of merely accepted. Some insist that football canonizes everything wrong in American life. George Will’s quip comes to mind: football combines the two worst features of Americaviolence interspersed with committee meetings.
Even Paolantonio confirms this when he offers the Snoop Dog rap song “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” as a celebration of football’s competitiveness, but his own narrative suggests that the sport’s creators and heroes such as Giants and Packer coach Vince Lombardi and Army coach Red Blaik would distance themselves from Snoop Dog’s claim that “you’ll say my name when I’m through with you.” Obviously Lombardi wanted to win; after all, he coined the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” But he, a devout Catholic, sought victory through team effort and bravery (and the occasional motivational speech), not the denial of the opponent’s humanity and dignity.
A football discussion seems an awkward place to mention John Paul II’s defense of the culture of life. Nevertheless, the intrinsic dignity of the human person permeates football’s value system, past and present. Professional football punishes excessive celebrations and taunting as unsportsmanlike conduct. While lots of dirty play escapes penalization, outright brawling brings expulsion and other harsh penalties. A veteran himself, Paolantonio distinguishes between football’s violence and its use of military metaphors like “the bomb” and “the blitz.” Many football players and coaches are devout Christians and view playing football as an opportunity to glorify God. Earlier this year the college football championship featured two teamsFlorida and Oklahomaquarterbacked by devout evangelical Christians. This is the sort of mythic leadership Paolantonio describes.
Indeed, religious themes lurk throughout his assessment of American football. The sport offers a compelling, almost mythical scene: two teams, clad in helmets and body armor like medieval knights, engage in a lengthy series of short, intensely violent clashes to control both an object (the ball) and territory. Every autumn, high school boys and college men reenact this battle, but pro football attains levels of spectacle previously reserved for religious or gladiatorial spectacle.
Unlike baseball's long leisurely season, football’s short season offers no second chances. Thus each game possesses its own biblical finality; win and celebrate with tambourine and dance, lose and it’s Lamentations. Autumn Sunday afternoons have become a set of sixteen services where believers, clad in their teams’ color and insignia, often carrying its relics, gather to celebrate their team’s performance and join in the drama of its liturgy.
Still, the interweaving of football and religion requires further exploration. George Carlin’s contrast between baseball and football captures something about the nation: “Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall when everything is dying.” Perhaps we need football for the decline of the year, as the days shorten and grow colder, and a slower, pastoral diversion for hot summer days, each game with its own beauty. While football might explain something about America, it might not always fulfill it.
Several years ago at an academic meeting, I overheard a Lutheran theologian joke that he loved both the Eucharist and the Minnesota Vikings, but not to the same extent. Americans follow their football religiously, but this devotion has yet to unseat beliefs even more deeply held.
Jeffrey Marlett teaches religious studies at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.