He is on his knees. His hands are pressed together, trembling in the prayer position. His eyes and ears are glued to the prophet before him. Out of nowhere he jumps up, raising his eyes to the ceiling and thanking the lord above. The quarterback just completed a Hail Mary pass (the game winning touchdown), sealing the deal in the playoff game.
For many people in America, football has become a surrogate religion. A majority of the games take place on Sundays, a day in which many Christians today consider to be the Sabbath day--a holy day meant for worship and rest from work. Rather than attend church services, however, many people spend their entire Sundays glued to the television screen watching game after game. On a personal level, my father, a born and raised Catholic who went to Catholic school all his life and attended mass regularly until the mid 1990s, now spends his Sundays making his fantasy football picks and watching the games play out. His actions are described above.
In many instances, football has fit the place of religion in people’s lives. The sport provides meaning for many, and an escape and alternative from reality. There is a type of devotion in football to teams and athletes that is similar to people’s devotion to their sacred religion or God. There are also team songs, or hymns, that are sang, and sacred objects (the ball itself) that people respect and take very seriously. Furthermore, there is even apparel (jerseys, scarfs, towels) and colours that fans wear to demonstrate their faith and support (similar to a robe, burka, or hijab).
Like religion, football shapes people’s ideologies. Football has given people a code of conduct for everyday living. If a football game is a miniature rehearsal for the game of life, for instance, “it tells that life is a struggle between contesting forces in which there is a winning and losing side” (Price 2001: 35-36). The sport also teaches that “success [or winning] depends on teamwork and that in competition loyalty, fair play, and being a ‘good sport’ in losing are virtues” (Price 2001:36).
Another interesting aspect about football and sports in general are the religious experiences fans and players seem to endure. Both fans and players undergo what some could describe as a religious high, a transcendent experience. Take my father, for instance, who jumps around the living room like he is possessed and thanks or damns the lord at crucial plays during the game. Or look at players who cross themselves or kiss the sky when they score a touchdown. Furthermore, the national anthem that is sung before every game and the moment of silence that is held is reminiscent of an act of prayer (Price 2001:138).
Clifford Geertz describes this religious high that fans experience as “deep play,” or “the most intense involvement of a viewer in an event” (Real 2002:24). This so-called “deep play” includes both conscious motives and mythic goals and involves psychological and financial stakes. “Watching sports on television illustrates how ritual participation today occurs in a technological, fully commercialized wonderland” (Real 2002:24). Michael Real goes on to say that along with ‘deep play,’ ‘deep fans’ are a significant element of contemporary media sports. The intense emotional involvement that faithful, mediated football fans experience is due in large part to how football has been commercialised into a modern day religion (Real 2002: 25). Similar to a particularly religious individual, sports provide meaning and consume the lives of ‘deep fans.’
While football may not be religion in the Abrahamic sense, it is indisputable that the sport can be perceived as a religion. As sociologist Harry Edwards exclaimed, “If there is a universal popular religion in America, it is to be found within the institution of sport” (Price 2001:35). And this is not something new in America. In the 1980s, for example, “the popularity of Monday Night Football was featured in matchbook advertisements for the Church of Monday Night Football” (Price 2001:35). In many ways, American football has and continues to fulfil the same functions to its followers as a religion does. By providing consistency and tradition in a continuously evolving society, establishing a sense of belonging and community, and serving as a familiar and comforting space for sacred rituals, football is like any other recognized religion in the world (Chidester 1996).
Chidester, David. "The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. LXIV.4 (1996): 743-765.
Price, Joseph L. “From Sabbath Proscriptions to Super Sunday Celebrations: Sports and Religion in America.” From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. Ed. Joseph L. Price. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2001. 15-38.
Price, Joseph L. “The Super Bowls as Religious Festival.” From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. Ed. Joseph L. Price. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2001.137-140.
Real, M. “MediaSport: Technology and the Commodification of Postmodern Sport.” MediaSport. Ed. L.A. Wenner. London: Routledge, 2002. 14-26.