(As a disclaimer, I will acknowledge that the title of this essay could just as easily replace ‘American’ and make this a universal question, depending on the trends throughout the world. But I am American. We are not interested in the most popular sport in the world. We even call it something different–soccer–because otherwise our favorite sport would be blasphemy.)
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. I reprint this piece in anticipation of The Super Bowl (where I will write a bit of a sequel.). Only some very mild edits will appear. Should you prefer to dig up the original gospel of this idea, the piece for 11/4 remains as it first appeared.
“Today is Sunday and many of us are getting ready to go to church. 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 in a better way of living, or hope for 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 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.
“But I am not writing of the dense and complicated religious history of the new world. There are other times, and no doubt much longer essays, that will be written about this. In fact, there is a five-part series on this topic that ended on 7-11-2018. There is still another piece to be written to complete my commentary, the one focusing on modern religion, but that is pretty fragmented, and would also include what I am writing right now.
“Football in America is without a doubt a 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 their favorite messianic college team, sometimes more fanatically than even a Philadelphia Eagles fan. By the way, if you have not seen it, there was a drunken stooge in Philly who vowed that he would eat shit if the Eagles won the Superbowl (we even capitalize our new Christmas!) 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).
“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 more tolerable. But now there are games every Thursday, a further expansion of the religion 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. I even won a 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. This whole expansion of Football into this realm of everyday life further justifies my belief in American Football as a very deep religion, complete with the judgment of the true believer, and the Heaven and Hell in the afterlife of a season.”