By Tanya K. Jones
Whether one is playing or spectating, millions of people participate in one form or another. As springtime ends, it takes two sports in the U.S. with it; hockey and basketball. Despite the loss, American sports enthusiasts have baseball to lean on until the day comes when one sport rises above the rest; professional football. The NFL attracted 17.9 million viewers in the 2015-2016 season. Although its number dipped to 14.9 million weekly viewers for the 2017-2018 season, it still surpasses the 2017-2018 NBA viewership by 6.9 million viewers. American football stands apart from other popular sports in the U.S. because it is the only sport to have its own day, Sunday. Although the NFL has branched off to Monday night football and Thursday night football, Sundays are the most sacred for football fanatics, including myself. This leads me to wonder: has football replaced traditional religion in the United States? Based on my research on the decline of traditional religion in the U.S. and my personal experiences, I believe it has.
Football has become a religion. Religion is defined as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices,” “scrupulous conformity,” or “the service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observation.” Unlike traditional religions, football allows for, and encourages, “idleness, drunkenness, gambling, and fancy dress;” that is part of the appeal. Whether they attended the games in person, at a bar, or sat at home and watched the games on television, millions of Americans chose to do the same thing every Sunday for seventeen weeks. Fans of the sport wore their team jerseys, purchased their favorite food and beverages, and shouted at referees simultaneously. Those who participated in this shared revelry conformity played into the institutionalization of football.
I was not always a football fan, but that all changed when my brother took me to my first Chargers’ game. Like many Americans, I fell in love with the sport. For the next few years, I gained an appreciation for the game; although I still considered myself a “part-time fan.” I did not become a “full-time fan until I met my fiancé, and we began to watch the sport religiously on Sundays. I use the term religiously because, like for many Americans that is what American football for us. This past football season 14.9 million Americans joined our religious sport traditions. My football rituals every Sunday this past season consisted of waking up early, cleaning, going to the store and buying “game food” and coming home to watch eight hours of football on the NFL RedZone channel. Naysayers may decry these rituals as mere spectacles, but as I will demonstrate, the spirituality of football runs deep.
From the birth of our country in the sixteenth century, religion was at the center of colonial life. Every Sunday, preachers held service and required every member of colonial society to attend. According to historian John Butler, “the laws banned idleness, drunkenness, gambling, and fancy dress.” Throughout the evolution of the country, and the creation of law, church and religion were affiliated. During the 1950s nearly half the U.S. population attended some form of weekly religious service. By the 1960s, 180 million U.S. citizens attended a church service. However, as the twentieth century progressed church began to lose its hold on the population. Today, that number has dropped to twenty-three percent. Some researchers argue that this is due to an increase in spirituality versus traditional religious practices such as attending church. Others argue that American’s have found “more fulfilling things to do with their weekends.” This practice began in the late nineteenth century by “liberal Protestants” who reasoned that “allowing secular pastimes on Sunday could be beneficial for moral development and democracy.”
Sports are a significant component of the “more fulfilling” and “secular” activities; especially football during the NFL season. Nicholas Frankovich, deputy editor for the National Review, furthers this argument. He explained that in the early twentieth century, any sort of sport was illegal to participate in on Sundays because “they distracted from religious observance.” Frankovich explained that “the decline of organized religion in the West has coincided with the rise of modern organized sports.” He illuminated the connection between church and men creating the inherent need for masculinity. The Church used this need for masculinity to promote its own agenda and regain a prominent place in men’s souls through muscular Christianity. According to Peter McIntosh, author of Fair Play: Ethics in Sport and Education, muscular Christianity is “the ideal of manliness and the association of physical prowess with moral virtue.” Though the need for manliness and masculinity is still ever present in football, the need for moral virtue is not as prevalent. The focus of sport (football in particular) has shifted from moral virtue to secular fun.
Before the actual season begins, fans study and focus all year on the new players that their favorite team might draft. When the NFL Draft aired in April 2018, fans all over the U.S. tuned in to see which young athlete would be the new savior of their team. No longer are athletes just athletes; they are potential messiahs for teams whose only hope to reach the Promised Land, (the Super Bowl), is a young star. This search for a messiah is similarly seen in basketball, where fans referred to players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as saviors and prophets of their sport. In 2016, Sports Illustrated conveyed the idea of the messiah of football when the magazine published an article on Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, calling him “The Messiah of the Palouse.” Gabe Marks, a fellow teammate of Falk, described his talent as savor-like. “It’s like, ‘Set my people free!’” he said. “Except, you know it’s ‘Set my receivers free.’” Although Falk was still in college at the time, NFL fan’s had their eye on this new messiah, hoping that their team would get the opportunity to draft him and other ‘messiahs’ like him.
Every religion has a significant holiday, and the Super Bowl is footballs most important holiday. According to ESPN, 103.4 million people tuned in to watch the 2018 Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Although these numbers were down from the 2017 season, which had an average viewership of 111.3 million viewers, nearly one-third of the U.S. population took part in Super Bowl traditions. The Super Bowl is more widely celebrated that Christmas, at least when it comes to religion. According to Pew Research Center, only forty-six percent of Americans state they celebrate Christmas for religious purposes (ninety percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in total, the other forty-four percent celebrate it with no religious affiliation). Only nine percent of Americans celebrate Advent, five percent celebrate Hanukkah, and a mere three percent recognize Winter Solstice. From these numbers, it is apparent that the celebration of the Super Bowl rivals Christmas as a significant day in the lives of Americans. It has become its own holiday. Seventy-two percent of office managers surveyed by OfficeTeam wish the Super Bowl was a paid national holiday.
With the 2018-2019 NFL season on the horizon, fans across the country are preparing for the holy season. They are inviting friends and family to join fantasy football leagues, buying jerseys and tickets as well as planning for their weekend rituals by deciding where and when to watch the games. The preparation for football season in the U.S. is extensive for devoted fans. Much like churchgoers, American’s offer up their Sundays as a day of worship their favorite team, players, and sport. They wait seventeen weeks for that blessed “Christmas Day” of football; they chant their hymns and praise the teams for their dedication to the game. The trend of religious sports rituals changed American’s purpose on Sundays. No longer do Americans feel the need to follow the Puritan customs created by early colonial America. The need for purpose is filled instantly with Football. Football is more than a game to Americans, it is the new religion.
Tanya K. Jones is a doctoral student in the Physical Culture and Sport Studies program at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests focus on the intersection of race, sport, and politics. Her specific research lies in the relationship between sporting boycotts in the United States during the 1960s-1980s and South African apartheid. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TanyaJUT.
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