Football season is officially over. Much of the nation is in mourning, not just for that, but that the Patriots won their 5th championship. At the same time, even a casual fan would need to admit that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This would mean the Atlanta Falcons lost the best and worst Super Bowls of all time. Even more begrudgingly, one might entertain the idea that Tom Brady and Bill Belichek are the greatest of all time. As a Dolphins fan, I shudder at the thought.
While I mostly watch the game as a game, I rarely watch events like this as just games. Part of that is just me being analytical, and the other part is the after effects of reading a collection of essays called From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. One essay in particular, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” has some obvious connections here.
The author, Joseph Price notes,
Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political, and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life (137)
Using those categories, let’s consider how last night played out.
While we might consider our culture too “secular” for pagan temples, we don’t seem to mind giant sports stadiums. As I’ve written elsewhere,
On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.
We could add to this the elements of the celebrity presence and the halftime show. First, in ancient Greece, the athletic activities were conducted in honor of the gods. On the one hand, you could consider Robert Kraft the god of the Patriots and Tom Brady is performing for his honor. On the other hand, you could say that the entire game, regardless of who is playing, is played out for celebrities who are the embodiment of the American gods money, sex, and power. Why else are we having so many screen shots of the famous people watching? I’m watching to watch the game, not see who’s in attendance.
Second, the halftime show is certainly akin to a worship service. From this point of view, it doesn’t particularly matter who the artist is, just that the performance is as transcendent as possible, and the music involved glorifies American ideals in some way. It is simultaneously an ad for the artist and a call to worship through song, although it is not always clear who or what is being worshiped. Though last night with Lady Gaga, I’m sure you could sift through the lyrics in her medley and get a good idea. I just don’t care that much since they weren’t aquatic creatures involved.
If you’ve never thought of sports as political, you should think more. It wouldn’t make much sense why there is so much American pageantry involved in the games otherwise. A former President does the coin toss. We sing the national anthem, after a special musical guest sang God Bless America. In the civil religious calendar of American culture, the Super Bowl is the winter festival at which we acknowledge our American-ness by gathering with a group of friends and watching other people exercise and while we eat too many calories. It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.
This political element is not restricted to football, but is part of every major sporting event. It is actually part of every sporting event, it is just much more overt and amped up when it’s the Super Bowl. We have to unfurl a giant flag and have military personnel, current and former, on hand in order to honor veterans and servicemen. Not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a very political thing woven into what most people would consider just entertainment. You might also note that when a coach doesn’t want to talk too much about a big game ahead, he might default to politics more than any other topic.
This might be a bit of a stretch so bear with me. Price pointed out that the actual game of football, it is a “contemporary reenactment of the American frontier spirit” (139) What he meant by that is the football depicts the rapid conquest of territory by means of violence, which is one way to think of how the west was won. So in one sense, a football game is a mythological depiction, through sport, of something deeply part of the American psyche. It’s Manifest Destiny on steroids.
While that might be tricky to validate, the mythology of football itself within the American psyche is not. The Super Bowl is never a stand alone game. It is where legends are made and where some athletes cement their legacy as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. Especially in a game like last night, what happens on the field lives on for decades. If you watched the game last night, you’ll more than likely tell someone years from now about it and what it was like. It’s not that it is mythological in its essence, but more so in its significance.
All of this perhaps why Price concludes,
As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis (140).
And all this time you just thought it was a game right? The Super Bowl is America’s biggest game, but it is overtly religious and is one of the high points in the civil religious calendar as the premier winter festival.
As with most things in our culture, the thing is never just the thing. There’s a bit more below the surface waiting to be unearthed. And if it’s the Patriots, it unusually involves some sort of gate based scandal, so at least we all have that to look forward to.