The Café has confirmed that the National Football League season will end tonight, following a conclusive competition.
Several pundits have detected religious overtones in the way in which Americans observe this particular events. On the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Rev. Travis Scholl writes:
On Sunday, people will gather in masses to watch not just a game, but a full-bore ceremony of spectacles, of which the game is only a part.
It will have many parts: the pregame show, the coin toss, the kickoff, the first commercial, the halftime show, the closing seconds, the coach’s handshake, the trophy presentation, the winner-loser interviews, the final montage. …
Each part of the ceremony will be as hotly anticipated as the last. And really what other event has people just as excited for the advertising as for the main attraction?
And all of it will be accompanied, in many places, by eucharistic feasts of comfort food that are second to none.
Jason Anthony of the Boston Review offers a thoughtful treatment, that includes this passage, in which he quotes my old friend Bob Lipsyte:
When the topic of faith and football comes up, though, commentators admit that it seems a rather odd place for the gent from Galilee to show his face. After all, what does a violent, competitive, money-driven spectacle have to do with a man who talked meekness, peace, and poverty? That odd cultural mash-up seems to get thrown into sharp relief around this time every year, whether through a controversial Super Bowl ad, a new church promotional gimmick, or the very public faith and private foibles of a team, coach, or player.
But those who quibble with the national sacrament of football should simmer down. Big spectacle games are made for professions of faith, and holy language is exactly the right fit. The “sacred game” has been our earnest, mortal invitation to the divine since time immemorial. Though pigskin may not be kosher, reverence is certainly called for. Veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte had it right when he tried to squash our perennial ambivalence with a comforting dash of dogma:
Any Given Sunday is reserved for those who have been saved, who have accepted that so long as there is an American Empire, football will be its religion and the Super Bowl its Holy Day.
Can I hear an Amen?
But, the grand daddy of them all, to coin a phrase that I believe the Rose Bowl beat me to several decades ago, is this 1984 article written by Joseph Price and published in the Christian Century. Professor Price set the template for anthropological comparisons of sporting spectacles and religious rituals, and it still holds up.
[T]here 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.
The pageantry of the Super Bowl is not confined to the game itself, nor to the culture heroes who attend it — e.g., Bob Hope, John Denver, Dan Rather and other celebrities — for the largest audience watches the game via television. And the political appeal of the festival is not restricted to its endorsement by political figures such as President Reagan, who pronounced the 1984 Super Bowl’s benediction. The invocation is a series of political rituals: the singing of the national anthem and the unfurling of a 50-yard-long American flag, followed by an Air Force flight tactics squadron air show.
The innate religious orientation of the Super Bowl was indicated first by the ritual of remembrance of “heroes of the faith who have gone before.” In the pregame show, personalities from each team were portrayed as superheroes, as demigods who possess not only the talent necessary for perfecting the game as an art but also the skills for succeeding in business ventures and family life.
For instance, one of the most effective segments was about Joe Delaney, the former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs who died while trying to save two children from drowning. In a functional sense, Delaney was being honored as a saint. The pregame moment of silence in honor of the life and contributions of George Halas, the late owner of the Chicago Bears and one of the creators of the National Football League, was even more significant: I am not sure whether the fans were silent in memory of ‘Papa Bear” or whether they were offering a moment of silence to him. Nevertheless, the pause was reminiscent of an act of prayer.
Intriguing as I find this analysis, there is yet more pressing news to impart: Pitchers and catchers will be in camp in just two weeks. Then the real liturgical season can begin.