Multiple headlines on January 15, 2018, claimed that Minnesota had pulled off a “miracle” in their playoff game against New Orleans. Going into that game, The Guardian proclaimed that the Vikings would need a miracle if they were to defeat New Orleans, and after a 61-yard return, everyone seemed to agree that divine intervention had happened. Even the player who scored the game winning touchdown, Stefon Diggs, was in disbelief at the upset. After thanking God, Diggs said he “didn’t know what [had] just happened.” But, this is not the first time divine intervention or other miraculous occurrences have been credited for events in a football game. ESPN proclaimed the Patriots to be the “Anatomy of a Miracle” for making it to the Super Bowl in 2017. Tom Brady had a “miracle comeback” against the New Orleans Saints in 2013. The Seahawks miracle ‘helmet’ catch in 2015 was labeled the second best catch in NFL history. Football, it seems, is full of supernatural wonder. While religious rhetoric describing athletic events may seem odd, for many Americans, football is –in essence– a religion.
In fact, the sociology of religion includes sports as a form of secular religious organization. For years, sociologists have paralleled the rituals and symbolism of sporting culture with those of organized religion – the preservation of sacred spaces, for example, and the ceremonial nature of both. Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, Jay Coakley, was one of the first sociologists to make the argument that sports could be considered a religion when he argued that sports bond people over common beliefs and denying the value of sport is akin to blasphemy for fans. If the purpose of religion is to provide unity and identity, then sports certainly qualify, but how does sociology actually define religion? One definition put forward by Clifford Geertz, a former professor of Anthropology at Princeton, considers religion a system of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive, long-lasting worldviews, which a people accept as natural. These worldviews fuel the same fundamental values behind the American identity, especially the Protestant-work ethic, which is intrinsically tied to both religion and sports.
At the heart of the Protestant-work ethic is the idea that hard work is rewarded with success. These rewards are not arbitrary, but they are only awarded to the deserving. They are the result of dedication, perseverance, and commitment. Since one can be rewarded for their work, this creates a competition for resources. In the case of football, it is a zero-sum game for the players, as the rewards for playing come at the expense of the other team. All the players have agreed to these rules, and for the team to be successful, each member must pull their own weight. To that end, these individual players collectively agree to devote everything they have to the goal of winning. For the audience, football provides a visual spectacle for these values to play out in front of them. Fans get to see their teams perform the hard work and be rewarded for it. But when they lose, some fans may criticize the player’s lack of effort.
Another way to think about the power of these worldviews is to consider the concept of “team spirit.” This is another area where religion, American values, and sports intersect and blur. Fans construct identities around their favorite teams. Just as devout Christians may wear crosses or rosaries to signify their adherence to their faith, sports fans display t-shirts, jerseys, hats, license plates, and other merchandise to show off their allegiances. Many will throw parties and invite friends over to show off their devotion to their favorite team. And some who consider themselves “hardcore” fans may paint their bodies in the team colors and then brave extreme weather conditions to watch their team live – the stigmata of football supporters.
Some pastors refer to Christmas Eve as the “Super Bowl of sermons.” And the Super Bowl is the equivalent of Christmas for many fans, which is why it is not surprising that it is one of the most watched programs on television in the United States. The fervor that builds around the Super Bowl is reflective of our own desires and aspirations. We embody the teams that we have chosen and place our hopes on their success. When they succeed, we live vicariously through that shared moment. When they fail, we commiserate together as well. If our team surprises us and defeats the odds, we find ourselves “born again” and reinvigorated. And those who abandon our teams to support another are treated like heretics who have been excommunicated. Durkheim believed that when we worship a religion, we are also worshiping aspects of ourselves. This applies to our “worship” of sports as well. Maybe this is why so many headlines speak of miracles when they talk about game-winning passes.
Benjamin Dowd-Arrow is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University who is currently examining the role of Christian Nationalism in gun ownership and gun policy preference.
The featured image is from NFL.com.