We’ve all seen the Bud Light, “it’s only weird if it doesn’t work,” Bud Light commercials this year during football season-fans will do crazy things in an attempt to bring victory to their team. Sports superstitions vary from wacky pre-game rituals, like dancing around the TV or setting out the remotes in a certain order, to the downright disgusting, like wearing an unwashed pair of underwear or (apparently) eating a quinoa burger.
But for many, football superstitions move beyond these rituals and into almost-religious territory, as explored by Daniel Burke in his article “For some fans, Super Bowl has supernatural twists.” Often fans will pray before games, asking God to intervene and lead their favorite team to victory. Whether or not this is appropriate, or even worth it, is up for debate. Jennifer Smith found the appeal to a deity inappropriate, and when responding to a Super Bowl prayer posted on the CNN Facebook page said that, “Praying for a game while millions suffer in poverty is sick.” Other theologians argue differently. Some say that God is present at the game, but doesn’t intervene in the outcome, while others say that God is in the gathering of people.
No matter how you slice it, football (and really, sports in general) superstitions seem to blur the line between secular culture and religion. At its most basic level, the sport of football seems to have no ties to religion. But the culture that has grown around it certainly seems to align with the definition of ordinary religion, as well as some of the components for religious systems set in Catherine Albanese’s book, America: Religions & Religion.
The term ordinary religion refers to the elements of religion more or less synonymous with culture, and football has definitely become synonymous with American culture. Along with that, there’s certainly a reason fans’ devotion is often referred to as “following a team religiously.” I had never seen so many people so deeply committed to a cause before I went to my first nearly-sold out Alabama football game (against a small, unranked opponent, nonetheless), and I’ve never seen faith as strong as the faith fans put in head coach Nick Saban. But more than that, followers of football demonstrate three of the four “C’s” of religious systems outlined by Albanese-codes, culteses, and community (the fourth, creed, an explanation about the meaning of human life, has yet to make an appearance). Community is the easiest to see, the thousands of people gathered in stadiums to watch the game, as well as the millions gathered to watch at home, certainly count as community. Codes and culteses, the rules which govern everyday behavior, and the rituals to act out the understandings expressed in creeds and codes, aren’t as visible on the surface, but are still present. The belief about half of Americans hold that the supernatural influences sporting events could be seen as code. The rituals that fans partake in would then constitute culteses.
To put it all into a real-life situation: I’m from a family of Arizona Wildcats fans, which makes me part of a community, even though I’m a bit of a satellite colony. Since I know that my actions influence whether the Wildcats win or lose, even though I’m nearly 1500 miles away (code), I watch what I say on game day. And since I held my tongue and said, “Arizona is ahead!” instead of jumping up and screaming, “OH MY GOD, ARIZONA IS WINNING,” like I wanted to, my avoidance of the word “winning” is the sole reason Arizona beat then-no. 5 Oregon (culteses).
Though we don’t consider football a religion now, the parallels between followers of football and followers of religion are clear. But America’s history is one of the birth and growth of religion. Someday, the football stadium might become the church, and the future of the world determined by men in pads and helmets, rather than an abstract deity.