1. In the Beginning…
“Sports are the real thing. Work is the opiate–work and revolution and politics.” — Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports
Given the chance, I’d watch the Super Bowl with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who knows about Baal and ball. Twenty years ago, in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a Liberty University Flames game, Dr. Falwell told me: “Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you’d be slow getting up after he tackled you.”
He had me at “sissy.” The rest was revelation. The muscularity of Dr. Falwell’s evangelical Christianity was a perfect fit with football, another win-or-lose game. For Americans, war hasn’t produced a real winner for more than 60 years. That’s why we need football. But let’s get back to Dr. Falwell. “My respect for Catholicism and Mormonism goes straight up watching Notre Dame and Brigham Young play,” he told me. He hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus informing the nation that “the Christians are here, we’re not meek and we’re not going to fall down in front of you. We’re here to stay.”
While we wait for his Holy Bowl to show us how to kick the other cheek, we do have the gospels, saints, and rituals of the Super Bowl, arguably the holiest day of the American calendar. Nothing in sports draws us together as surely–not elections, the Academy Awards, disasters, terrorist acts, or celebrity deaths. The Super Bowl is a melting pot hot enough for atheists, Sodomites, and Teletubbies to become one with the Saved, if only for a single Sunday. But that’s a start.
If I did get to watch the Super Bowl with Dr. Falwell this time around, I’d ask him the following question: Did God design football–and encourage it to evolve into Superbowl-dom–as a model religion for the most powerful empire on earth?
This is not some snide random note from your Jock Culture scribe. Because the entire football season is packaged as a prelude to the championship, it is easy for evangelists to pound home their lesson that life is merely a series of downs en route to salvation. Leave it to heretics to bemoan the loss of process, the idea that a well-played life has honor and meaning even if there is no trophy or ring at the end.
Dr. Falwell avowed the rules when he told me, “If ever you adopt a philosophy that winning is not important, it’s how you play the game, you cop out. This is America. If you’re not a winner it’s your own fault.”
Amen, the whistle has blown.
2. Lives of the Saints
“Religion is a communication system that is constituted by supernatural beings and is related to specific patterns of behavior.” — H.H. Penner
I covered the second and third Super Bowls–that second one was still called the American Football League-National Football League Championship Game and only given a roman numeral retroactively–and came to meet the three iconic figures of the early church: Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, and Pete Rozelle. Back then I called them the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which was joke-y and misinformed. They were not the Trinity. They were saints of the church of pro football–hard-working, talented non-WASP products of Americanization–and role models for what a coach, a superstar, and a sports commissioner should be. I would say that’s all they were until the Saul/Pauls growing the church in the late twentieth century also made them role models for the most important symbolic positions in the most powerful empire on earth.