Football as American Civic Religion

From political protests, to debates about player safety, to attempts to project the future of the sport, football has been the subject of unending controversy over the past few years. In addition to political controversies and safety arguments there have also been public debates about whether college athletes deserve to be paid, and scandals involving systematic sexual predation at prominent programs like Penn State and Baylor have many questioning whether football is on its way out as America’s favorite pastime. Recently there have been reports of declining NFL television ratings and a drop in the numbers of young boys playing football around the country. 

And yet, from tiny high school fields in Texas, to packed sports bars across the northeast, to 100,000-plus seat stadiums across the deep south, football draws the communal attention of Americans in a way that nothing else does these days.

While these questions are important, they do not address the fundamental question of what is at stake for American culture as football’s future hangs in the balance. Football has become a key ritual in the nation’s civic religion and both the best and worst aspects of its impact on the country’s cultural landscape flow from this point.

America’s Football Obsession 

Before delving into the benefits and costs of America’s football obsession it is first important to establish that the relationship is, indeed, deeper than a mere interest in sport or entertainment. One of the most obvious ways we can see how football functions in American society is to physically look around the country. One can drive on highways named after Tom Landry in Dallas and Walter Peyton in the Chicago suburbs. Many college campuses have opulent football stadiums that literally dwarf the surrounding campus. It is customary for college programs to create literal bronze statues of Heisman winners. The Pittsburgh airport has a full color statue depicting Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.” The newest NFL stadiums cost over a billion dollars each and many were paid for by taxpayers, after successful bond campaigns. In short, Americans adore football and have given it a place of high honor in their lives.

While some may note that there are monuments and celebrations around other sports, nothing matches the scale of football’s popularity, even while the sport suffers controversy. Take television ratings for instance. This past September saw over 20 million Americans watch a Packers-Falcons game, making it the most watched television show of the week. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the 10 most watched shows were other NFL games or pregame shows. There was a long period where baseball was clearly America’s favorite sport, but between football’s rising popularity and a feeling among many that baseball has not adequately adapted to today’s culture, football has become the undisputed king.

Football as Community

There are some great benefits to this arrangement. The most pressing, in 2018 America, is that football often provides a desperately-needed forum for apolitical community engagement. This is straightforward, but the point is of fundamental importance. Go to an SEC game, for instance, and you may find a crowd of several hundred thousand, counting those who tailgate but do not go into the stadium. The atmosphere will be that of a carnival and the only partisan lines will be the ones based on the team one supports. It’s a forum where James Carville and the most ardent Trump voter can find substantive common ground for a few months of the year. That football is so important to so many people means that this common ground is not trivial, rather it opens a window into the common humanity of someone who would otherwise merely be “other” racially, politically, and socioeconomically.

Football also provides occasion for national celebrations to commemorate time with friends and family members. Think about the Super Bowl. Many Americans attend Super Bowl parties, even if they do not care about football. These parties often serve as opportunities to forge new social bonds with neighbors or co-workers and sometimes serve as a chance to renew friendship with older friends. That the Super Bowl is maximally commercialized may color the way that these parties often unfold, but it does not interfere with the quality time people spend with each other while watching. In fact, the commercial element demonstrates just how American a festival the Super Bowl is—millions of people watch only for the new ads!

In times of disaster or tragedy football often serves as a healing balm for a community. The Saints first game (and, five years later a Super Bowl win) after Katrina allowed New Orleans to mark the beginning of a new era on an inspiring note. College teams often adopt terminally ill young fans for a season or more, providing an irreplaceable grace for one family and a reminder of priorities for all fans. High school teams are often focal points for small, rural communities to rally around after natural disaster or economic calamity. In short, football helps keep Americans tied together at a time when extreme atomization is a primary threat to the nation’s cultural well-being.

Football’s Dark Side

There is another, darker side to football. It is, indisputably, violent at its core. While it is true that leagues at all levels are legislating more rules, year by year, to protect players, the fundamental nature of the game remains the same. Fans who have watched the NFL this year will have seen multiple instances of a team clearing a player (usually a quarterback) to return to action mere minutes after an obvious concussion. The largest players are now unnaturally huge, which makes the game more dangerous in the short-term, while also presenting health risks in the long-term. Take J.J. Watt, a defensive end on the Houston Texans, for instance. He is listed at 6’5”, 289 lbs., and has a wingspan of 7’. He runs a 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds, which does not make him one of the fastest players in the league, but does make him much faster than many of the quarterbacks he chases.

Rates of long-term brain damage among former high level players are high and seem to be growing higher as more data becomes available. Even players who are spared from some of the worst of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy’s (always referred to as “CTE”) symptoms (early onset dementia, suicidal thoughts, and a loss of memory seem to be commonly associated with CTE) will often have to deal with bones, muscles, and joints that will never be healthy again once the player retires. It is hard to escape the sense that, especially at the highest levels, football has a gladiatorial side to it. And, as such, it is difficult to fully exonerate those of us who follow the game closely from the damage that is done to the minds and bodies of those who play.

At the NFL level, football is also clearly objectifying to women. The league will now suspend players accused of domestic violence, but the most talented athletes always get another chance. Most teams field squads of cheerleaders who are required to dress and perform in such a way that the only conclusion one can draw is that their purpose, in the team’s eyes, is to be visually enjoyed by the largely male audience.

Most fundamentally problematic is the obsession so many Americans have with the sport. This is not a commentary on football itself, but rather on the dark side of human nature. Moses’ anger at the golden calf was not at the statue, but at the people.  Football is America’s golden calf. Back to the statues of Heisman winners: My alma mater, Baylor University, built an opulent, $266 million stadium, complete with a nine-and-a-half-foot tall statue of Robert Griffin III. How did this stadium and statue come about? They both happened because the team became a winner with Griffin as quarterback and Art Briles as coach in an older stadium. This allowed the university to raise the funds needed to build the new palatial home for the team. The ritual importance of the new stadium could be seen at the stadium’s opening game, for which I was in attendance. Current and former governors of Texas, local celebrities, and even former president George W. Bush were on hand as formal dignitaries.

We would find out, a few years later, that the team’s success came in large part because of a coaching staff that allowed a systematic culture of looking the other way as players committed criminal acts. The largest failure is that sexual assault occurred frequently and without punishment, but the staff failed players in other ways, as well.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver and former Baylor player Josh Gordon told the Sporting News this past October that Baylor coaches helped him pass drug tests. While Gordon appears to be doing better now, he has spent years as a troubled and addicted person during his time in the NFL. He could have literally died, in part, because of the Baylor coaching staff’s insatiable desire to win. And yet, the bronze statue remains. Though some fans are troubled by it, there seems to be no institutional motivation to reconsider the university’s relationship to football, even though it seems clearly to have conflicted with the university’s mission as a Christian institution of higher learning.

The moral failings surrounding football in today’s American culture are both intrinsic to the game’s violent nature and to the amount of time, money, and emotional energy American’s invest in it. As with other prominent cultural figures (such as pop artists, Hollywood stars, some politicians, etc.) popular football players and powerful football figures, such as NFL owners and successful college head coaches are worshipped and enriched, even if they set a poor moral example.

America’s relationship to football is difficult to easily diagnose as mostly good or mostly bad. Like many things in life, its best aspects and its worst aspects are separate only by a thin wall of often subconscious motivation for following it. America would be at a great cultural loss if the sport were to die away, yet we should be sure to count the costs as we go.