Joseph L. Price is associate professor of religion at Whittier College, Whittier, California.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 22, 1984, p.190. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
There 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.
When the Dallas Cowboys are at the top of their game, winning routinely and decisively, one of the favorite quips which circulates in north Texas concerns Arlington Stadium, where the Cowboys play their home games. The stadium has a partial roof which covers much of the stands but none of the playing field. Cowboy fans say that God wants to able to see his favorite football team more clearly.
This is the attitude which ancient societies brought to their games. In ancient Greece, for example, the Olympics were only one set of athletic contests which were performed in honor of the gods. Among the Mayans in Central America, the stadium was attached to an important temple, and the stands were adorned with images of the gods and reliefs of sacred animals. The ball game started when the high priest threw the ball onto a circular stone in the center of the field: the sacred rock, the omphalos, considered the sacred center and associated with creation mythology. Thus the game was connected to the Mayan story of the world’s origins.
Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there 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.
Bronco Nagurski, a hall of famer (which stands for official canonization), had the honor of tossing the coin at the center of the playing field to signify the start of the game. The naming of a Most Valuable Player at the end of the game was a sign of the continuing possibility for canonization.
But the Super Bowl and its hype could not dominate the consciousness of many Americans without the existence of a mythos to support the game. Myths, we know, are stories which establish and recall a group’s identity: its origin, its values, its world view, its raison d’être.
Two dominant myths support the festivity and are perpetuated by it. One recalls the founding of the nation and the other projects the fantasies or hopes of the nation. Both myths indicate the American identity.
The first concerns the ritual action of the game itself. The object of the game is the conquest of territory. The football team invades foreign land, traverses it completely, and completes the conquest by settling in the end zone. The goal is to carry the ritual object, the football, into the most hallowed area belonging to the opponent, his inmost sanctuary. There, and only there, can the ritual object touch the earth without incurring some sort of penalty, such as the stoppage of play or the loss of yardage.
This act of possession is itself reflective of cosmogonic myths, for, as Mircea Eliade has noted, “to organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods” (The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion [Harcourt, Brace, 1959], p. 32). Conquering a territory and bringing order to it is an act equivalent to consecration, making the space itself sacred by means of recalling and rehearsing the primordial act of creation.
The specifically American character of the mythology has to do with the violent nature of the game. Not only does it dramatize the myth of creation, it also plays out the myth of American origins with its violent invasion of regions and their settlement. To a certain extent, football is a contemporary enactment of the American frontier spirit.
Amidst the ritual of the forceful quest, there is the extended “time out” of half time, a time of turning from the aggressions of the game to the fantasies of the spirit. During the half-time show, the second dominant American cultural myth is manifest. It revolves around the theme of innocence. The peculiarly American quality about this myth is that even in our nation’s history of subjugation, a sense of manifest destiny was often associated with extending the nation’s boundaries. Indeed, the idea that a divine mandate had authorized the people to move into a place to which they had no claim, other than getting there and staying there, indicates that the people did not think they bore final responsibility for the displacement of natives or infringement on their hunting space. In other words, the assignment to God of the responsibility for territorial expansion was an attempt to maintain the illusion of blamelessness among those who forcibly took alien lands.
In this year’s Super Bowl, the theme of righteousness was acted out in a three-ring circus which featured 2,100 performers from Walt Disney Productions. Although acts took place in the outer rings, which were colored blue, attention was focused on the largest center ring, which was white. In this area, most of the performers wore white or pastel shades of yellow. The visual effect was an overwhelming sensation of cleanliness and purity. And the extravaganza’s music reinforced the impressions of the “whiteness” of it all; the harmonies sunk by the Disney troupe were simple and syrupy, a kind of white sound with less harmonic complexity than that of most Muzak renditions.
The overall effect was one of feigned innocence and the naïve hope often exemplified for Americans by Walt Disney’s vision. Finally, the transition from this scenario was accomplished by the explosion, of fireworks along the perimeter of the field. The fantasy and violence of exploding Roman candles shifted the scene back to the play of the American frontier, simultaneously reviving intimations of the festival’s patriotic character. Fireworks are the hallmark of the Fourth of July, and evoke the national anthem lyrics’ imagery -- “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis.