A Passing Look At Football

Below is a great article by Sr. Anne Marie Walsh as Super Bowl Sunday draws near...

A Passing Look At Football 

This is a hard article to write because I love football.  

I come from a family of nine:  Mom, Dad, 6 brothers and myself.  From late August through January,  the Sunday family ritual always included football.  Packers football. No question.  We all went to Mass together, and when we came home, Dad gave Mom a break by feeding all of us ham and rolls from the local bakery.  

Then, we settled in front of the TV for time together, united in one and the same desire for a good game and a win for our team.  It was something we were all a part of.   As a girl, I was not excluded.   A fan is a fan after all!  We loved being able to throw ourselves into the game with Dad.   And he enjoyed teaching us all he knew.  As a result, I can talk football with the best of them.  Every game links me back to the feels, smells, tastes and high excitement of Sunday afternoons growing up.

So what is the problem?  It is difficult to admit but my observation is that football today (which I still watch and enjoy) has become a kind of liturgy of the secular culture.  And unfortunately, it is the only "liturgy" many people participate in on a weekend.  

Humor me for a minute and consider the typical game.  There is a communal gathering, most often on a Sunday. People arrive hours ahead of time, prepared to celebrate.  They are willing to sit in open air stadiums, through rain, sleet, snow and even subzero temps, hoping  to participate in their teams' victory.   The Game begins with an entrance procession in which the specially vested (uniformed) enter the sanctuary (I mean arena).  An opening hymn (National Anthem) is sung.  The seating of the congregation (fans/crowd) takes place, and the beginning of long commentaries (or mini homilies) on the game play starts.  The crowd has the "appropriate" responses, before, during and after.  And, of course, there is special football food and drink.  The homage paid is evidenced by the offering of incredible amounts of time, money and attention on both sides of the ball, by the Management, and by the fans.  All elements of Liturgy, but without the Divine.  Interesting.

I find myself wondering about these players today.  There are many I admire, who 
acknowledge God for their gifts and express gratitude for His help.  (I do wonder if they're given time on Game Day for worship.)  But there are also many I've had to mentally "unfriend" after learning about the lack of integrity in their personal lives.  This is not because I am any better than anyone out there.  I have my sins too.  But at the same time being gifted doesn't give anyone the right to behave like a jerk, especially as a public figure who has a part in shaping the attitudes of youth. No free passes here.

Disinhibition is a growing contemporary phenomenon that is alive and well in the world of sports.  Fame nowadays seems to give stars license to do and say almost anything they feel like, with little repercussion.  It can bring out the worst, just as it does on the internet, where there seems to be hardly a filter left.  (Witness the commentary after any article or post.  It is 90 % negative, filled with incivility and vitriol.  It is embarrassing to see the level that people regress to when there is no moderating influence on them.)

Personally, I prefer to see character, not beast mode, on display.  It is mortifying to see grown men behave with vulgarity and crudeness, braggadocio and temper tantrums, gifted or not.  Ego can be an ugly thing to watch.  And were it not for penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, who knows how far it would go? 

When I discover I have been duped by a public  persona I am always disappointed and it causes me to back up. Public image does not make the man.  And being gifted can create a lot of illusions we eagerly buy into.  In our minds we can form one-sided, sentimental relationships with our favorite players (Hollywood star, musician, etc.), all based in fantasy.  We idolize people who don't actually exist because we've made them up in our minds.  In a similar way, women complain about being loved just for their bodies and not known for who they really are.  So it is good to "unfriend" these kinds of ghosts.

Mind you, football, like most everything, has always had it's bad guys.  And nobody who knows the game wants it regulated into a tea party.  But really, when increasing violence becomes the objective, and winning at all costs is the only motivation, (witness Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate, etc.) then something is wrong.  The game is on the dangerous road to the Roman coliseum.  No joke.

I find myself wondering about us too.  It is a strange enmeshment.  Our own identities become wrapped up with our teams.  We're no longer merely fans.  When we say we're going to the Super Bowl we mean it personally.  And we sometimes take it personally when
our teams don't do well, as if they have directly failed us and altered our lives forever.  It must be a great weight for particular players to realize that thousands, perhaps even millions, are vicariously living out their own desires for success and excellence through them.  

Fantasy of course, in the world of the football money changers is now big business too.  And money does  drive the game.  But it's worth remembering that the coin of Caesar is not the currency of heaven.  And Hollywood stars, sports heroes and any famous person, will not find entrance there based on their popularity, or performance in their field.  They may be known the world-over, yet still hear The Lord say:  "Depart from Me.  I never knew you." One of my favorite quarterbacks recently said he doesn't think God "cares a whole lot about the outcome (of a game).  He cares about the people involved."  -A Rodgers, SI wire.  I agree.  As Jesus said: "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world yet lose his soul."  Mark 8:36. The measure of success in this world is hardly the measure of success in the next.

So, is there room for football on a Sunday?  I hope so.  With a few cautions.   Like anything we enjoy, there is a temptation to go overboard and to give inordinate amounts of attention to what we love until before we know it we're in a kind of bondage to it.   

It's good to remember that worship and recreation/ entertainment, are different things.  And it's good to remember, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen pointed out that “If you do not worship God, you worship something, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself."   (Sports can definitely become a vehicle for the vicarious worship of oneself, even as a spectator.)   Archbishop Sheen reminded us, " we have a duty to worship God, not because He will be imperfect and unhappy if we do not, but because we will be imperfect and unhappy.”  He also wisely noted that  "All these externalizations are signs that we are trying to escape God and the cultivation of the soul".  So, first things first.  

In the meantime it is helpful to understand that our attraction to physical and moral excellence touches on our yearning for the transcendent, which will only be completely realized in Christ.  He is the fullness of all excellence! That is why excellence is exciting to see in any area.  Sports is no exception.  Pope John Paul II expresses this beautifully:

"...every sport, at both the amateur and competitive level, requires basic human qualities such as rigorous preparation, continual training, awareness of one’s personal limits, fair competition, acceptance of precise rules, respect for one’s opponent and a sense of solidarity and unselfishness. Without these qualities, sport would be reduced to mere effort and to a questionable, soulless demonstration of physical strength.

“When sports are played and understood in the right way, they are an extraordinary expression of a person’s best inner energies and of his ability to overcome difficulties, to set goals to be reached through sacrifice, generosity and determination in facing the difficulties of competition.”

All lessons  to be learned and disciplines to be cultivated in facing the  ever present challenges and battles that need to be won in our own lives!  

Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT 


Anonymous said…
Great article Sister...you've eloquently summed up a growing and disturbing phenomenon...and this from a long time Lions fan to a Packers fan (I admire A Rodgers too).
Jeffrey said…
Popular sports have become the religion of our culture. As you point out, there is a nearly liturgical order to their performance. Fans go all-out to support their team, including fan attire, make-up, chants and cheers and enthusiastic support for their team. That's on Saturday. Then come Sunday morning . . . do we witness the same passion for all-out worship of God, or do we see instead a stiff posture, disinterest and a complete 180 from the previous day's behavior? That's assuming we even get up and come to church.

I certainly don't count myself as a saint, and I love cheering for my college team and yes, I have skipped services to watch sports events instead. My 8 years spent at university make up a large part of who I am. As much as that part of my identity is important to me, I know I've got to put God first and let HIM define who I am, not the sports religion of popular culture.

Thank you for sharing your insightful thoughts. :)

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