February 2, 2006
Super Bowl Sunday Sermon
-- Christian Sheppard
Over 90 million Americans will watch Super Bowl XL this Sunday. The game is a national ritual; friends and family gather to dip chips, hearken to our anthem, smile or snipe at the commercials, and gawk at the halftime show. Much hoopla surrounds the Super Bowl, but at its center remains the game itself, violent and sublime.
Yes, football is violent and, in many ways, is about violence—what NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue calls "contrived adversity." Indeed, the U.S. military often explains its strategies and activities in football terms. Recall, for example, General Schwarzkopf's war room color commentary. Meanwhile, players, coaches, and analysts speak in military terms: from the offense and the defense to the blitz and the long bomb. (In a Sightings column this time last year, Joseph Price interpreted the Super Bowl as an expression of civil religion in which military images merge with the game to enhance a sense of patriotic transcendence.) Football has evolved with American culture to conjure communal ideals as old as the Homeric epics. In the Iliad, mythic heroes battle before cheering Olympian deities; virtues displayed amidst violence—courage for Hector, cunning for Odysseus, and lethal speed for Achilles—earn eternal glory. As respite from fighting, the heroes stage athletic games (boxing, wrestling, running, chariot-racing, and archery) meant to mimic the skills required for war. It is no surprise that Homer's best recent translator, Robert Fagles, found inspiration for his work in watching football.
In the same spirit, Plato in the Republic suggests that soldiers, the city's guardians, be educated with poetry and sports. Of course, the poetry must be moral and the sports, preparation for war. Today, NFL television and films could be part of such a curriculum. "I'll tell you what," NFL television announcers exclaim after a great play, and "what" is inevitably hyperbolic praise not only of the play but also of the player's character. Such plays are spliced into highlight reels and rendered in slow motion to a soundtrack of heart-pounding percussion and stirring horns. In these NFL films, the folksy, ever-positive television announcers' commentary is replaced by a stentorian voice, the voice of a once angry God grown appreciative, proclaiming the virtues of the NFL players: tenacity, passion, discipline, focus, aggressiveness, toughness, forbearance, and courage—the virtues required during adversity.
Football is violent enough to demand the virtues of war without actually being deadly. (It thus answers philosopher of religion William James's call for "the moral equivalent of war.") Soldiers watching overseas know the difference: the adversity they face is no game. But football may help them embody necessary virtues. "[How to fight] is not something most of us learn as a matter of course," Army Ranger Andrew Exum reflects in his book This Man's Army, "though I had been fortunate enough to have played enough football that physical aggressiveness came naturally to me."
The virtues of football also have their place beyond the battlefield. The American economic system is based upon free and fair competition, and our social class system derives partly from an economic imperative: keeping up with the Joneses. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in a recent commercial explains that if you love football like he does, then you'd have a cell phone that displays game highlights (and an owner's box with a hot tub shaped like Texas stadium). We may smile at Jones playing upon the clichés of crass materialism. But if he really loves football, the Super Bowl highlight he'll seek will be of Seattle running back Shaun Alexander accelerating past blockers, evading pursuers, breaking tackles, and cutting lines across the field with startling Euclidean precision. And whether we watch this Sunday from a luxury box, a barracks, or a living room, we ought to be thrilled by the sight of young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger standing tall in a rapidly collapsing pocket, passing between coverage to receiver Hines Ward who, after getting bent in half and dropped on his head by a pair of tacklers, will bounce to his feet with his irrepressible smile and signal a Steelers' first down.
Rather than the Joneses, football inspires us to emulate the Alexanders and the Wards—to try to do whatever we do as well, as whole-heartedly, and with as much grace and good humor. The mythic dimensions of football display American ideals, offering us perspective from which we may judge how we wage war, legislate, negotiate, prosecute our laws, and make money—in other words, how we protect our lives, preserve our liberties, and pursue happiness. Football can thus earn our love and also inspire our critical reflection. Enjoy the game.
Christian Sheppard is a Lecturer in the Basic Program of the University of Chicago. He is co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press) and is currently working on a book about the religious and philosophical significance of baseball.