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The Parallels between Watching American Football and Participating in American Religion

Jim Denison | Denison Forum | Monday, February 13, 2023
The Parallels between Watching American Football and Participating in American Religion

The Parallels between Watching American Football and Participating in American Religion


The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in yesterday’s Super Bowl, overcoming three “curses” to do so.

First, their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award again this season. Since 1999, nine MVPs made it to the Super Bowl; none won it. Second, Canadian rapper Drake bet $700,000 on the Chiefs, but nearly all his large sports bets in recent years have failed. Third, Chiefs fans have been placing team apparel on the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia. When fans did this in the 2015 and 2018 playoffs, their teams lost to the Eagles.

In more serious news, Chiefs fan John Gladwell donated a kidney to Eagles fan Billy Welsh more than two years ago. The pair met more than twenty years ago when they both served in the Marines. They sat together yesterday at the game, but Welsh was worried about a Chiefs victory since he has a “Chiefs kidney”: “I don’t know how my body will react if the Chiefs win.”

There is no news so far on his medical response.

The rest of us might be concerned about the outcome for a different reason: over the previous fifty-six Super Bowls, stocks do better when the NFC team wins. Also, the Chiefs won by a last-minute field goal, but the best years for markets have come when the game is decided by a large margin.

Why is football so popular?

If you didn’t watch yesterday’s game (at least for the ads), you were a cultural outlier: the NFL estimates that 208 million-plus viewers saw last year’s Super Bowl, approximately two-thirds of our population. While the Super Bowl is unique, football games in general were eighty-two of the top one hundred highest-rated shows on television last year.

Why is football America’s most popular sport?

Consider a psychologist’s contrast between the sport and baseball, formerly our “national pastime.” Writing for Psychology Today, Thomas Hendricks notes that “baseball is largely an individual sport” in which batters face the pitcher alone and defensive players occupy isolated positions on the field. Football, by contrast, “is more thoroughly collective” since “every teammate is involved in the design and execution of every play.”

Hendricks then observes, “More thoroughly social, contemporary people accept that group cohesion is the foundation of individual success. Football heroes are covered up in helmets and pads. Individuals become soldiers, elements in a great collective striving.”

When our team wins, "we" win

As a cultural apologist, I would add that the parallels between watching American football and participating in American religion are noteworthy.

On a typical Sunday, 100 million Americans (30 percent) watch an NFL game, roughly the same percentage as attend worship (28 percent). Most who participate in either activity engage in a transactional experience.

I have noticed that when a football team wins, their fans will say “we” won; when a team loses, their fans often say “they” (not “we”) lost. Very few fans have the players first in mind or even know an NFL player personally. The players and coaches are a means to the end of our entertainment and vicarious victory (we hope). If they lose, we are angry with them; if they win, we are excited for ourselves.

Many American Christians engaged in worship in a similar way yesterday. We inherited the cultural religion of our Greco-Roman ancestors who placed sacrifices on altars so gods would bless their crops or otherwise give them what they wanted. Worship was a means to their end, as it often is to ours.

Reflect on the last time you needed God’s help. If he did not do what you wanted, were you angry with him? If he did, were you excited for yourself?

"God doesn't want to be used"

Imagine a marriage where one partner seeks a relationship with the other primarily for what their spouse can do for them. Is this how the “Bride” of Christ (Revelation 19:7) is treating our Groom today?

By contrast, we are told to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). Does this describe your last worship experience?

Dr. Derwin Gray is a former NFL player, a pastor, and the author of God, Do You Hear Me? He observes, “When we deduce prayer to be a mantra or a spiritual ATM or superstition, we’re really not praying. We’re actually using God and God doesn’t want to be used. God wants to be worshiped. Because when we worship, we become who we were created to be.”

Who were we “created to be”?

In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes: “God’s ultimate goal for your life on earth is not comfort, but character development. He wants you to grow up spiritually.” Thus he “gives us our time on earth to build and strengthen our character for heaven.”

Warren adds: “Jesus did not die on the cross just so we could live comfortable, well-adjusted lives. His purpose is far deeper: he wants to make us like himself before he takes us to heaven.”

"Our greatest privilege"

As the winners of Super Bowl LVII, the Kansas City Chiefs are being granted “football immortality” by our culture this morning, but this is a myth. Do you remember who won the title even ten years ago?

By contrast, the more you seek to know Christ for no reason except to know Christ, the more you will become like Christ and the more you will make him known. According to Rick Warren, being like Christ is “our greatest privilege, our immediate responsibility, and our ultimate destiny.”

Do you agree?

NOTE: Tomorrow, the idea of love will dominate our day. But for the Christian, the ideal love is always with us. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Nowhere was that made more apparent than when Jesus willingly gave his life for us. In the final section of now-available Lent devotional, Empowered, I look at Jesus’ final days on earth, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. And the entire book is meant to be read over the 47 days of Lent, which begins Feb. 22. So I encourage you to request your copy of Empowered today. It may be the reminder you need for how near and ever-present God’s love truly is.

Publication date: February 13, 2023

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Mark Makela/Stringer

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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The Parallels between Watching American Football and Participating in American Religion