The most American of holidays is upon us once again. No, I’m not confusing February with July or November (though I could go for a good Honey-Baked Ham right now). I’m talking, of course, about the Super Bowl. This weekend, millions of Americans will gather around their enormous televisions and equally-enormous bowls of queso to watch the New York football Giants take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI (the one time each year when I have to remember how to read Roman numerals). Storylines abound. Will Tom Brady win his 4th ring, extending the Patriots’ reputation as a true sports dynasty? Will little brother Eli eclipse the greatness of his big brother Payton? Will New England enact brutal revenge on the Giants for their bitter loss to them back in Super Bowl XLII? As a sports fan, I’m interested in all of these storylines.
As a sociologist, my thoughts are elsewhere. I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course in the sociology of sports for the first time. It’s been a fun course to teach. Few cultural institutions can shed as much light on American values as the institution of sport. In sports, we see our beliefs about character, competition, independence, masculinity, God, and country; we see various forms of social inequality; we hear political metaphors about sports as war; we see corporate power, sponsorships, and merchandising permeating every facet of sports, even amateur sports among teenagers and children. We get a glimpse into what Americans know to be important.
This NFL season has provided an arena in which the intersection of sports and religion has been more apparent than most years in the recent past. The emergence of Tim Tebow, not only as a skilled starting NFL quarterback (debatable?), but as an important symbol of Evangelical Protestantism, has received much attention (some supportive, some not). Because Tebow has received so much attention over the last few months, I won’t bore you with my take on his skill or on his status as an Evangelical poster child or on his very public faith. I won’t wade into the question of whether God cares about football, or whether the controversy surrounding Tebow deserves our scrutiny at all. I would merely like to point out the fact that sport serves as a hugely important venue in which values are packaged, sold, and consumed. What values are being sold, and whose values are they?
I have asked my students to watch the Super Bowl this weekend and look for some of the various themes that we have touched on in class. For example, in what ways are we presented images of masculinity and femininity? Do we receive themes related to politics, patriotism, and war? How do corporate sponsorships contribute to (or detract from) our enjoyment of the game, and what messages do we hear from these corporate giants? Broadly speaking, what do we learn about ourselves as we participate in this yearly ritual?
If any of you have any thoughts about these questions after the big game, I would appreciate it if you would indulge me by sharing in the comments section below.