by Nathaniel Claiborne
One of the first football games I remember watching was the Super Bowl. It was 1992, and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills in the last Super Bowl to be played in the Metrodome. With a minor exception here and there, I’ve watched every Super Bowl in the 22 years since. Considering Peyton Manning is my favorite quarterback in the NFL, you’d probably expect me to be ecstatic that he is playing in this year’s installment. While I do hope the Broncos beat the Seahawks, I won’t be devastated if they don’t. In fact, I’ll be happy to see the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl.
That might strike you as odd, especially if I tell you that I grew in up in Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee. Peyton Manning was, unquestionably, the best quarterback in Tennessee Vols school history, even though he didn’t beat our biggest rivals and we won the national championship the year after he was drafted. Still, he is practically worshipped in Knoxville, and you can find him on billboards all over town (and he comes back every year for spring practices). Almost 20 years after his departure, Peyton Manning is still the patron saint of Tennessee Vols football.
Football, more so than other sport, cultivates the idea of a sold-out, totally dedicated fan base (e.g., those Bud Light commercials about superstitions). Perhaps it is because unlike the eternal season of baseball that spans spring, summer, and fall, football takes place more or less through a single season (fall) with teams playing once a week. That makes each game loaded with significance in a way that other sports cannot match. Couple this with the fact that the games are either Saturday (college) or Sunday (pro), and you have the makings of a substitute religious service each week where you can worship with the team of your particular denominational affiliation.
On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.
I could go on and on about the “religious” zeal people in Knoxville have for college football. Things like changing our area code to spell “VOL,” having a shade of orange so specific it is patented, having our own navy of boats that tailgate down the Tennessee River on game day, and regularly filling the 6th largest stadium in the world on Saturdays in the fall will give you an idea. My point is to underscore that this is the culture I grew up in, and it is the culture in which I was indoctrinated.
The answer is cultivating the path of sports atheism.
Though I didn’t know the name for it until this summer, this is something I have inadvertently been pursuing since I got into football. I stumbled upon the term while I was reading Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. In a footnote, he casually mentions that Chuck Klosterman is the only sports atheist he knows. By that, Bill means that Chuck is a diehard fan of sports in general, but of no team in particular. In that sense, he worships no particular deity (mascot), but really enjoys watching a good football (or basketball) game.
In a similar way, atheists do not affiliate themselves with a particular religion, but they are still interested in living the good life. In that sense, they are still pursuing a goal shared with formal religions, but are doing so on their own terms. While Christians might (and should) reject that type of autonomy within the bigger picture, it is helpful to import it into the smaller picture of following sports in general, and football in particular. Rather than letting marketing and hoopla set the “religious” agenda for your sports intake, it is possible instead to take control of how you approach your sport of choice. This means scrutinizing the intensity with which you follow your favorite team and asking some honest questions about whether it is a form of substitute worship for you. If it is, then you’re an idolater from a Christian standpoint.
If you find yourself squirming in your most-devoted-fan seat just a bit, there is hope. You can disentangle yourself and find greater sports enjoyment in the process. For me, disentanglement came after taking a break from the zealous sports fervor, though I stumbled onto it accidentally. When I became overwhelmingly busy in seminary (and didn’t have TV for two years), I let my love of sports fade to the background. The break served as a reset button for me. After graduating, I’ve gradually re-immersed myself, but it’s been in a way that is more spiritually healthy.
So I can’t say I’m a total atheist when it comes to football (my blood still runs orange, a condition I should get checked out), but I have found I enjoy following the game itself more than any particular teams. Neither the Broncos nor the Seahawks are my team (in the NFL, I’m a Dolphins fan, which may explain a lot), but they’ve both had great seasons, and I’m looking forward to a great game on Sunday. Because I don’t worship at the feet of either team’s mascot, I’m not going to be thoroughly disappointed at the outcome of the game. Though I might be more satisfied to see Peyton get another ring, as an aspiring sports atheist, I’m just looking forward to enjoying the matchup for the 23rd straight year.
Nate Claiborne is a high school Bible teacher who lives with his wife in central Florida. He is an avid reader, accomplished musician, and aspiring sports atheist.