Back in 2005, Thomas Herrion, an offensive guard for the 49ers, collapsed and died after a pre-season game. His casket was draped not in a baptismal pall but in a blanket with his team logo. I always thought that this sad story reflected the bizarre confluence of religion and football. Of course, I come from a place where people paint their houses orange and blue.
Kentucky’s News-Democrat & Leader had a story on the sports page this week about a new book that looks at religion and football. Western Kentucky University professor Eric Bain-Selbo’s “Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South” will be published later this year. He argues that college football functions as a religion and cites some of the similarities:
A day of worship – for college football fans, that day is Saturday.
Well-known worship centers – in the SEC, those include Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.; Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.; and Tiger Stadium, aka “Death Valley,” in Baton Rouge, La.
Large congregations – tens of thousands join together for Saturday worship.
Fathers of their faith – each school has its own but probably none larger or more revered than Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama. “Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant is a godlike figure in Alabama for many people,” he said.
Rituals and symbols – tailgating, pep rallies, team walks, fight songs, distinctive lettering or uniforms. “Tailgating is central to the whole ritual and is what separates college football from college basketball. You don’t just show up and go to the game and go home,” he said.
Hard-core believers – like at church, the best seats and tailgating locations go to those who are longtime members or who arrive early.
A sense of community/fellowship – from the tailgating area to the stadium, thousands of people from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds come together for one goal.
As big of a sports fan I am, these comparisons do strike a chord. Maybe the mainstream media really do devote quite a few resources to religion reporting — we just haven’t noticed because it’s on ESPN and the sports pages.