I’m the opposite of a Jock, whatever that would be, though I played ice hockey in my youth and now still play a little tennis and golf. I do like to watch American football and, having lived in New Hampshire for twenty years now, I root for the New England Patriots. I was one of those people who went away from the Super Bowl game in the second quarter because I didn’t want to watch my team lose by a large margin. I did turn it on late in the game and was as astonished as everyone else to see my team recover its wits and find a way to squeak out a win.
My daughter called me today from Mexico to say that she came upon the game by accident on television there. She never watches football but was captivated by the tension and excitement of this particular game. She said that the game seemed to bring a lot of people together from many different places.
Now let me shift a little. I am a religion specialist. Many people think you can study religion only as a matter of belief, but you can also deal with it as a phenomenon, something that people do and that can be studied. I take a philosophical and psychological approach in my professional work, though of course I also have my own convictions and spiritual tastes that I cultivate with my studies, as well.
Early in my doctoral studies I became interested in the connection between religion and games. One of my professors, David L. Miller, had written a book called Gods and Games in which he summarized the ideas of many scholars interested in this theme. The most cited book was Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. The title means “The Human Being at Play,” and Huizinga explores the play element in culture. Other books considered play psychologically, sociologically and theologically.
In those years I was especially interested in comparisons between aspects of religious ritual and games. I grew up Catholic and was familiar with dressing up in special robes, using prescribed movements and actions, words and songs. I knew what it was to be in the time and place of ritual, so clearly marked out from ordinary activity and ordered by rules called rubrics. The ceremonies could be complex, as if carried out by way of a script. The rules had the effect of bringing people into deep emotional states where they could contemplate the basic realities and mysteries of life.
Football is played on a field carefully marked out with yard lines, a clear boundary, and rules so precise that referees act like lawyers interpreting and judging whether players are following the rules or not. Religion scholars speak of a temenos or boundary for spiritual activity, and usually the football field works just like a temenos without the obvious connection with spiritual concerns.
Games also play out the great patterns and mysteries of life. I felt that yesterday’s Super Bowl showed us a serious mystery worth reflecting on that has to do with the unfolding of our personal lives and of society, as well. Most of us occasionally find ourselves losing the game of life. We may have money problems or sickness to deal with. It may seem that there is no likelihood of success, no chance of a good outcome. Yet, somehow, at the last minute, some unexpected resource that we’ve had all along stirs and comes into play.
In games, even as spectators, we go through the patterns and emotions of life, as though the game were like going to church or some other revered rite. There we see the dynamics of our lives, cleared of all the personal details, playing out on the “field” of our existence. We see obstacles and opportunities, advances and setbacks, and even the many selves we are—the eleven-person team made up of members having their own skills and contributions. That is my life down on the field, working out challenges and displaying abilities and talents. Why else would I get so worked up about the outcome of a televised game?
The football field is a kind of sanctuary. I don’t want to overdo the comparison, but there is some overlap. Listen to the language of announcers and even ordinary people talking about the game. There are the obvious allusions: hail mary passes and miracle plays, but the language as a whole often sounds otherworldly. Think about the phrase MVP, The Most Valuable Player. It sounds like “the most high.” An award is given in memory of a deceased and revered coach, Vince Lombardi. Former players are presented with great ceremony, their portraits inflated to the realm of religious statuary. A former president of the country and his wife raise the level of the game’s importance far beyond the National Football League. Half-time entertainment is star-studded and involves an angel’s descent from a place set in the cosmos. These images are all telling.
Some people will be cynical about a football game played by millionaires and put on by a super-wealthy organization. We have to address that issue as a society. But on the other hand, many were also inspired and probably unconsciously enlightened about never succumbing to looming defeat. About hope and endurance, trust in yourself and faith in life.