More Than a Game

by Joseph L. Price

More than any other single event in American sports culture, the Super Bowl enjoys the sanction of the government as a high holiday for American civil religion. In the final sequence of pre-game ceremonies last Sunday, two previous presidents, identified as former Commanders-in-Chief, consecrated the event. At the same time, World War II heroes — represented by the Band of Brothers, Tuskegee Airmen, and Navy Waves — were honored for preserving freedom and democracy. Alltel Stadium's giant video screen and television sets across the world flashed images of groups of U.S. soldiers gathered to watch the game from their bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby intensifying connections between football and the Armed Forces.

The field itself was also hallowed by the National Anthem, performed by the combined choirs of the service academies, and accompanied by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets. The political sanctification concluded with a stadium fly-over by a squadron of fighter jets, validating the event in a visibly transcendent manner.

Much more than a mere sporting episode, then, the Super Bowl constitutes a religious phenomenon, providing a prominent public ceremony for patriotic display, while blending several symbol systems that shape the worldviews of many Americans. The football game and surrounding events celebrate America's devotion to sports, its fascination with entertainment, and its practice of consumerism.

For example, throughout last week, parties were held at the Landing along the waterfront for the influx of 100,000 pilgrims who had journeyed to Jacksonville, Florida. The celebratory atmosphere extended to the stadium, where executives and their guests enjoyed additional festivities in corporate hospitality tents, and to the field itself, where pre-game performances were capped by a tribute to Ray Charles, with Alicia Keys singing "America the Beautiful" and students from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind providing vocal and signed accompaniment.

The party spirit spread well beyond north Florida. The National Retail Federation estimates that nationwide about 45 million people attended 7.5 million Super Bowl parties, at which more food was consumed than on any day other than Thanksgiving. For many, this participation in Super Bowl festivities was authenticated and intensified by their use of officially licensed decorations and supplies displaying the Super Bowl XXXIX logo.

To be sure, the Super Bowl's consumerist spirit was manifest in these parties, as well as in the economic impact on the city of Jacksonville, which expected to enjoy a $300 million boost to its economy. Of course, the keenest expression of consumerism appeared in the television advertisements, which cost $2.4 million for a thirty-second spot, and were viewed by 150 million Americans.

Two ads are worth noting because of their cross-referencing with other symbol systems of the festival. One beer ad blended politics with product, devoting 90 percent of its airtime to a video clip of an audience applauding the return of soldiers in camouflage uniforms. Another set of ads also achieved cross-market appeal. A fusion of entertainment and merchandising, Paul McCartney's performance headlined the half-time show, which bore the emblem of its corporate sponsor. Singing "Drive My Car" as the stage's four video-runways displayed vehicles in motion, McCartney subtly seconded the truckload of automotive advertisements interspersed throughout the telecast.

Of course, at the heart of the Super Bowl hoopla lies the game itself, which provides the power to engage and shape the world for millions of football enthusiasts. It enables participants (including fans) to explore levels of selfhood, identity, and self-transcendence that would otherwise remain inaccessible, while establishing a means for developing communal relations with other devotees. It models ways to deal with contingencies and fate, providing the prospect for experiencing a final victory — and thus sampling, at least in an anticipatory way, abundant life — or for rehearsing the lasting defeat of death.

Fusing sporting, economic, entertainment, and political values and beliefs, the Super Bowl thus functions as a devotional festival for the practitioners of American civil religion. In the distinct ways I have noted, last Sunday's Super Bowl facilitated a momentous spiritual experience for 100,000 pilgrims to Jacksonville and for 150 million other Americans who made a mediated pilgrimage to the game.

This essay was originally published in the February 10, 2005 issue of Sightings, reprinted with permission from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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is C. Milo Connick Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College in California. His books include From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion.