THE BLOG
01/28/2016 06:12 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

The Liturgy of Football

Ian Crouch, on NewYorker.com of December 31, 2015, makes a convincing point in his discussion of the movie "Concussion." He says "the movie's moral arguments are framed less as matters of medicine than of religious faith. It's not a sports movie, or a medical thriller, so much as a Christian homily." Crouch says the movie represents the conflict between medical science and the football industry in religious terms rather than scientific, that it shapes the "entire movie as an expression of religious faith ... and thus reduces its effectiveness." He cites Dr. Bennet Omalu's frequent references to his Roman Catholic beliefs as well as the comments of other people about the providence of God in guiding him toward his research and discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to this religious script, Dr. Omalu is a prophet. Crouch furter argues that the movie's most subversive message is that the NFL "occupies a false place within the religious and patriotic beliefs of fans...." He says the real conflict in the movie, rather than whether or not CTE is as dangerous as Dr. Omalu and his supporters say, is "the fight about science, money, power and the future of football." Although I think Crouch's argument has merit, I do not see such a pervasive religious theme. I think, rather, that Dr. Omalu is presented as an introverted pathologist with a strong religious background who comes upon a startling medical discovery, and who has no thought of becoming a whistle-blower, but who follows the evidence and who then becomes embroiled in the politics and values of the industry. I do think, however, that "Concussion" contains a religious sub-text: the liturgy of football has a religious power and importance in contemporary culture. Football is, in itself, a religion which engages peoples' most ardent passions, interests, investments, and beliefs. No wonder, then, that that world would be upended by a medical finding contrary to its creed.

I grew up in a traditional liturgical Roman Catholic Church. Over the years, I have participated in many forms of liturgy in many other religious settings, from Bahai to Baptist to Buddhist to Episcopalian to Jewish to Lutheran to Methodist to Muslim to Quaker to Sikh to Unitarian. Each has its own ritual and order of service. Each honors the Divine in a particular way, called liturgy; some liturgies are more formal than others, but all have an agreed-upon format. Each has a ritual which is its own way of worship and community. Each ritual is organized and becomes familiar and sometimes inviolable to its adherents. Each has an order of service, a language, rules and roles, costume, art, music, and requires emotional and intellectual investment. In short, each has a liturgy. In addition to the liturgy, each has its own culture and identity; each has criteria for membership, and each has a goal and plan to self perpetuate.

Football, or indeed any organized sport, has its own liturgy as well. Except for the individual plays and the final outcome of the game, every moment of the football liturgy is programmed and proceeds accordingly. If it did not, there would be great consternation in fandom. From the teams' running dramatically on to the field and standing piously impatient, hats on chest, as the band plays the National Anthem to the ceremonial dunking of the winning coach's head, there is not an unstructured moment in the entire ceremony. The certitude and predictability of the ceremony is gratifying to players and fans alike. People love ritual and order.

Liturgical language in Christian churches (using the format most familiar to me) defines the parts of the service and the beliefs expressed in the service. The service itself is called a "mass," or a "worship service." Some of the parts of the service are the Offertory, the Prayers of the People, the Sermon, the Communion, etc. The congregation or parishioners sit in pews; the officers in charge are priests or ministers or preachers. They sit in the nave and preach from the pulpit and preside at the altar.

In football, the service is called a game; it has well-defined parts called quarters or halves. The clock is an important element in the liturgy. Each member of the team has a specific role in the liturgy: quarterback, tackle, receiver, tight end, manager, coach, referee, cheerleader. The fans sit in the stands and the team sits on the bench. At half-time and other significant moments, the band plays. Everyone has a role and plays the role according to the proper order. The language identifies the ritual as particular to its identity; there is a definite jargon familiar to its participants and not necessarily to outsiders.

In the Christian worship service, the ministers and choir process into the church. In football, each team runs onto the field to the wild applause of the fans. In church, the people pray for peace; in football, the players gather in a huddle and pray for victory. The whistle blows and the game starts. In church, the mass begins with a greeting and usually a song. Music is intrinsic to both church and football. The band plays or the organ swells, and the people sing and/or cheer. Emotions rise as the action increases in intensity both spiritually and physically. The sermon in church often inspires and sometimes bores the congregation. In football, the spectators watch the coaches to interpret direction and meaning and the refs to hear judgment. They scream their approval or disapproval. The bored take refuge in the refreshments being hawked continually. In church, the congregation responds to the prayers and invocations, receives the blessed bread and wine offered at communion, and enjoys fellowship and refreshment after the service in the church hall.

In church, the priests or ministers, the acolytes, and the choir wear special robes to signify their function in the service. In football, the team is identified by its particular uniform with the team colors and logo. Attendees customarily wear certain kinds of clothing appropriate to the occasion. Football fans wear shirts and hats advertising their allegiance to their team and the most exuberant express their team devotion with noisemakers, face art, or street theater. In any case, there is a definite dress code present in each liturgy.

Of course, the object of the game of football is to win. Some might describe religious services as means to the end of attaining salvation or heaven. In both forms of liturgy, there are rules, regulations, customs, and habits which figure significantly in the ritual enactments of the liturgy. In both cases, it is the game or the liturgy which counts perhaps more than the outcome.
The comparison between the two liturgies is not precise, but I do believe that the liturgy of football is every bit as exacting and unforgiving as that of any traditional church or other kind of organization. Thus, when people say they hate church because there are too many rules and too much falderal, I try not to say anything nasty, but eventually I do point out some similarities between the liturgies of sports and church.

Even though Dr. Omalu's boss at the coroner's office says that the football corporation now owns an entire day of the week and has taken Sunday away from the church, perhaps it is only a substitution and another form of church. Those of us in traditional churches are wringing our hands over the decline in membership and the seeming distaste for formalized religion in the young. We are running around trying to find gimmicks to attract the Millennials and usually failing. There are multiple analyses of this phenomenon, but no clear path forward. Maybe the traditional church has something to learn.

In the meantime, the liturgy of football replaces religious liturgy with sports liturgy. In our church, the Annual Meeting is held on Super Bowl Sunday so as to guarantee that the meeting not go on too long.