Redemption and Super Bowl Sunday
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Does it make you reflect on God?
The past week has been full of questions about deflated balls, playing through injury, media requirements for players, halftime hype and fan party planning. In the midst of the usual pre-Super Bowl media frenzy, a smaller story broke about God’s role in football. Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks credited God for his win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. This is not unusual in big-time sports. However, in a tangential response, Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, was asked in a radio interview how he feels about people crediting God with winning games or awards. He responded by saying, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. . . . He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”
I have to admit that I’m a huge Green Bay Packers fan, so it might be easy for me to easily dismiss Wilson’s theology in favor or Rodger’s point of view. Regardless of team affiliation, I do agree with Rodgers, as do most Americans. However, the question and the regular intertwining of God and sports is nothing new. In fact, Marcia Mount Shoop makes the case in her book Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse that,
“Sports may seem trivial to some, but when taken in total they capture our imagination and elicit our deepest emotional outpourings much more than religion does. Thanking Jesus for touchdowns as well as our deepest longing for our team to succeed are ripe for theological inquiry.” (2)
I’m keenly aware of internal feminist policing of discussions about big-time sports, football in particular. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, one inspired by Mount Shoop. Like her, I also believe sports are a powerful cultural force not to be ignored. That belief (and experience) is not an endorsement of sports as unproblematic or even necessarily liberative. As Mount Shoop says about her project,
“. . . this book is not about dismantling big-time sports, but about calling it to own its redemptive capacity. Redemption comes with the most potency by way of casting out the demons that have lead to diminishing returns rather than life-giving possibilities. Sports have much to teach us about who we are and who we can be; and sports teach us these lessons in some of the hardest places for us to deal with the truth and the consequences of our distortions.” (5)
In order to disentangle the demonic forces in big-time sports (college and professional) we need to critically assess fans (individualism, commodification, fanaticism); hypermasculinity (locker room bullying, off-field violence against women and children); racism (diversity of coaches/players or owners/players, behavior codes) and commercialization of higher education (scholarship systems, revenue production and power of sports programs). Many of these issues affect women’s sports (especially NCAA). Yet, big-time sports are not reducible to these critiques. Nor are these issues isolated to sports.
In fact, sports, even big-time sports, can provide counter messages and opportunities to oppressive forces (or demons as Mount Shoop calls them).
“Sports embody our deep yearning for redemption–that the world can be a place where fair play wins and hard work pays off and entrusting ourselves to a life-giving cause makes the world a better place. . . . Sports increase your creativity, your clarity of mind, your ability to work through problems, your ability to control anger, and your ability to endure difficult times. These are much more than the games we play. it is here that we can practice becoming better at being who we were created to be in the first place.” (107)
Specifically for women and girls, sports have a huge positive impact on everything from mental and physical health to employment outcomes. Life’s lessons need not only come from playing sports; we often learn as much about ourselves in our reactions and behavior as fans. The point is these lessons are as deeply theological (and sometimes more so) than what we experience sitting in a pew or reciting prayers. In some cases sports are more patriarchal, racist and classist than our faith communities; sometimes less so. Even the NFL is trying to attend to oppressive forces within (maybe out of monetary concern or, from what many coaches and players have said, out of integrity). Today, make sure to watch for the NFL sponsored commercial on domestic violence awareness as well as the work with Nomore.org.
In the end, what we think about God’s investment in a football game (whether it be the Super Bowl or backyard, pick-up) teaches us more about our own religious beliefs and practices than anything definitive about the nature of God. If Mount Shoop is correct, we may just be able to harness religious beliefs and practices to redeem big-time sports as a place to acknowledge desire, cultivate diversity, renew relationship, and continually break new ground. Sports, including the Super Bowl game, provide a rich opportunity for diverse feminist theological reflection.
Specific note about football: In this blog I have moved between specific references to football and general conclusions about sports. Mount Shoop also does this in her book. I admit I am a football fan. I like to play football. My son plays youth football. It is a game that I think requires unparallel team unity along with extreme specialization from each play to a full season. While I could list all the benefits I see to football, I’m well aware of the negatives making headlines in the NFL including concussions, violence against women/children, bullying and so on. For some, simply put the violence inherent to tackling will mean that football is forever beyond the pale of delivering redemption. Such conclusions however should also indite many team sports, as most require physical force used against one’s opponent (hockey, lacrosse, soccer, boxing, rugby, even sliding in baseball). Looming questions perhaps I can take up another time: is physical force always violence? From a feminist perspective is violence always wrong? What benefit might there be to greater embodied awareness when practicing controlled, consensual uses of physical force? I’m sure readers will suggest more . . .