Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are Professional Sports the Liturgy of the Empire?

This past Saturday, St Francis House students and I were among the 80,000 plus red-clad fans (1) on hand at Camp Randall Stadium to cheer the Badgers of Wisconsin as they took on the mighty Gophers of Minnesota. We had a great time on a gorgeous day with the very best company - one another. And the Badgers won. Very good times, indeed.

The day ended with students verbalizing their collective gratitude to the diocese, which had matched student funds to support this day directed toward leadership/community building and fun. What neither SFH nor the diocese could have anticipated, however, were the additional formative benefits proffered us through this particular gridiron act of liturgical worship.

The students picked up on this quickly: how fandom within the context of the stadium required our engagement through a series of very particular, predetermined responses, both vocal and physical. For example, every time the announcer announced, "First and ten, Wisconsin," fans were obliged to parrot both the announcers words and the official's "first down" gesture. We did this approximately 1,342 times. (To be fair, the first and ten gesture - which we decided most nearly parallels the making of the sign of the cross - for its frequency - is a modest corporate commitment when compared to that which is required of the student section. Insanity.) Indeed, every situation on the field conspired with tradition to elicit a separate, unique response from the people, engaging us body and soul in the proceedings before us.

Yesterday a friend tweeted me this quote: "Professional sports is the liturgy of the Empire." Walter Brueggemann said that. True, collegiate athletics are not technically professional sports, but not for lack of professional revenue or investments; it IS a billion dollar business. 

In this post, I am less interested in making moral judgments of a society that makes billions of dollars through what Bill Simmons calls the worship of laundry. No, just now I find myself assuming Brueggeman's definition and fascinated by the effectiveness of a liturgy that is very opposite of the buzzwords that various ecclesial pundits contend are essential to the Church's connecting to the world "out there" - e.g., relevant, authentic, dynamic, relational. That is, I am interested in the extent to which what is arguably the most formative liturgy in our country follows the blueprint for predicted liturgical success.  Let's take a brief look at each buzzword in turn.


Occasionally you will hear a sportscaster say something like, "Notre Dame is relevant again," but it is not clear to me what is meant by such a statement, except that they are winning. But that Notre Dame last won the National Championship in 1988 when I was seven years old does not appear to have any bearing on the enthusiasm of fans on game day, much less fans' willingness to attend games. Indeed, a problematic trend across sports at present is that it is more financially lucrative for owners to field a mediocre team than a champion-caliber team. Relevance as denoted by the sportscaster would seem to be a deceptive insistence on the arbitrary illusion that everybody wants to win.

Taking the word (relevant) at face value - "having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand" - the appeal of professional sports would seem to be precisely their irrelevance. As a kind of escapism, the draw of sports is precisely that they have no significance on the matter at hand unless they are the only matter at hand. Like any good liturgy, pro sports demand total loyalty and allegiance.

Indeed, the only clear realm in which sports come close to "having significant and demonstrable bearing the matter at hand" is the financial realm, of which fans are incessantly cynical and critical. The more money is made, the more difficult it becomes to profess sports as an escape without external relevance.


WWF wrestling, steroids, blood doping, the Black Sox, replacement refs, lock-outs, NCAA student-athlete hypocrisy. I suppose one could make the case that professional sports are authentically human in their predictable and sometimes open attempts to be other than they are, but that seems like a low (and bizarre) bar for authenticity. Strangely, fan suspicion that the fans are constantly kept on the outside by money-grabbers seems to increase fan passion for the game.


Yes. Absolutely. The big play. The big hit. And (My true sports love, BTW.) Soccer? Skillful. Artful. Dynamic? Just asking.


This is actually why I love baseball. I love the banter with friends as the game plays on. Friends with knowledge of and appreciation for the game's history makes the banter most satisfying. But the game itself is hardly relational. How many professional athletes do you know? What percent of the 80,000 friends at the last college game you attended have you taken to coffee? Or met? 

If professional sports are the new liturgy of the Empire, I would humbly suggest our particular Empire does not value relevance, authenticity, dynamism, and relationality quite to the extent that believes it does. But what, then, are the values of the liturgy of the Empire? And how, then, did we arrive at these words? And do the actual values of the Empire have things to teach us? 

I am afraid that the answer to the last question is "yes." I say "afraid" because I suspect the values of the Empire's liturgy have much to teach us about the selves we believe we are offering in all our worship, even the non-sporting kind. Such a lesson could be worthwhile, if appropriately frightening, in its truth.


(1) Actually, and as you can clearly see from the photo, I was wearing green, because green is the color of the jacket my father-in-law gave me, and also, it was cold. Badger fans, forgive me.


  1. A friend who loves soccer and follows the English teams through websites and magazine articles told me that the reporting is mostly relational, almost soap-operatic. Who's having domestic troubles, and who's having financial troubles, and how does it effect the game. And where do the rivalries lie in soccer itself, and how can those rivalries be spun into an interesting story. A whole industry exists to enhance sports by making them relational, and people do relate to sports figures, even without knowing them directly. It's just not the kind of relationality we feel very comfortable with. And for good reason. As you know, I've been reading Sam Wells, and was floored by this statement last night: "Christians can afford to fail, because they trust in Christ's victory and in God's ultimate sovereignty. Their faithful failures point all the more to their faith in their story and its author." Imagine a football game where we already knew who was going to win - who was always going to win. What would our role as fans be? What kind of liturgies would we enact? The relationship we want is the one with God, and its predetermined. Not very sporting, as they'd say in old English novels.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Karl. You've got me thinking. I especially appreciate the connection to Sam Wells and the "fixed" game with God. I think immediately of the perpetually victorious Harlem Globetrotters and confess I would need to do more research (i.e., attend more games). My gut, following SW, is that our liturgical response would be enjoyment of God and God's creation. Also, it would jettison the superstitions of controlling outcomes that accompany so much sports liturgy (and church liturgy).

    One thought on the relationality encouraged through the media: to the extent that many of the soap-opera stories are contrived - even rivalries are often fictions played out by reporters and fans, not felt nearly as deeply by the players themselves - the resulting relationality is not simply a substitute for what feels like an unattainable personal connection with a celebrity; because the relationality is grounded in falsehood (not unlike gossip), it is not a relationality that can withstand the truth of personal connection. Which is simply one way to unpack your point. A relationality that is training in not being present to a person or a people is the worst kind of tragic. An anti-relationality??


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