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Column: Tonight, America Worships in the Church of Football

  • Fireworks are set off prior to the San Francisco 49ers introduction onto the field during pre-game introductions prior to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/G. Newman Lowrance)

    Fireworks are set off prior to the San Francisco 49ers introduction onto the field during pre-game introductions prior to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/G. Newman Lowrance)

  • Randall Balmer

    Randall Balmer

  • Fireworks are set off prior to the San Francisco 49ers introduction onto the field during pre-game introductions prior to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/G. Newman Lowrance)
  • Randall Balmer

When thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers witness the Super Bowl kickoff at 6:30 this evening at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., they will be participating in a ritual that has become every bit as entrenched in American life as religious worship once was — or the singing of the national anthem prior to, well, sporting events. They will also witness a demonstration of America’s fascination with violence.

The Super Bowl originated in 1967 as a playoff between the champions of the National Football League and the upstart American Football League. The name for the game, Super Bowl, came from the children of Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. They enjoyed playing with a “Super Ball,” a toy made of something called Zectron, which bounces very high; supposedly, an average adult can throw it to the ground and watch it bounce as high as three stories. (I remember bouncing this kinetic sphere on South DeWitt Street in Bay City, Mich., during the 1960s.) In describing this proposed championship game in a letter to Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.”

The Super Bowl, like the Super Ball, took off, bouncing higher and higher every year — to the point that it now ranks consistently as the highest-rated television event of the year. Fox Sports reportedly will collect $4 million for a 30-second commercial during the game.

What intrigues me about the Super Bowl, however, is the way in which we have surrounded it with ritual behavior and devotion. The game has become more than a game, so much so that it might itself be considered a religion and Super Bowl Sunday a holiday.

For the teams themselves as well as the spectators, the Super Bowl is the culmination of a pilgrimage. As any pilgrim knows, whether the destination is Mecca or Guadalupe, a pilgrimage can be fraught and dangerous. In the case of the Super Bowl, 30 NFL teams can attest to how difficult it is to complete the pilgrimage; only two made it all the way. As for the spectators, completing their pilgrimage to the Meadowlands should be a bit less arduous than it was for the teams — unless, of course, a certain governor of New Jersey suddenly decides to study traffic patterns on the George Washington Bridge.

Another characteristic of religion is sacred space. As a relatively new stadium, MetLife cannot claim the history or the character of, say, Lambeau Field in Green Bay or Soldier Field in Chicago. And it cannot come even close to evoking the devotion inspired by Wrigley Field or the old Boston Garden or Fenway Park or (for me) the much-lamented old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. It takes time for an athletic facility to attain something close to sacrality, but a competitive and memorable Super Bowl is not a bad place to start.

What about liturgy? A team running out onto the field before kickoff, usually following a mascot of some kind, partakes in the same theatricality of a liturgical procession you might witness in a Catholic or an Episcopal church. Sometimes, stadiums manage to produce smoke for these processions, not unlike incense. Symbols are part of religion — a cross or a Star of David or the yin-yang of Taoism — and we can expect to see a lot of representations of broncos and seahawks as well as the ubiquitous NFL logo in the course of the Super Bowl tonight.

And the devotees? In religion, we call them fanatics — people who can’t stop talking about their faith. In sports, we refer to people who can’t stop talking about their team simply as fans. Saints are exemplars who have gone before; I suspect we’ll see a few members of the Hall of Fame at tonight’s game, football’s equivalent of sainthood.

We could go on and on. The clergy, I suppose, are the coaches, those whose job it is to shepherd the team to success. Acolytes are the trainers and those who populate the sidelines, without whom the game could not be played. Creed? The rule book, which is the final word and to which both sides must subscribe — although its interpretation, like religious doctrine, is sometimes open to interpretation. Authority in sports lies with the referees, although there is always a higher authority: the commissioner.

Certain plays in the game have religious monikers. A desperation pass toward the end of the game is called a “Hail Mary,” and no football fan beyond a certain age can forget the “Immaculate Reception” by Franco Harris in the AFC divisional playoff game in 1972.

Football itself is rife with symbolic meaning, as are most games. Whereas baseball is a quintessentially immigrant game — the only game where the defense controls the ball, and the batter (the immigrant) is outnumbered nine to one — and basketball was invented as an urban game by a YMCA student in Springfield, Mass., football, a derivation of rugby, is a military game. The game centers around the defense and conquest of territory. It’s no accident that football became popular in the years following the Civil War, and it was played by the sons of Civil War officers at places like Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth – and McGill University in Montreal (but that, alas, is another story).

The quarterback is often referred to as a “field general,” and it is his responsibility, working from the X’s and O’s provided by strategists, to direct his team’s military campaign into enemy territory. He does so with an arsenal of weapons — deception, a ground game (infantry) and an aerial attack that includes bullet passes and long bombs.

The NFL is rightly worried these days about injuries, and it’s difficult to miss the parallel between a wounded soldier carried away from battle on a gurney and an injured football player wheeled off the field on a stretcher. But football, like war itself, has always been a violent game. At Harvard, the annual football game on campus became known as “Bloody Monday,” and the town of New Haven forced Yale to abandon the game for a while. The first intercollegiate contest was played between Princeton and Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J. (not far from the Meadowlands) in 1869; the Princeton faculty canceled the rubber match between the two schools that year because they deemed the game too violent.

Teams thought nothing of crushing their opponents or running up the score. Yale beat Dartmouth 113-0 in 1884, and Princeton became a powerhouse when it resumed playing football. The Tigers (the first collegiate nickname) regularly rolled over their opponents by lopsided scores; in 1884 Princeton beat Lafayette 140-0, the all-time record.

Various reformers through the years have sought to make the game safer. After 19 deaths in collegiate football in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt summoned the presidents of Yale, Harvard and Princeton to discuss the matter, and the formation of the NCAA two years later led to the mandatory use of pads and helmets.

Football, however, undeniably remains a game of violent collision, its players often compared to warriors or to gladiators facing off in the Roman Coliseum. It is also undeniably popular.

During tonight’s Super Bowl, we will witness extraordinary displays of devotion and ritual behavior. Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial national holiday, more universally American than, say, Easter or Passover or Ramadan. A holiday, however, also provides an occasion for reflection, and perhaps, amid the pageantry and the commercials, we should pause a moment or two to consider why we Americans so love such a violent game.

Randall Balmer’s column appears monthly in Perspectives. Among the courses he teaches at Dartmouth is Sports, Ethics & Religion.