Even so, NFL football has arguably become the central liturgical act of American civic religion. The Super Bowl, its winter festival, commands more participation than a presidential inauguration, a midterm election or an Oscar broadcast. It opens with at least one sung anthem to the nation. Prime-time broadcasts are introduced with military images, and games often include recognition of the state’s military personnel and the sport’s emeritus legends. Football is not adorned with the statues of officiating divinities, but it is adorned with the symbols of commerce and power. It draws people together into groups of loyalty that cross boundaries of race, religion, class and even region, and it binds these competing groups into a common sabbath observance with its own distinctive rituals. (Who makes or eats nachos apart from football viewing?) The spectacle even re-creates the hierarchy of American life, from the skybox seats of magnates and politicians (now even at the blue-collar temple of Lambeau Field), to the equestrian ranks in the all-inclusive scout seats, to the relatively privileged ticketholders elsewhere in the arena, all the way down to the groundlings watching on television.
In recent years, football has come under scrutiny for the chronic damage it causes to players and for the troubling indulgence of off-field domestic violence. In 2012 I wrote an essay for the Christian Century on this topic. It's about the violence of the sport, the psychology of watching it, and the quasi-religious stature it has in our society:
Very few things I've written have generated a more intense (and sometimes hostile) response than this. If you can read it before class on Sunday, great. If not, don't worry--just show up and we'll talk about sports!
God's Work. Our hands.