What Was Holy About Super Bowl XLVI?

False idol?

As I watched the outstretched arms of “the Gronker” (née Rob Gronkowski, the Goliath-sized New England tight end with hands the size of flat-screen TV’s) poised to haul in Tom Brady’s desperation Hail Mary pass at the end time of Super Bowl XLVI, I heard myself–I admit–pronounce the name of God. (Modified by an adjective that I cannot bring myself to admit.)

My hunch is that 120 million or so Americans–believers and nonbelievers alike– were invoking sacred and/or profane words right along with me as time ran down. Why is it that the experience of football is so bound up with religion?

“I mean the Super Bowl,” mused half-time performer Madonna, “is kind of like the holy of holies in America right?” I do think Madonna was on to something. Though perhaps the insight was lost on the singer M.I.A.  who middle-fingered our righteous nation (half of whose citizens may have been reaching for their Blowfish hangover pills at the moment she defiled them).

Or perhaps not. To my way of thinking the Super Bowl is holy if by holy we refer to something that garners the simultaneous attention, interest, commitment and passion, of imponderably large numbers of people. That’s a curious definition, I know. But it’s one with deep roots in the thought of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (here cited in the same breath as “the Gronker” for the first time in his distinguished posterity).

Sparing you a disquisition on social theory, let me just note that the argument has often been made that society confers holiness on its god(s) (not vice versa). And if that’s the case, then a truly breathtaking number of Americans, by dint of their sheer volume, render the Super Bowl something of a sacred occurrence.

In this way of thinking there is nothing inherently sacred about the game of football, nor its championship spectacle; it is we who imbue it with sanctity. In fact, when did we ever get it into our heads that a competition as concussively violent as this one could or should be the proper place for religious witness?

We got that idea, most likely, from Evangelical Christians whose affinity for this bloodsport ranks among the great theological paradoxes in American society (for Jesus concussed no one, never used the terms “smash-mouth” or “bring the wood,” or “jack up,” not in the original Aramaic anyway).

Yet from the postgame prayer circles that started popping up in the early 1990s to the “Tebowing” that so absorbed commentators this fall, it has been Evangelical athletes, more than other, who have imbued the game with religious significance.

Which is to say they have understood what M.I.A understood and every advertiser who brought a spot on NBC’s telecast understood: Nothing in American pop culture can draw attention to your mission, music, or product like professional football.

The sociologists may be right. We may confer holiness by our collective interest in football. But many are those who will expertly channel that interest in the direction of their own gods.

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