Sports as Religion: Football Fandom

T-Shirt Combining Church and Football

When you think of sports, possibly the most secular activity imaginable, one of the last associations that come to mind is religion. Yet, some might say various outlets of popular culture, such as sports, are religion.

Chris Klassen touches on this idea when he describes four categories to help us think about the relationship between religion and popular culture in his book “Religion & Popular Culture”.

These categories are:

1. Religion in Popular Culture

2. Popular Culture in Religion

3. Popular Culture as Religion

4. Religion and Popular Culture in Dialogue (Klassen, 22).

That third category, popular culture as religion is an afterthought by many, but it is definitely important. Popular culture can act as a religion for people, as they come to worship their favourite team and their favourite players, the way Catholics worship saints. Emile Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community.” (Klassen, 10). This perfectly describes sports and later in this blog, I will get into what those sacred things are.

Favourite Sports by Country

Watching sports has become a weekly, sometimes daily, tradition in households across the world. There is hockey in Canada, soccer in the European nations, then there is football in America.

Football is an example of popular culture portrayed as a religion. For many North Americans, it is a weekly practice to dedicate Sundays to football. Fans gather with family and friends in their homes, at stadiums, restaurants/bars and even parking lots for one common goal. They are cheering for their favourite team to win.

Green Bay Packers Fan Cheering on his Team Among a Crowd of Chicago Bears Fans

Klassen divides the study of religion into two approaches: the cognitive approach and the functional approach. While taking the functional approach, one could better understand the association of football as religion. Instead of starting with beliefs, the functional approach suggests thinking about society and why religion is important for them. Durkheim uses the functional approach with his division of the sacred from the profane.

NFL Team Logos

This division is prominent in totemism, a religion practiced by Native Americans, where each clan has sacred objects called totems that are distinguished from all else that is profane. Durkheim decided that the totem is a representation of the clan itself. In football, each team and its fans is like a clan, and their totem is what represents them. It is their name, their logo, their players and all else that is sacred for that team. The team and its fan are united into a community fan base, and all other teams and fans are the profane.

“Fans of superstars and sports teams often find a kind of social cohesion that can look very much like the social cohesion brought by religious affiliation”
(Klassen, 25).

In the last decade, a new fad has risen, that is fantasy football. Partakers create their own fantasy football team by drafting players to be on their team. This has caused a whole new craze in the world of football as fans are now even more heavily invested in their team. Some fans become so immersed in the performance of their favourite team and players, that their powerful emotions could have effects on their life outside of football fandom, both positively and negatively. A bad performance could result in them being visibly upset or angry, whereas a good performance could put a spring in their step and put them in a good mood. I am guilty of this. Once my family church day, Sunday has now become the day of football. And, if my beloved New England Patriots do not get the win, I will not be my cheerful self.

Detroit Lions Fan Disappointed in Their Losing Team

There are many common traits between football and religion, and many are outlined by I.N. Jona and F.T. Okou, in their article “Sports and Religion”. A few of these common traits are comprised of traditions, rituals, worship, heroes and legends, quest for perfection in body, mind, and spirit, and the ability to evoke intense emotions and give meaning to people’s lives (Jona, 51).

“Attending sporting events can function in a similar way to attending church services by providing community and common values”
(Klassen, 89).

Every football fan has their own tradition and rituals. They have their personal traditions for football Sunday, and almost always watch the game the same way every week. Some people have superstitions that they believe, if broken, will bring their team bad fortune. Some of these include, wearing the same jersey every week (and not washing it) or eating the same food every week at game time. Fans worship and idolize their favourite players, much like religious idolization. They buy jerseys with their names on them and wear them or even frame them. They have pictures of them which drastically increase in value with a player’s signature. They worship these players like Gods. The players are heroes, and even when retired are still brought up as legends. Their stats continue to be brought up in conversation, their records yet to be broken. It is almost like these players are somehow superhuman.

New England Quarterback Tom Brady as Jesus

Jona and Okou summarize the role of religion with a few points. It is summarized as something that

  • is concerned with the sacred
  • is fundamentally rooted in faith
  • has rituals that are expressive and process-oriented
  • emphasizes asceticism; stress discipline, self-denial, repetition and the development of character

As discussed in this blog, sports can be described using all of these points. There is the sacred in football, fans with constant faith in their team each week. Fans and players have their rituals, and practice these repetitively.

In conclusion, there is a clearly a connection between football and religion. Using the functional approach to studying religion, it can be reasoned that, to the true football fans out there, football is a religion.

American Football Fans Dressed Up and Face Painted

Bibliography:

Jona, I. N., and F. T. Okou. “Sports and Religion.” religion 2, no. 1 (2013).

Klassen, Chris A. Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. 2014.

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