Here we go, it’s just about fall, and that means it’s football time. College football is quickly becoming the new religion in this country, and there are those who live and die by the success or failure of their beloved football teams. Thousands upon thousands of “parishioners” attend football services every Saturday during the fall, not to bow at the altar, but to stand in the bleachers and cheer on their personal saviors who believe they can lead their team to the promised land of a national championship. Having personally witnessed this strange worship as an alumnus and employee of the University of Notre Dame, I have become acutely aware of the mix of spirituality and college football that I believe is taking over American culture today.
You may be thinking that I am going a little overboard or over-embellishing the connection of the two, but I assure that there truly is spirituality in college football. I doubt that it is a coincidence that a prominent Catholic university in the United States has one of the preeminent college football programs in the history of college athletics.
Fine, I’ll prove that football is becoming our new religion. Let’s begin with the fact that an extremely large portrait of Jesus Christ on the Notre Dame Library overlooks the football stadium. Sure, it could possibly be an architectural oversight, I agree, or if you know Notre Dame as the football haven that it is, you realize that it was done on purpose and with purpose. The portrait is of Jesus holding his hands in a gesture that is strikingly similar to that of the pose a football referee makes when a player scores a touchdown and is colloquially referred to as “Touchdown Jesus.” Touchdown Jesus!? Is there a bigger mix of football and spirituality than that? Has Jesus become one of the thousands of fans who stands to cheer on his team with complete belief in their ability to be victorious? Was Jesus calling out an offensive play during the Sermon on the Mount? Or, has Notre Dame gone a bit too far in its efforts to combine its Catholic identity with the success of the football team? I’m not sure what the answer is to be honest, but I do know that Touchdown Jesus has become synonymous with Notre Dame football. That’s right, the son of God, the second member of the trinity, the savior, is often put in the same sentence as, or brought to mind with, the Fighting Irish football program.
Maybe I am just looking at the issue through my blue- and gold-colored glasses. I might be too close to my alma mater to see things for what they truly are. But not so fast. I still have something up my sleeve to help prove my point.
One of the most popular college football players in the last decade, and arguably one of the most popular athletes in the United States today, is Tim Tebow. When one thinks of Tim Tebow, they think of the young man who led the Florida Gators to two national championships, and the first ever sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Tebow was an offensive juggernaut in college that struck fear in all who had to attempt, I repeat attempt, to tackle him. All of this has become a part of who Tim is, in much the same way as being a devout Christian has. He could be seen and heard praising the goodness of God before, during, and after games. He would write Bible verses on the eye black underneath each eye for all to see. In fact, he did this so often, and made such an impact with the writing that the NCAA’s athletic governing body created the “Tebow Rule” banning writing on any player’s eye black. He would kneel and point to the heavens several times during games in seeming reverence and thanks to God. He even appeared in a pro-life commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl with his mother. All of this brings up a question. Is Tebow so popular because of his athletic abilities, his Christian beliefs, or a combination of the two? Has he become a cog in the machine that is taking football and spirituality to the next level? Is Tim the messiah for this new religion of the gridiron?
I don’t really know, but I will say that whatever the reason for his popularity, Tebow is in fact the perfect poster boy for the new cult of college football. Oh no, now I’ve done it. I called it a cult. I guess that’s the real question. Is football becoming the new religion in America, and something great to believe in, or has it become a cult, with truly bizarre rituals that have taken over the minds of many Americans? These are interesting questions that I don’t think I or anyone else is really ready to answer. I do know that there most assuredly is a change in the air, and it smells a lot like football season.