Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 16th, 2011

College Football: A New Religion?


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.

Touchdown Jesus

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.

Gridiron messiah

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?

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.

The Author : Chad Houston
Chad Houston graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Theology in 2008. He has been working for the university since the age of 15, and is now striking out into the world to gain a deeper knowledge of himself and learn as much as he can from the writers and readers of Busted Halo.
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  • joseph p bell

    Dear CHad : what a F$$$$$$ shame that is what Katholic Colleges and all the others have become . High Schools have taken up the cry ; If you want to see Bullies ,see Coaches and Parents at all the sporting events (organized ) I have thoroughly given up ,esp on the Pope ,who goes to war ;No draft ,not college kids ? even if they are 25 , they don’t understand maturity . Good luck in your quest for Theological changes ..

  • andy

    a violent sport that results in injuries and sometimes even death. terrible, loud, obnoxious fans that turn into screaming animals foe 3 hours a week. i can’t think of a worst sport to watch or write about.

  • Catie M

    I love this article. I grew up a Notre Dame fan, and when they played on Saturday, no one was allowed to talk or even answer the phone. However, I went to college at the U (the University of Miami, for nonfootball fans), and quickly turned my family from Irish fans to Canes fans. As a Hurricane, I no longer cheer for the Irish. (We have some history involving Catholics and Convicts.) And the gator chomp makes me gag. However, I have to say that there would be something missing without Touchdown Jesus. And as much as I don’t like to admit it, I tuned in to see what verse Tebow had under his eyes and flipped my Bible open to read it.

    I agree with Chad’s comments about the community created by football. When the entire student section is cheering “It’s great to be a Miami Hurricane,” you can’t help but feel like you are part of something great (which is how you should feel going to church). That community becomes your family. You share a history, traditions, and a belief in your team. Whether it’s the Canes coming through the Smoke onto the field, the Clemson Tigers touching Howard’s Rock, or Chief Osceola of the FSU Seminoles riding onto the field and throwing his spear down, there is something about these traditions that pull us in, that make us one, that we’re proud to call our own. I don’t know if I can call it spiritual, but there’s definitely some magic in the game day experience.

  • Fr. J.

    I think ND played a lot better in the days when countless nuns were remembering the team while praying their rosaries!

    Football and religion have always gone together at ND. The first time my brother went to a game and heard the mass schedule announced in the stadium, he turned to me and said, “I get it, this is a pilgrimage!”

  • Nick

    I actually worked on a honors thesis that looked at ohio state football as religion! Check it out!

  • Chad Torgerson

    I am a Christian, a huge football fan, and now a Catholic because of football. Yes, after spending years searching for the “right” denomination, Catholicism never entered the picture. I spent years looking for a great “community” to join. Well, I found that community one weekend at a Notre Dame game. As a huge football fan, it was great to see how fans could bring their faith into everything they do, including cheering on their beloved team. Nowhere else had I seen this. It was not long after that I began the RCIA process. I know it sounds strange, but I think God speaks to each one of us through our own individual passions. While we should not make idols of our favorite players or worship the turf and pigskin, there is no hurt in enjoying a good football game. I think ND’s rally cry really shows how our lives should intersect with our faith: “Notre Dame, Our Mother… Pray for us!” =:) Good article. Thanks. -Chad, Waking Up Catholic

  • Daniel

    Interesting article about College Football and religion.

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