Don’t Make College Football an Idol

I am both excited to watch the national championship game tonight (geaux tigers!), and I also believe college football has turned into liturgical worship. Let me explain.

Sports are so ingrained in my being that imagining my life without them is not imagining my life at all. My childhood revolved around a competitive travel baseball schedule, and I am indebted to my parents and brother for the sacrifices they made so that I could play baseball… a lot of baseball. After a truly blessed and formative experience playing baseball at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, I was able to go play college ball at Spring Hill, a Jesuit University in Mobile, Alabama. When I committed to play baseball at Spring Hill at the age of 18, I had never met a Jesuit. Three years later, I became one.

Besides God so clearly using my athletic career as the path towards Him and my vocation, God has formed me through sports. Through early morning workouts I came to value commitment and integrity, and by playing with so many different teammates I learned the importance of communication and companionship. I say all this to show that I really do love sports and I would not be the Jesuit I am today without them.

My hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a sports-crazed city. It’s both deprived of a pro football team and is in a state that does not have a pro baseball team. Consequently, LSU is often treated as a professional sports team. In addition to providing athletes with opportunities to further their education and learn life skills, college sports can and do bring communities together and create a common bond between people who would otherwise be strangers. For that I’m thankful. 

I find the culture around sports in general unsettling, but my sensitivities are heightened when games are made up of students, who are still struggling through morning classes and the like, instead of professional athletes paid to play. (Please note: this is not a critique of any of the student-athletes or coaches at LSU, but rather a challenge to the surrounding culture.) I’m afraid college football stadiums have converted into a secular church, spectators have turned into worshipers, and games have become a pseudo-liturgy.

Perhaps college football is modern day idolatry of a new golden calf. Recall that when Moses was on the mountain, Aaron collected the people’s gold to create a golden calf, and the next day they indulged in drink and revelry.1 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sees the idolatry of the golden calf as a kind of worship that is “a circle closed on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry. The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification.”2 After thousands of years we continue this tradition of worship in the way we eat and drink at the tailgates, the games, and parties. The only difference being that we have substituted the golden calf for a pig’s skin.

Of course we do not dance around the football as if it were a god (except in a touchdown celebration, perhaps), but our obsessive behavior around a sport made up of developing teenagers and young adults seems like a kind of worship. We have left the pews of the church, and now pray  in the seat of the stadium, at a sports bar, or on the couch. If our primary place of worship is a place called “Death Valley,” as is the stadium name for both LSU and Clemson, then we should not be surprised that the heart of our culture seems to be filled with violence. The vulgar chants, like LSU’s infamous and terrible chant “neck,” that fill the valleys of death are the antithesis of The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world chanted at Mass. Lumen Gentium, a dogmatic constitution of Vatican II, has called for the Eucharist to be the source and summit of our life and mission, but it seems to me that people’s hopes and dreams often live in the hands of an 18-year-old running back instead of in the pierced hands of Christ.

As fun and harmless as a college football game may seem, we must remember: we will become what we worship. 

Perhaps I’m being too dramatic. I mean, no one really thinks football will save us from our sins. So let’s stop acting like it. Let’s not watch the national championship game as if it is the climax of our liturgical calendar, Easter Sunday. Instead, celebrate the God given gifts and dedication showcased by wonderful athletes who remind us of our own great potential. Let’s appreciate the national championship for the game that it is, and let’s not confuse Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence with Jesus Christ or a win with our eternal salvation.

Photo courtesy of Dave Adamson

Correction: This article was misattributed to Ian Peoples when it was first posted and sent out in the newsletter. The author is Hunter D’Armond. Updated January 15, 2020 10:30:00 AM.

  1. Exodus 32
  2. Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 23.

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