I have been wrestling with the nature of fandom, mulling over my attachment to one of the NFL’s most beloved and most successful franchises, the Super Bowl 50 Champion Denver Broncos. I grew up as an active and athletic child in sunny Denver, Colorado, during the 1980s and 1990s. And when it comes to sports loyalty in the Mile High City, the Broncos reign sovereign. Bronco orange dominates the landscape each Sunday during the fall and early winter, and fan loyalty for the Broncos far eclipses that of Denver’s three other professional franchises. As a child I was baptized into the Bronco kingdom and quickly assimilated the Orange Crush catechesis in what was one of the most successful eras for a professional football team: during the 1980s and through the 1990s, we had one of the best quarterbacks of all time, John Elway, who led the team to five Super Bowl appearances during these two decades. The franchise’s apex may have been 1997–98 when the team won back-to-back Super Bowls and celebrated Terrell Davis’s leviathan feat of rushing for 2,000 rushing yards in one season (he is one of only four running backs in NFL history who have accomplished such a triumph). I still have vivid memories of skipping classes my senior year of high school and driving downtown with friends to celebrate that first Super Bowl victory parade.

Over the past decade, however, I have begun to wonder exactly why I am so powerfully attached to this particular team or to professional sports in general. I see the Broncos for what they really are, a multinational modern brand that generates heaping mounds of cash through what is ultimately a game. Yet, when the Broncos win, I am elated and satisfied; when they lose, I exist in a low-level simmer for up to twenty-four hours after the game. This may sound absurd, but anyone who roots for a particular franchise likely knows this same feeling. In a mysterious way, as we watch a game, we fans participate in the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to put it. Recently it has occurred to me that the Broncos franchise may act as a site through which I am participating in the process of becoming. It has gradually dawned on me that this vicarious weekly participation in repetition and consumption is sacramental. Let me explain.

In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma offers a helpful outline of sacramental or participatory ontology. Boersma writes that the sacramental approach to the created order, which has declined with the rise of a certain way of seeing and being in the world brought about by European enlightenment projects, had everything to do with one’s participation in and relationship with a mysterious world, with the mystery pertaining to realities that existed behind appearances and that could not be comprehended fully by the bodily senses. When premoderns spoke of the mysterious quality of the cosmos and the created order, it was akin to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous line that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”[1] That is, for those who had this sacramental understanding, the supernatural presence of God was present in and through the world.

How did premoderns conceive of such invisible, immaterial realities? Boersma argues that throughout the great tradition of the premodern church, the mysterious character of the created order was rooted in a sacramental viewpoint. The world was a sacrament, a “sign of a mystery that, though present in the created order, nonetheless far transcended human comprehension.”[2]

At this point, it may help to distinguish between symbols and sacraments. Boersma asks us to imagine the following scenario: Driving down the road one day, you encounter a road sign marked with the silhouette of a deer. Approaching the sign, it would be foolish of you to immediately swerve away from the sign and go careening into the ditch. Why? Because the symbol of the deer and the deer living in the woods are two separate realities. The former is a sign that refers to the latter, “but in no way do the two co-inhere.”[3] To say it another way, the road sign and the deer in the forest have a nominal or external relationship—there is no real connection between a sign and the reality to which it points.

Things are different with sacraments, however. Although sacraments are certainly symbols and are tied to symbolic actions (think of religious rituals such as the breaking of the eucharistic bread in liturgical church traditions), they also participate in the realities toward which they gesture. As Boersma puts it, sacraments co-inhere with mysterious realities. Because they are charged with the real, mysterious presence of the divine, sacraments act as divinizing devices (as terribly utilitarian as that sounds).

The sacramental ontology of the historical Christian church pointed to this participatory co-inherence; it testified that the created order was more than a mere symbol but was “a sign that pointed to and participated in a greater reality.”[4] It can thus be said that the created world exists as a sign pointing toward God, as a reality that rests in God, and as an actuality that derives its being and value from God. In the sacramental mindset, heaven and earth exist in a harmonious interrelationship, as a “cosmic tapestry” in which earthly signs and heavenly realities are woven together. Normatively speaking, then, sacraments are ordinary, material objects (e.g., bread, wine, water) or social arrangements (e.g., marriage, confession, reconciliation) that lead us into God’s heavenly presence and that allow communion and participation with the divine life of God. Therefore, a sacramental ontology is also a participatory ontology—the two are one and the same. It is the moment-by-moment recognition that “in [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 NRSV).

However this participatory tapestry functioned as an organizing principle through which premoderns imagined their social whole—or, as a social imaginary—it is clear that the fabric has been (perhaps irrevocably) rent in the modern era. Boersma, who argues for a restoration of such a tapestry, states early in Heavenly Participation, “Even the most basic realities that we observe as human beings carry an extra dimension, as it were. The created world cannot be reduced to measurable, manageable dimensions.”[5] This claim often falls on deaf ears under modernity’s default empiricist ontology. Much academic ink has been spilled over how premodern ways of being were either (depending on your view) transformed or distorted by everyone from William of Ockham to Thomas Hobbes, from Francis Bacon to Immanuel Kant.

One of the better-known cartographies of modernity, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, examines the secular anthropological slide into what Taylor calls expressive individualism and how it flattened the social dynamics of modern life. In the modern dispensation, an individual’s social imaginary is influenced less by vertical institutions of sacredness and more by the horizontality of simultaneous mutual display. As Taylor puts it, “It matters to each one of us as we act that the others are there, as witness of what we are doing, and thus co-determiners of the meaning of our action.”[6] Those of us who have celebrated a game-winning field goal with eighty thousand fellow fans at the stadium might balk at this assertion: Is it really true that the common experience of that moment was a purely individualistic affair? And that the only bond holding us together was the congruency between my display as a fan and that of others?

As Taylor explains, a crowd’s collective roar of celebration for an overtime goal is a moment when alienated modern individuals and togetherness sometimes “flip over into common action.” Landon Donovan’s 2010 World Cup goal against Ghana is a fantastic example of this collective effervescence. At some point, fans in bars and homes across the United States undoubtedly became common agents of sorts, bonding in some mysterious way to a singular moment. However, Taylor is quick to note that although this metatopical moment may appear as a common action, it might be better thought of as a common feeling. As he writes, “What is happening is that we are all being touched together, moved as one, sensing ourselves as fused in our contact with something greater, deeply moving, or admirable; whose power to move us has been immensely magnified by the fusion.” Donovan’s goal was a festive moment that dragged us out of the humdrum ordinariness of our lives and put us in touch with something exceptional. In a world in which sports events are beamed across the earth in real time by transglobal telecommunications conglomerates, viewers had the added awareness that millions of others experienced that goal in real, chronological time. It is in this very way, then, that “the meaning of our participation in the event is shaped by the whole vast dispersed audience we share it with.”[7]

Taylor also posits that this profound relationship between isolated individuals and an experience of common feeling possesses an indissoluble link to modern consumeristic society. The bond is indeed firm, whether it be through the connection and display of common jerseys and team apparel or in the metatopical spaces created by telecommunication networks (which, it should be noted, beam events to our televisions through the support generated by the unending cascade of advertisements of local and transnational corporate sponsors). Sports fandom in the modern world, in Taylor’s vision, is a rich, multilayered web made of individual choice, commercial participation, consumer culture, individual expression, and spaces of mutual display (which is Taylor’s term for the contexts in which the experience takes place—viz., the stadium, the bar, or the home). To put this in sports terms, there is a constellation of commercialized forces that create a phenomenon such as the Orange Crush, a nickname for the vaunted Denver Broncos defense that riffs on the name of a carbonated soft drink distributed by PepsiCo. Broncos fans like me can identify as supporters of the Orange Crush defense through the purchase of T-shirts sold by PepsiCo, which not only expresses individuality but links us to Denver Broncos defensive stars past and present.

Boersma’s insight into participatory ontology and Taylor’s analysis are helpful but the two seem at odds: how do the heavenly metaphysics of Boersma’s sacramental ontology jibe with Taylor’s account of the flat, consumer-driven experiences of alienated modern individuals? And what has any of this to do with sports as sacrament? There is still one crucial (and, yes, theological) piece of the puzzle to discuss in forming a modern participatory ontology of sports fandom: money.

In his book, Theology of Money, Philip Goodchild argues that the global capitalistic monetary system has replaced the sovereign Christian God as the metaphysical “value of all values.” This is because money is not value per se but the promise of value. In the capitalist’s mind, money is the mechanism that delivers one’s deepest desires; in the politician’s mind, money is the key component empowering state enforcement and antagonism. Money reigns sovereign—it is boundless, predominant, and rules with an irresistible logic. Because of its transcendent location vis-à-vis the everyday reality of men and women across the world, money competes with God as the alternative source of power. Money is a powerful social institution that demands our time, attention, devotion, and worship. In Goodchild’s words, “Where God promises eternity, money promises the world. Where God offers a delayed reward, money offers a reward in advance. Where God offers himself as grace, money offers itself as a loan. Where God offers spiritual benefits, money offers tangible benefits. Where God accepts all repentant sinners who truly believe, money may be accepted by all who are willing to trust in its value. Where God requires conversion of the soul, money empowers the existing desires and plans of the soul.”[8] Thus it could be said that Goodchild’s thesis on the metaphysics of money provides the structural thinking needed to connect sacramental ontology to the modern sports edifice.

In fairness, Taylor hints at a commercialized form of modern participation that occurs when, in spaces of mutual display, alienated individuals experience moments of collective effervescence and consumeristic drive and seek individual expression. In these described scenarios, we have a kind of communion for sports fans. Whereas for Taylor these ingredients combine to produce a flat or immanent space of coexistence for moderns, I believe that Goodchild’s argument about money is more robust and provides metaphysical scaffolding for sacramental thinking. In fact, Boersma’s sacramental ontology, wherein one participates with the mysterious realities of the immaterial world through the material reality of the sacraments, can be extended through Goodchild’s analysis to show that modern sports fans participate with the divine through the participatory sacrament of fandom. However, money functions as the god with whom we participate and to whom we ascribe worth.

If we remember that sacraments are ordinary objects or social arrangements that allow us to commune and participate with the divine life of God, then it is easy to see how the commercialized world of sports fandom participates in the divine life of money. Speaking sacramentally, fandom is made up both of material objects (e.g., officially licensed memorabilia and apparel, stadiums, foods and beverages) and immaterial realities (e.g., visions for the good life and claims for the ultimate such as glory, fame, and legend). As signs, sacraments do the work of pointing and participating in the reality to which they point. In this same way, fandom also points toward and participates in the greater realities toward which it gestures.

And the transcendent value of all values that holds it all together? The commercialized structures of modern capital. The thought, discourse, and practices of fans are shaped through what is ultimate; what is ultimate and good in the modern world is money. And if, as Boersma states, a sacramental ontology “insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and ‘point of reference,’ but that it also subsists or participates in God,” then it could be said that sports fans ultimately point to money both as the source of their desires and as the metaphysical reality in which they participate.[9]

Again, consider Boersma and the ancient conception of mystery as referring to the incomprehensible reality existing behind all sensible appearances. In the flattened immanence of late modernity, however, metaphysical realities like money are fully comprehended. Money is real presence, both in the tangible and intangible senses outlined above by Goodchild. In the context of sports, money dictates pragmatic measures such as salary cap space, which in turn determines which franchises can sign the free agent sports star du jour. Money also centers more metatopical contexts such as the licensing of exclusive television broadcasting rights, which in turn benefits larger city franchises, like the New York Yankees, over their smaller city counterparts, such as the Colorado Rockies. On one level, money grounds the sales of authenticated apparel, such as team jerseys and hats, and becomes the access point through which fans obtain the object of their deepest desires. On another level, this procurement secures psychological commodities such as individual expression, collective identification, and bona fide validation in spaces of mutual display. Indeed, as Goodchild puts it, “The power of money is spiritual, not purely social.”[10]

This also presents an explanation of collective fan frustration over the annual contract holdout. We fans usually couch our collective frustration in the terms of virtue: you, sports star, should honor the contract you signed irrespective of your success after signing it. However, the metaphysics of money paints a more robust picture of what’s happening: when an athlete demands a trade from his current team or when he creates ultimatums through contract hold-outs, he fails to honor the moral standards of money, such as successful accounting or the proper stewardship of his contractual agreement as set forth by market demands. Thus the demanding player acts as a stopgap from the expectation of the franchise’s profitability and success—he is defaulting on the promise of value, which is a mortal sin in the eyes of us fans. The athlete here is acting badly; good players would refrain from such practices.

So, what now? What do we do with a persistent, omnipresent force that founds sports culture? Does one merely walk away and thus reject sports? Does one seek to in some way redeem it? How should a sports fan participate in a reality that is exhaustively penetrated by the metaphysics of money and supported, packaged, and broadcasted by the economy of an all-encompassing mediacracy? I once had a theology professor opine that one of the great tragedies of the contemporary Christian imagination is its openness to binary thinking. And in the case of the commercial participation I have outlined above, such black-and-white thinking might work as a cutting of the Gordian knot sports fans currently find themselves with. However, a mere fundamental rejection of sports altogether or a soft acquiescence to its capitalistic metaphysic in the name of redemptive culture making are not the only options available to us. In light of Goodchild’s analysis, it seems prudent not only to discern the theological structure unifying the polyvalent phenomenon of sports fandom but also to enlist fresh ways to resist the especially fiduciary powers of the structures.

My use of fiduciary pertains to the mutual relationship of trust that exists between money and public confidence in its value. Goodchild makes it plain that money reigns sovereign and thus possesses the authority to enforce its decrees. One might say that money as sovereign rules by fiat—it alone decides the exception to any conundrum. But what if that relationship of confidence were in some way disrupted or set off kilter?

I contend that fandom occupies a place of ideology in our culture. That is, my love for the Super Bowl-winning Broncos is part of a cultural system that make allusions to something real but also forms illusions about those references. French philosopher Louis Althusser clarified the relationship between ideology, allusion, and illusion in this way:

Of course, assuming that we do not live one of these ideologies as the truth (e.g., “believe” in God, Duty, Justice, etc. . . .), we admit that the ideology we are discussing from a critical point of view, examining it as the ethnologist examines the myths of a “primitive society,” that these “world outlooks” are largely imaginary, i.e., do not “correspond to reality.” However, while admitting that they do not correspond to reality, i.e., that they constitute an illusion, we admit that they do make allusion to reality, and that they need only be “interpreted” to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world (ideology = illusion/allusion).[11]

Let me analogize it this way: As we all know when watching a film, what we are really seeing is the movement of individual frames of film through a projector reel at a high speed. The movement of frames in quick succession creates the impression of a film, but we all understand that should the projector break down, the film will become stuck on one frame. Ideologies want to center on that singular frame, to make that image the entirety of the film. Ideology freezes a process and then makes that frozen picture the fulcrum from which one understands all of reality. It is safe to say, therefore, that there is a certain manner of thinking and an assumed set of ideas that make up sports fandom in the contemporary moment and that those who inhabit this sort of commercial participation (myself included) may not be able to fully see though the illusions that have been created. Put another way, the commercialized aspect of modern sports fandom has placed certain characteristics into a box and has called that box the entirety of what it means to be a sports fan today. This must to be rejected.

How does one go about defeating ideology? It must be subverted through its own usage: that is, we must use the tools of ideology to turn it against itself. Paraphrasing Marx, the solution to breaking an ideology does not exist somewhere in the future; instead, it is already present and working in the contemporary moment, and it will be those who are able to discern the past and the present who will successfully participate in the overthrow of ideology.[12]

One very good example of this repurposing of ideology happened last fall at the University of Missouri when African American students began protesting the school administration’s lack of response to concerns these students had shared about racial oppression—racist graffiti and fliers posted around campus, cotton balls scattered in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, a student newspaper column that accused African American students of vandalism and requested that they “stay in their little worlds.” African American students at the school had repeatedly asked the administration to step in and do something, yet the school was fairly unresponsive. Tensions simmered until last fall, when another rash of racial incidents sparked widespread student protests and calls for the resignation of the university system president, Tim Wolfe. Things seemed at a standstill until November 7, 2016, when the university’s football players announced in a tweet that they would boycott all practices and games until President Wolfe resigned: “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” The next day, November 8, 2016, Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted his support by saying, “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”[13]

After this act of resistance, the ball began rolling quickly. On November 8, President Wolfe issued a formal response that said change, indeed, needed to happen. That same day, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill issued a statement calling for action, and two Republican state lawmakers called for Wolfe’s immediate resignation. By Monday, November 9, a mere two days after the football players’ revolt, President Wolfe stepped down from his position.

Now, the issue of NCAA athletes, their labor conditions, and the piles of cash they bring into university coffers is a long and contentious one with a deep, complicated history. Also, I acknowledge that there is a difference between the conditions of sports fans and those of student athletes. That said, I find it instructive that the football team knew to hit the university where it would hurt most: the piggybank. The players used their position as student athletes on what is likely the single largest generator of capital to the university (i.e., the school’s football team) to subvert that very system. They embodied a critique that brought discernment to and action against the illusions created by the ideology. And by subverting a process that seems quotidian (i.e., the place and function of NCAA football players), they de-naturalized the illusion of naturalism, as in, those assumptions that seem so banal that we take them as natural, for example that collegiate football players are getting a free education and that they should therefore refrain from any political gestures against the hand that feeds them.

If all of this sounds too uncomfortably Marxist, perhaps it would be helpful to revisit the writings of the twentieth-century French polymath Jacques Ellul, a Christian who long lived in the tension between the illuminations brought by Marxist-materialist cultural criticism and the truths of the kingdom of God that were revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ellul did not offer easy, neat packages we might apply pragmatically to complex situations so much as teach us to discern the powers and structures that support the social, political, and economical phenomena within which we live in the modern West. In his early essay “Needed: A New Karl Marx!” Ellul set about the task of discerning the structures that unify these phenomena: “Underneath the phenomena that we are able to see in the social, political, economic realms, there are some permanent forces of which the tracks are found in each of the phenomena considered, and which ensure its unity to our times beneath its chaotic and disorderly appearance.” There are, according to Ellul, fundamental forces whose traces can be seen in contemporary society. These forces have a unity to them, and like a tapestry, they act as “an unseen warp that ensures the unity of the fabric and that is the foundational element upon which is developed the outward designs and ornaments.”[14] These forces are stitched and bound together to create the fundamental structures upon which the totality of our civilization is founded. In other words, whatever materializes in a common society is the common product of forces, and if one looks hard enough, one is able to catch sight of them and interpret them.

When one sees an element of a fundamental structure, it becomes easier to hypothesize ways one might subvert or resist that structure. An element is that which is “common to an entire series of phenomena in our civilization, whatever might be the superficial differences between these phenomena.”[15] To paraphrase Ellul, if we augment that element, we will see civilization shift. This is the very sort of augmentation carried out by the Mizzou football players and the very sort of shift we saw in its aftermath. This is what Marx saw in nineteenth-century private property issues, and perhaps this sort of subversion—this unmasking of the powers, as Ellul put it throughout his writings—is the type of wise discernment needed for today’s fans who want to expose the ideology of the commercialized sports complex.

As fans, we have power to subvert the ideological apparatus of the commercialized sports system, whether it be through small, individual acts or through organized, communal affairs. To spurn the type of sacramental deification of the god of money, we sports fans ought to reject the commercialized ontology thrust on to us by the capitalistic machine and turn to de-naturalizing acts of resistance. The options are myriad, though it will take the hard work of proper discernment to create compelling and effective paths of protest. As we move forward, subversion ought to be the name of the game for sports fans who desire to participate in alternative realities that contrast those alluded to by late-modern capitalism and its metaphysical marriage to the modern sports edifice.

[1] Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dover Thrift Editions, ed. Robert Blaisdell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2011), 20.

[2] Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2011), 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 481.

[7] Taylor, Secular Age, 482. For the Donovan goal, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbn3rOPmR9w.

[8] Goodchild, Theology of Money (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 11.

[9] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 24.

[10] Goodchild, Theology of Money, 129.

[11] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm. Italics added.

[12] See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006).

[13] See http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/11/09/timeline_of_u_of_missouri_protests_and_president_resignation.html for more information about the chronology of the incidents and see http://www.columbiamissourian.com/sports/mizzou_football/update-black-missouri-football-players-plan-to-join-wolfe-protest/article_3af86734-85c4-11e5-95a7-b7f5cd4cfb9e.html and https://twitter.com/GaryPinkel/status/663410502370856960?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw for the tweets.

[14] Ellul, “Needed: A New Karl Marx!,” in Sources and Trajectories: Eight Early Articles That Set the Stage, trans. Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 42

[15] Ibid., 43.