August 22, 2016 / Theology
Putting David Foster Wallace in conversation with Andrew Edgar, Benj Petroelje argues that while sport no longer trades in transcendence, it does contain echoes of two elements of a Christian vision of human flourishing.
September 26, 2016
Like many Ohio State Buckeye fans, I was raised in a Buckeye household with good Buckeye parents. Although my mom is a convert, my dad comes from a long line of Buckeye alumni: grandpa and grandma, and the crowning jewel, my great-grandfather whose name the school of dentistry bears. From as early as I can remember, I watched the Ohio State football game on Saturday, dressed in scarlet and gray, cradling a youth football. At age ten, my love for the Buckeyes ignited my passion for the Columbus Dispatch sports page, which could never quite provide me with enough statistics, analyses, or personal interest stories to satisfy my hunger. When the cool, crisp fall air pushed out the heat of August, we would make our yearly pilgrimage to the venerable “horseshoe,” where the boozy incense of sacrifice rose from the mass of tailgaters clustered around the arena. There is nothing more powerful than standing with 108,000 other Buckeyes in a Roman-inspired coliseum, singing “Carmen Ohio,” which is as much a hymn as anything Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley ever wrote. I rejoiced when we won; I cried when we lost. I dreamed of winning; I dreamed of glory.
This love for the Buckeyes was a thoroughly religious formation. My catechesis highlights why sport may be America’s true civil religion, a public cult entangling “nationalism, identity, religion, and sport,” and simultaneously enshrining the “sentiments deemed indispensable for participation in society”—toughness, teamwork, courage, practice, hard work, perseverance, controlled aggression, et cetera.1 But I’ve observed that this mélange of religion, identity, and sport operates at the local level as well, when fan bases officially declare themselves “nations.” By invocating their sports communities as “nation,” secular folk reach for the sacred, the inviolable, and that which above all demands exclusive loyalty. The founding of Buckeye Nation represents the establishment of a public cult specifically tailored to the particular culture, ideals, and demographics of the state of Ohio. While growing up, the Buckeye cult provided me with a host of rituals and symbols to instill an awareness of my Ohio citizenship: Dad hanging the flag every game day; the Buckeye faithful donning scarlet and gray, adorned with an assortment of Buckeye leaves, necklaces, and jewelry; local business owners affixing the Block O to their storefronts; neighbors hosting game-day parties and feasts, complete with confectionary delicacies of chocolate and peanut butter aptly named “Buckeyes” because of their resemblance to a Buckeye nut (eat one, it will change your life); everyone breaking out into the official rock song of Ohio, “Hang on Sloopy,” or into that revered hymn, “Carmen Ohio.” Buckeye Nation, then, signifies the fusion of Ohio identity, morality, football, and religion.
Even before the term nation colonized the vocabulary of sport, I understood that I was part of a peculiar people. At Beacon Elementary School in Hilliard, Ohio, every kid knew that their clothes should be scarlet and gray. We all knew never to mix yellow and blue in the same outfit because those are the colors of our archrival, the University of Michicant (pronounced Mich-uh-can’t). As far as I was concerned, any poor kid who mixed those vile hues earned the ridicule heaped on her or him. I also knew that we were a nation at war. Nothing made this clearer than the week of the Ohio State–Michicant game, referred to as “Beat M* Week”—the actual name for the state up north is, of course, anathema.2 Fans echoed the week’s mantra with the ubiquitous question “What did you do to beat Michicant this week?” This question suggests, of course, that my daily kid life in some way influenced Saturday’s outcome. I took it very seriously that the battle was not only waged and won by those in the front line on the gridiron but also by those of us engaged in civilian life.
So what did we do to ensure victory over that team from up north? Pious acts of devotion, naturally. We donned Buckeye colors to school, work, and bed. We consumed as much information about the game as we could from the newspaper, the radio, the TV, and later, the Internet. We avoided any economic relationship with the rival state by fasting from its products and produce. We hoisted Buckeye flags; we wore necklaces made of real buckeyes, and we even prayed for God’s intercession against the evil northern scourge.
For my part, I put my modicum of artistic ability and colored pencils to good use. My contributions consisted primarily of drawings of our muscle-bound mascot, Brutus the Buckeye, crushing a wimpy, bedraggled wolverine. And for my prized oblation, I exploited the double sense of the word bowl, which is the season goal for every team and also the place where human waste is eliminated—it gave me great satisfaction to draw a picture of excrement spiraling down a commode, tailed by a flickering strip of toilet paper marked with a letter M. In fact, to this day I still grin at the thought.
I genuinely despised and distrusted anyone from this other nation up north. Ohio’s propaganda machine rivals that of North Korea, as I thought Michicant was a scorched wasteland of sprawling concrete with stacks of burning tires dotting the horizon. I actually believed that most people up there were criminals mired in poverty who looted Radio Shacks and robbed convenience stores. When my next-door neighbor, a Michicant fan, showed me a US News and World Report that ranked that state up north above Ohio State in education, I was dumbfounded. I could not square the smell of burning rubber and raw sewage with success in the classroom. Instead, I concluded that this magazine report must be indoctrination. They must have gotten ahold of a printing press or a computer up there. Besides, education and learning stuff was for sissies. I was in the sixth grade.
This image of the godforsaken state remained unchallenged until I dated and married a woman from Michicant (yes, love crosses all bounds, even state lines). I was completely shocked the first time I drove across Michicant on I-96 to see her family in Grand Rapids: the landscape was absolutely stunning. And after ten years of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and summer vacations to northern Michicant, it’s now obvious to me that this terrible state is one of America’s most beautiful.
There are two things one should know about my marriage to a Wolverine. First, Ohio State has ten wins to only one loss in the history of our relationship. Needless to say, Thanksgivings with my in-laws in that state up north have been a lot of fun. Second, my wife, Amy, was not raised to be a truly devout Michicant fan. Sure, she owned some Michicant paraphernalia and didn’t hesitate to use the yellow and blue crayons on the same sheet of paper, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was just a cultural fan—a lukewarm Wolverine. But this changed when she went to a small Christian college in Ohio.
Sociologists argue that opposition to one’s faith strengthens rather than weakens religious identity. This was certainly true for Amy. As a member of our college’s worship team, she traveled to churches all throughout Ohio to put on special concerts or to lead the music on Sundays. Amy would introduce herself, and without fail, the mention of her Michicant hometown would provoke a chorus of boos—even in the middle of Sunday worship. After the service, nice, little old ladies would lace their thanks and praise with a Buckeye barb: “. . . even if you are from up there” or “. . . for someone who can’t read.” The overwhelming derision of these Christians for the place of Amy’s naissance galvanized her identity and swelled her pride for her homeland.3 This relentless animosity of Buckeye fans has earned them the reputation of being the world’s worst fans—or best, depending on where you stand.
Ohio State fans long for everyone else in the nation to grant Ohio the proper esteem it is due. Ohioans chafe when people confuse it with lowly and unimportant Iowa simply because both state names have all those vowels. Ohio is not the most scenic, cultured, hip, or wealthy state in the union, but we feel deeply dishonored when others lump us in with Indiana, the most boring place on the continent. And no one seems to notice that we make really good craft beer in our three big cities, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, which are exciting and sophisticated places to raise a family or start a handmade jean company with thoroughgoing sustainable business practices.4 Being overlooked has had a subtle but serious effect on us. This deprivation of dignity engenders a deep yearning to have others recognize our worth, to make others pay honor to us. We are hardworking people whose accomplishments are ignored or, worse, stolen.
I’m talking about you, North Carolina. The edict that you are the “birthplace of aviation” just because the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk is deeply flawed. The fact of the matter is that the Wright Brothers were born, raised, educated, and buried in Ohio (well, Wilbur was born in Indiana, but he moved to Ohio when he was two years old). They designed, invented, and tested their planes in Ohio. Consider the following over-the-top analogy. Claiming their accomplishment is akin to claiming that Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics is an achievement of the Nazi Party simply because he won on a track in Berlin. And by the way, Jesse Owens just so happens to be an Ohio State alumnus. Also, while I’m at it, everyone should thank Ohio for the following: Thomas Edison’s electricity, the light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, Ohio’s eight presidents, the cash register, rubber, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, John Legend, the song “Play That Funky Music,” Steven Spielberg, Toni Morrison, LeBron James, Jack Nicklaus, Neil Armstrong, twenty-two other astronauts, Wendy’s, hotdogs, and the voice of Bart Simpson. As for football, twelve of the last sixteen college football national champions have important Ohio ties. Basically, the Southeastern Conference’s success is really the product of good, old-fashioned Ohio knowhow (e.g., Nick Saban, Les Miles, Urban Meyer).5 Michicant should be especially grateful since their two most recent Heisman trophy winners are from Ohio, as well as their greatest coach, Ohio-native Bo Schembechler, who learned everything he knew from Woody Hayes. Moral of the story: only Ohio can beat Ohio.
For Ohioans like me, college football becomes the vehicle through which we win the respect and honor that is rightfully ours. Boasting not only “The Best Damn Band in the Land”6 but also the best damn team in the land elevates us as a people. A vicarious logic underpins this belief: the team’s performance is imputed to the many. The agony of defeat and the glory of victory transfer hands, from the field to those in the stands and the fans watching from home. But this mechanism requires some connection, some sense that the fan is implicated in the outcome of the game, whether alumni status, geography, or family ties. The construction of identity forges the strength of this bond in the psychosocial process of issuing judgments about which features of our lives—objective and subjective alike—matter, in addition to how and why they matter. In sum, the more my identity is wrapped into being an Ohioan, the more power the Buckeyes have to confer honor, dignity, and value to me on Saturday.
For example, my identity as a native of Ohio prevented me from becoming a true Duke fan while I was a graduate student there. My time at Duke could not even supplant my allegiance to the Big Ten, as I would often catch myself accidentally rooting for the Wisconsin Buzzcuts (“The flesh is willing, but the Spirit is weak”). The experience of growing up in or being from North Carolina wasn’t mine. The stories of Duke students did not strike a chord with me; I came from a different class and inhabited a different social world with different sets of rituals and collections of stories. I’ve neither sailed a yacht nor understood the purpose of Croakies, so Duke could never represent in any compelling way my land, people, or history.
My testimony to the religious formation of fandom is not unique. Many other fan bases have appropriated the language of “nation” in order to redouble the vicarious link to their representative team. Some of the proudest cities, like Boston, Green Bay, and Seattle, raise devout fans whose religious fervor is similar to my own. I’ll never forget the sound of thousands of singing Red Sox acolytes marching down Main Street in Burlington, Vermont—a full two hundred miles from Boston—after winning the 2007 World Series, nor will I forget watching my good friend Lee completely lose it after a Packers playoff loss. In utter despair, he stared for hours at homemade spreadsheets of statistics in a hopeless quest to explain why.
For these kinds of experiences and behaviors, the moniker nation reveals an attempt to name something divine and absolute, something which wields the power to define us. It hints at the soteriological power of sport to restore a community and secure its good future. Consider the son of Ohio, LeBron James. He expressed his decision to “come home” to Cleveland because his “relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.” He wants to save northeast Ohio, hitching his basketball legacy to a revitalization of Ohio’s rustbelt.7 Sport promises to unite a fractured society, lift a sagging economy, and erase years of personal and communal failure. Much eschatological hope hangs on the ability of one man to play basketball.
Looking back, it’s obvious to me now that Buckeye Nation, in particular, and sport, in general, functions like civil religion: defining allegiance, organizing social life, and funneling honor to its adherents. But at the time, I never considered what effect my football fandom might have on my own formation. As a Christian, I was certainly attuned to the influence of competing visions of God and the moral life that inundated my senses through the various appendages of mass media. For instance, I thoughtfully evaluated the way sex and violence in movies might touch my soul. But I never questioned whether participation in Buckeye nation had any consequences.
The first time I noticed that my Buckeye fandom had an effect on my life was when I moved to the one place where absolutely no one cares about college football, the great state of Vermont. Without a single Division I football program in the state, I found a society that spent its Saturdays very differently. Just after I moved to Burlington, a new male friend invited me “to check out the fall foliage” on an all-day Saturday hike. This was the first time I’d heard any man utter such a phrase without irony. Didn’t he know Saturdays were for watching college football? Bewildered, I forced myself to keep a straight face and accept his kind but alien invitation. As we surveyed the blazing autumn colors on those sun-drenched ridges, I discovered that hiking mountains could be more fulfilling than watching a Buckeye game.
The hikes with their panoramic views not only opened my eyes to beauty but also offered an opportunity to deepen my relationships with friends, land, neighbor, city, and even God. There was an intimacy available in this space that I hadn’t noticed as an active member of Buckeye Nation. Let’s face it, so much of being a fan involves the passive consumption of sport information, games, and highlights. Buckeye civil religion doesn’t necessarily foster friendships of trust and vulnerability; what matters is not so much friendship per se but participation—eating, drinking, watching TV, hating Michicant and the SEC, and, of course, celebrating National Championships together. As much as I enjoy this, I still wonder what sorts of friendships are possible within this social life? What sort of person is one encouraged to become in this environment?
I suspect that men do not just watch but depend on sports because they’re afraid of intimacy. That’s why men don’t ask other men to look at beautiful leaves together. The strangeness of my friend’s invitation showed me how football in Ohio drew the boundaries of masculinity in a way that stymies human flourishing by eliminating vulnerability between friends. Intimacy wasn’t automatic, but by accepting my friend’s invitation, I opened a new space for companionship, and so my conversations and experiences acquired a more neighborly quality.
I flourished in the football-free land. Weekend hiking, snowshoeing, camping, surfing, picnicking, and skiing have afforded me special time for sharing life that the high holy days of Buckeye Nation did not. In addition to recreation, I could also involve myself with church, local ministries, and community events. I don’t mean to suggest that, because Vermont liberated Saturdays from the dehumanizing liturgy of Buckeye Nation, I experienced a radical transformation or that the majority of my conversations ended with hugs and a spate of affirmations. Many of my interactions would have been indistinguishable from that of my Buckeye-devoted self. I was still me. But I noticed a difference. I found more intimacy with God, others, and myself.
And this should not be surprising given that a sport like college football takes place within a multibillion-dollar matrix of advertising and consumption and within an economy of desire. If sport functions as a public cult that powerfully engenders a sense of identity through the performance of a team, then we should ask what sort of person this industrial football complex needs—what virtues are necessary for the maintenance of a sport society? How does the consumption of sport order our lives—our time, money, friendships, diet, and desires? For example, while a Christian may spend an hour in church on Sunday and another in Bible study on Wednesday, he or she might also spend ten hours a week watching sports on TV, to say nothing of reading articles, reviewing highlights, and listening to interviews on the Internet. If we add this to the social and ritualized formation to which my own story testifies, then it becomes clear that sport trains us how to see and relate to our neighbor, our world, and ourselves.
What kind of soul does this football religion form? How does sport shape our souls through the social practices and institutions that support football? What sorts of activities are prioritized over others? Are there certain modes of interaction and qualities of relationship that are less likely? Questions like these should be asked because the public religion of sport is wed to an economy of consumption and not ordered to God’s good end accomplished in Jesus Christ. Sport may not overtly destroy or maim, but it can quietly hinder human flourishing as a rival religion with its own vision of the good life.
And is it possible that sport can also function as an idol, as something that we elevate to the place of God? Football fans are fanatics because in some deeply personal and meaningful way, we live as though our honor, worth, and even salvation come through victory on Saturday. Is it possible that this sort of participation is transformative? If sport is a religious formation, then what of we its disciples? By what fruit will we be known?
Jonathan Lett is assistant professor of theology at LeTourneau University. He is also the director of outreach at LeTourneau University's Passage Institute for Youth and Theology.