Last year I returned to my alma mater, Kansas State University, for a football game. Manhattan, Kansas, floats on a sea of prairie grass at the junction of the Big Blue and Kansas Rivers, a good ten miles from the nearest interstate. K-State was the first land-grant institution west of the Mississippi. Under the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 (signed by President Lincoln), the US Government gifted federal land, once part of the Kansa Indian reservation, to the state of Kansas. The state sold off the land to finance the building of a school. My wife and I drove our two boys around the campus, tailgated with family, and walked into the stadium just in time to witness a K-State pregame tradition called the Ceremony of Allegiance.
Fans were asked to stand and remove their hats, and then the public address announcer began the ceremony with a dramatic reading of lines from the preamble to the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence. A marching band underscored the sense of reverent patriotism by accompanying the man with iconic themes of Americana—“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful.” The reading culminated in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t mean that the announcer read the pledge; I mean that the entire stadium recited the pledge to flag and country in unison and with gusto, like a massive classroom of buzzed elementary kids. I remember wondering if I was the only one thinking, Why the hell are we reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a football game? I suppose that if any descendants of the Kansa people were in attendance that day, they might have had a similar thought.
The music swelled and then faded to the staccato of a single snare. The crowd stood fixed in rapt attention. It struck me like something out of a war movie—the climatic drum roll before the drop of the gallows or the command to charge the enemy. Finally, the announcer broke his silence and invited us to join in singing the national anthem.
In case you didn’t catch my cynicism, I must confess that I’m somewhat conflicted about my American identity. It’s not that I don’t love my country. I do. But I don’t go in for the sentimental God-and-country shtick. I don’t sing the national anthem or say the pledge. I stand and take off my hat mostly to avoid being harassed, but I don’t put my hand over my heart. When my sons are next to me, I whisper, And now for a moment of forced patriotism. I’ve taught them to insert don’t after the word I in the pledge, although I’m pretty sure they ignore me. Patriotic rituals of this kind are my least favorite part of attending a game.
And yet there was something compelling about that moment. Over fifty thousand corn-fed red-state football fans, decked out from head to toe in purple and white, belted the national anthem in full voice. It was stunning. I turned my head to listen to the front and then behind. Everyone was singing.
As if on cue, when we reached the line about the rockets’ red glare, the colossal choir seamlessly shifted into two-part harmony, a good twenty thousand altos demonstrating this wasn’t their first visit to Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The sound brought tears to my eyes. It was aesthetically beautiful. It’s a rare treat to hear such a substantial choir singing with such passion. But it was also unnerving and ominous in a Leni-Riefenstahl-Triumph-of-the-Will kind of way.
The Ceremony of Allegiance, which concluded with the singing of the K-State “Alma Mater” and fight song, had all the elements of public worship: standing in reverence, removal of hats, reading from the sacred texts, recitations of liturgy, and hymns of praise. It was all there—a civic worship service meant to consecrate the game. The message of this worship was that we are exceptional. Our school is exceptional. Our state is exceptional. We are Americans, and America is exceptional.
Sport is the liturgy of empire.1
When the ancient Greeks held their Olympic games, the religious elements, including animal sacrifices and cultic prostitution, took up almost as much time as the games themselves. The emphasis on worship was so prominent that when Theodosius I forbade pagan worship within the Roman Empire, the ban included the Olympics.
In most respects the American superpower is not unlike ancient Rome, Babylon, or Egypt—if you’ve seen one empire, you’ve seen them all. And while American sports may be seen as entertainment to the casual observer, they function more like liturgies that proclaim and enact powerful cultural narratives of the US empire. A sport like football embodies our common life in microcosm, teaching us whom to celebrate, whom to despise, and the ideal to which we should all aspire.
The liturgies of sport teach us that America is a singular beacon in a world of hackneyed imposters. We’re exceptional, they tell us, so you’ll have to excuse us if we attempt to determine the fate of not only our nation but yours as well. It’s for your own good. We don’t really want to run the world, but we have to, because nobody else can be trusted to do it.
The myth of American exceptionalism helps make sense of a phenomenon like the Ceremony of Allegiance. The ceremony and the game embody the belief that this nation stands above all other nations as more powerful, virtuous, righteous, and more justified in our actions, even our most violent ones—especially our most violent ones—which may explain why football is the most popular sport in America.
In her book The Real Americans, Sally Jenkins notes that the game we know as American football was born just after the Civil War. With the war over and the Indians subjugated, how would the young men from Harvard and Yale prove their manhood? Amid growing concerns that Victorian men were “becoming soft and overcivilized, with nothing left to conquer and too much time spent in parlors,” football came to the rescue: “The rising popularity of football had closely followed the ebbing of the frontier war. It was as though America, at a loss for what to do with itself once the wilderness was subdued, had hit on football as an answer.”2
Instinctively, the young men at Harvard and Yale constructed a game that had at its heart two main goals: to prove one’s strength and to take possession of land (i.e., yards). Football began as a projection of manifest destiny—a simulated war, two teams scrapping over the same piece of real estate, trying to get their hands on the same ball, and time is always running out.
All empires rely on the use of this kind of violence, and all empires justify the use of violence by telling a story of scarcity: there’s not enough to go around. Life is a constant game of musical chairs, and you can’t be caught without a seat when the music stops, hence the guns and bombs. The American imagination thus sees the world as a football field. Foreign countries are opposing teams who want to invade our territory and dominate us. Team members can prove their strength and virility by defending their goal, taking possession of the ball, invading enemy territory, and winning on the field of battle. Forget the box of chocolates, Forrest, life is like a game of football, and Americans play to win.
Competition is a basic building block of nearly every aspect of culture. Take economics and government, which, we are told, rely on competitive markets and electoral contests. Or education, where admissions, scholarships, grants, and funding are decided competitively. We hold competitions for beauty and brilliance. We give awards for literature—Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards—and we celebrate Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, medicine, economics, and peace. You get the picture.
Americans can make anything into a competition. We have Grammys for music, Emmys for television, Oscars for movies, Tonys for Broadway, and ESPYs for athletes. The ubiquitous presence of competition reinforces the assumption of scarcity and the notion that competition is a natural and desirable part of life, yet Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who spent years researching and writing about the nature of play in human development, sees something different at work. Brown worked alongside Jane Goodall trying to understand how play works in nature. He says that in the animal kingdom games like chase and wrestling occur without the necessity of total domination. Nature doesn’t always want clear-cut winners and losers among members of the same species.
If two primates are playing chase, for example, and the bigger, stronger one catches the smaller, slower one, he might tackle and pin the slower primate to the ground. At this point, humans would yell, “I win” and do their touchdown dance, but in the animal kingdom, the bigger primate will let the smaller one up, smack him on the nose, turn around, and take off running, as if to say, “You’re it!” and the game will continue. Like parents playing with small children, animals will handicap themselves in order to keep the game going. The object is not to dominate. The object is to extend play.3
Not so in American football. In 1996 the NCAA adopted the “Kansas Plan,” and overtime was introduced to major college football. For the previous century, college football games could and often did end in a tie. The Kansas plan came from the Kansas State High School Athletics Association rules for high school football. The rules state that if a game is tied at the end of regulation, each team is allowed a chance to score from the opponent’s twenty-five yard line. Teams take an even number of turns until one team emerges victorious. The overtime period has been incredibly popular, and it makes for an exciting end to a close game. But more importantly, the overtime period reinforces the idea that life is really about winners and losers. Ties are seen as unnatural, like kissing your sibling. Winning, on the other hand, is as natural as natural selection.
Maybe not. Evolutionary biologists have long noted that natural selection is not, strictly speaking, the same as the kind of competition we see in American football. In 1975, the Harvard evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology, a book that became perhaps the greatest refinement of evolutionary thought since On the Origin of the Species.4 In that work, Wilson argued convincingly that for highly evolved species, part of the secret to their survival is altruism. Species whose members learn how to make personal sacrifices for the good of the group have a better chance of flourishing. Wilson’s view successfully controverted Darwin’s more brutal perspective on the necessity of competition for survival. In recent years, Wilson updated his research saying, “a group of altruists will beat a society of selfish individuals every time. Group selection favors biological traits like communication and cooperation that are needed for the group to remain cohesive.”5 In other words, nature rewards species that maintain the social structures necessary for cooperation. In the most advanced and robust social structures, altruism and cooperation play the major role over and against competition and the need for clear-cut winners.
So maybe competition isn’t completely natural, but it’s still the best way to promote achievement, right? This assumption, that human communities require competitive situations in order to be at their best, has reached canonical status. The strange thing, though, is that among the researchers who actually study human behavior and social systems, hardly anyone believes that this is true.
Take a crowd of people and split them into two groups. Ask one group to accomplish a task in a competitive environment and the other to accomplish the same task in a cooperative environment. The cooperative group will outperform the competitive group every time.
In his classic book No Contest: The Case against Competition, Alfie Kohn suggests that there exists a century’s worth of research to support the ironic notion that competition consistently loses to cooperative efforts. In one study, students were tested to see if they could solve anagrams faster working cooperatively or in competition—cooperation was faster. In another study, high school students were tested while playing a simple card game—again, competition trailed cooperation. In tasks ranging from learning math facts to manufacturing widgets, Kohn says, “Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.”6 Indeed, many of the things we care most about in life seem to grow and thrive in the absence of competition. One can be a great mom without someone else needing to be a bad one. One can grill the perfect steak without someone else having to burn his or hers. Researchers have studied manufacturing, white-collar workers, airline pilots, scholars, educators, researchers, adults, and children, and the results are always the same: the more competitive the environment, the lower the overall achievement.
Part of the reason for this is that competition makes us selfish. People will often hoard resources. Workers will stockpile information that might give them a competitive advantage, even though its usefulness to everyone could help the company. Salespeople hoard leads, managers hoard talent, and executives hoard power and influence. Competitive environments that pit us against each other make us selfish. But when we cooperate with one another, we become unselfish, and this is always a better way.
Not only is competition less effective, it is also the source of many problems. A study of the field of journalism found that when competition for a story was fierce, reporters would distort their findings. Reporters became inaccurate, leaving out certain facts in order to hype a story, shifting the whole enterprise toward sensationalism. Researchers concluded that inaccuracy and distortions were greater when news outlets competed for a story than when they worked together to bring the news to the public.7 Competition tempts us to sacrifice human virtue for a win. It doesn’t always make us better, and it sometimes makes us worse.
Competition surpasses cooperation in only one way: its ability to produce anxiety. Studies show that competition increases anxiety and inhibits performance, whereas cooperation reduces anxiety and enhances performance. And yet the American imagination has been shaped by the liturgies of sport and competitive environments to believe that competition is both natural and the best way to get things done. This narrative is reinforced through the liturgies of competition and sports that have become a constant in our society.
In football, the game changes drastically as the clock winds down. When time becomes scarce, offenses shift into the two-minute drill. The playbook is pared down to only the plays that maximize the limited time left to score. Defenses shift into prevent-defense, tempting the offense to take easy but small gains that will waste valuable clock time, while hoping to prevent big scoring plays. Teams take more risks. They cut plays short to get out of bounds and stop the clock. They pass more often because an incomplete pass also stops the clock. Coaches and players are often criticized for poor time management.
Our culture values speed and efficiency. In the American ethos, time is viewed as a limitation or an obstacle. Time is the enemy that we cannot control, the enemy that always runs away. Time must be maximized and optimized. This frenetic relationship to time reinforces our sense of scarcity. If we are not scrounging for resources, we are stockpiling minutes and hours, competing with our day and our ever-escalating to-do lists.
Yet on that day at the K-State football game, time stood still for the Ceremony of Allegiance. Silence was observed. Reverence was displayed. Time stopped for a crowd of fifty thousand people, not for God, not for peace, not even for love, but for nation—or perhaps nationalism. In our fast-paced society, where time is a precious and scarce commodity, we can easily identify the things we hold most sacred because we will pause for them in reverence. Football was teaching its lessons that day, liturgizing its fans into a reality where the only thing we hold truly sacred is our allegiance to flag and country.
Perhaps this is why God commanded his people to take one day each week and cease their restlessness and worry. God delighted in the goodness of what he had made; he “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3 NIV) and then called his followers to observe this same holy practice. By giving us the Sabbath, God invited us into a rhythm that displaces the liturgy of empire, a counter-liturgy of rest and delight. The Sabbath, we learn, is God’s declaration that everyone should have enough, that the universe was created with more than enough to go around, that scarcity is not essential to the human condition.
Today, we often regard the Sabbath as arcane or impotent, but it possesses unimaginable power. In my congregation, for example, a chief rival for participation in Sunday morning worship is children’s sports. Soccer, baseball, and basketball games, tournaments, and practices are constantly scheduled on Sunday mornings. For most American families, when a conflict arises between sports and church, it is no contest: Christians submit themselves and their Christian identity to the liturgies of empire every weekend, bowing to the gods of sport and modeling this for their children. Then churches, embroiled in their own competition for market share, refuse to confront this behavior for fear of losing membership. Instead, they offer alternate service times, bending themselves around the will of empire.
If, instead, Christian parents refused to allow their children to play on Sunday mornings, I believe the practice of holding games during church would end in a matter of months. Coaches and leagues would simply have to find another way. In this way, Sabbath is a powerful act of resistance against the empire that wants to name and claim us for its own ends. Sabbath reinforces Christian identity over and against the will of the empire.
The opposing liturgies of competition and Sabbath lead human beings to draw very different conclusions about life and what it means to be human. Competition teaches us that resources are scarce, conflict is our natural state, and we must work seven days a week to get ahead. Sabbath teaches us that we live in a world of abundance, cooperation is the path to peace, and only slaves work seven days a week. Competition tells us that we are generating our lives and we can’t slow down. Sabbath tells us we are receiving our lives, so we can afford to stop and smell the roses now and then. Competition teaches us that we are exceptional because we win. Sabbath tells us that we are precious and deeply loved—win, lose, or draw.
- Walter Brueggemann taught me to say this.
- Jenkins, The Real Americans (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2008), 5.
- This comes from an interview Stuart Brown did with Krista Tippett that I highly recommend. Her show is called On Being, and the episode “Play, Spirit, and Character,” aired on July 2, 2009.
- See Wilson, Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).
- Pamela Weintraub, “E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution,” Discover 32, no. 1 (January/February 2011): 20–22.
- Kohn, No Contest, 47.
- Ibid., 54–55.