How Watching Football is Like Going to Church (But Better)

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Last Saturday history was made: Michael Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri, became the first openly gay football player to be drafted into the National Football League. As a proud supporter of LGBTQ equality and a die-hard football fan, I was elated. The NFL has long needed to shed its image of rampant homophobia and bullying in the locker rooms, especially in the wake of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy that I believe turned a lot of potential fans off from the game of football entirely.

And who would blame them? Football is violent. Football fans can get violent. It employs cheerleaders at less than minimum wage. We’re discovering the long-term negative health effects on players, including early Alzheimers’s. Prayer—usually Christian—runs rampant at high school football games.

As a humanist, I gotta ask, is it wrong to watch football?

As some  readers already know, I’m a big San Diego Chargers fan. Some of my earliest memories include sitting around the television on Sundays at my grandparents’ house in San Diego cheering on the Bolts during the years of Junior Seau, Natrone Means, and Stan Humphries. When I was in the sixth grade I went to a Super Bowl party the year the 49ers played the Chargers—and I was the only San Diego fan there. That wasn’t easy for an 11-year-old kid, especially after my team was thoroughly trounced.

I lost favor with football over the coming years after the Chargers consistently became one of the worst teams in the NFL, especially during the Ryan Leaf fiasco (yes, I’m still bitter). But I got back into watching the game during college when I realized my then-boyfriend, a New York Jets fan, would do nothing else on Sunday afternoons, and it was an opportunity to bond. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Why am I such a fan of football? Maybe it’s because I, like many humanists, long for ritual. Contrary to popular belief, there are some aspects about church that I miss, and football fulfills that need. Here are ways football is a lot like going to church, but better:

It’s something to do on Sundays. Football fills the void in my religion-free heart. When November rolls around and the cold weather sets in, I’m glad to be indoors on Sundays, curled up in a blanket, and watching football all afternoon.

You can dress up. As the thousands and thousands of football fans—and ComicCon nerds—can tell you, dressing up is fun, and so is wearing your team colors with pride. I’d take wearing my powder blue throwback over a church dress any day.

Rituals and superstitions are fun. Yes, people really do rub bald heads, or wear lucky socks, or sit in the same spot on the couch during every game, and we know it’s not going to make one hell of a difference in the outcome of the game (at least according to 45% of football fans). But there’s something fun about believing that an individual’s actions will have an effect. When you’re with a group taking part in such a ritual, there is a sense of belonging, a sense of camaraderie. Church rituals are not only not fun, they make you feel guilty, not happy.

We pray to the football gods, but they won’t help your team win. Just ask any Super Bowl loser. Or the Buffalo Bills. The football gods are equal-opportunity offenders; they cheer for all the teams, or none at all. Just as they should. That is, if such gods exist.

No doubt football has its problems, but it’s working toward solutions. Last year the NFL established a $10 million program to find “better shock absorbent materials for helmets and other technological advancements to protect the brain from concussions.” Rules have changed too—runners and tacklers are prohibited from hits that include lowering one’s head and delivering a blow with one’s crown, and there are heavy penalties against roughing the quarterback or the kicker. Finally, the NFL is encouraging kids to get outdoors and get healthy through its NFL Play 60 program, where kids pledge to get at least 60 minutes of exercise each day.

But equally as important, football is an opportunity to reach millions of viewers with a message of acceptance and equality. Look at the effect Michael Sam has had—and will continue to have. Back when black athletes were largely banned from professional sports, Charles Follis played for the Shelby Athletic Club in 1902. The idea of changing Washington’s offensive team name is gaining ground—major newspapers are refusing to publish the word, and members of Congress are pressuring team owner Dan Snyder to change the name.

Exciting progressive change is happening in American football. Don’t you want to be a part of it? But if we’re going to watch together, get real and wash those lucky socks, please.

Correction: The original article stated that the “Tuck Rule” penalized ball-carriers using the crown of the helmet to defend themselves against tacklers. The rule was eliminated last year. The article has since been updated to include the basic rule of using the crown of the helmet to hit an opponent, which results in a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and potentially further discipline.

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