Touchdown, Jesus? The NFL’s Liturgical Calendar

Photo by Stevan Sheets from FreeImages

This guest post comes our way from Alec S. Hurley, a Ph.D. candidate in Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not musing on the intersection of the Church and pro sport, Alec studies the role of sport in the formation of empires and identity.

Less than two weeks ago the Miami Dolphins selected their franchise quarterback. Tua Tagovaiola was chosen – nay appointed – as the latest savior of the woe begotten franchise which has become the poster child for mediocrity over the last three decades. During the draft my father, a knowledgeable albeit restrained sports fan, remarked on the seemingly absurd fascination ESPN had with promoting the resurrection epics and saint-like backstories of the NFL draftees. Airing shortly after the defining Christian holiday of Easter he made an off-hand comment about the similarities between the NFL Draft and the pinnacle religious holiday. The NFL calendar, upon further reflection, shares a rather high degree of similarity with the Christian liturgical calendar. While essays, books, and op-eds on the connection between football and religion have been regurgitated ad nauseum, I would like to offer a musing or two of my own on the subject. Understanding the ways in which the sport calendar interacts and intersects with overlapping designations of the year offers administrators in sport the ability to increase their commercial appeal. Look no further than the National Basketball Association’s history with Christmas Day performances, which now present the opportunity for unique, one-off uniforms and other commercial opportunities. College Football’s “New Year’s Day Games” garner near equal attention and sponsorship-affiliation to the national championship game one week later. And the NFL’s monopolization of Thanksgiving has so greatly altered the culinary landscape that former coach and commentator John Madden’s “Turducken” turned a local delight into a national dietary phenomenon. Perhaps, then, there is practical usefulness in examining the connections between the calendars of the Christian faith and the NFL.

For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar that I was brought up with and we shall start – as always seems appropriate – from the beginning. Advent, a period of marked by patience and waiting, kicks off the annual calendar of the Western Catholic faith. Its four-week format, with a different candle lit every Sunday, mirrors in almost perfect unison, the four weeks of the NFL playoffs. So much so in fact that the third weekend is celebrated by the lighting of a unique candle, often a distinctly lighter shade, in anticipation of the excitement to come. The third week of the NFL playoffs offers audiences a championship-before-the-championship. A lighter precursor of sorts to the main event still two weeks away.

Christmas comes next and brings with it – despite an ever-increasing length of season – the Super Bowl. This entry offers what might be the most straight-forward connection between the two entities. On this day, a champion or king is born or crowned. Taking place on a singular day amid a dreary winter, Christmas and the Super Bowl offer a celebration of all the good in their respective followings. In addition, both events have transcended their immediate followings generating a broader cultural phenomenon. Just as Christmas is not confined to churches nor homes, the Super Bowl is not limited to the physical space of the stadium. Beyond the cynical commercialization of both events, is the way each possesses the ability to bring people together. Super Bowl viewing parties welcome together, under a warm roof, an eclectic collection of die-hard fans, casual observers, and those “football-atheists” who find themselves drawn to the good company, abundant food, and humorous commercials. Such parties embody the soul of the Christmas message, wherein, on a chilly late December evening, millions are welcomed within and outside the Church physical. Believers, doubters, and casual twice-a-year attendees are all warmly embraced under one roof.

The following brief spell of Ordinary Time mirrors the dull grind of off-season activity. Bursts of occasional administrative news mirror the quieted excitement of weekly communal gatherings at mass. Soon, however, Lent approaches. A period defined by waiting and of abstinence and hope. Marked by daily fasting and a “giving up” of a cherished possession or activity, the Lenten period invites Christians to embrace a life without some of the creature comforts to which we have become accustomed. In much the same way, volunteer off-season programs in the NFL, present a similar silver of activity for ravenous football fans in the early and dreary days of Spring.

And then, like Manna from the heavens, football returns. The NFL Draft is filled with the selection of Saviors and with prophets – in their acting capacity as broadcast anchors or “experts” – recapping the news by praising those who they deem as having done well and blaspheming those who they feel have not proven themselves worthy. Even the recent format of the NFL draft more has more closely aligned itself with the holiest of days in the Christian calendar. Falling far short of the sacredness of the three major days of Holy Week – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – the NFL draft has generated an event of unfathomable cultural significance.

Perhaps this has all been merely an exercise in humorous futility. Perhaps it is just sheer coincidence that the two calendars mirror each other in these ways. I, for one, will still be eagerly watching both in anticipation of the first Dolphins championship of my lifetime. No pressure Tua, just another day for a savior from paradise.

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