There are many arguments about the comparison of sports and religion, and whether sports in the United States can constitute as religious practice. Scholars trained in literary critical procedures claim religion “is characterized by transcendental, sacramental, and uplifting social elements.” The sociologist Harry Edwards argues that sports are not a form of popular religion, and that sport is “essentially a secular, quasi-religious institution. It does not, however, constitute an alternative to or substitute for formal sacred religious involvement.” However, there are many ways in which sports in North American popular culture function as religion. Harry Edwards and the theologian Michael Novak have identified several characteristics that are common to both sports and religion, such as:
Superstar athletes correspond to religions’ gods and deceased players serve as saints; the coaches and executives who sit on boards and commissions and make and interpret the rules are like religious patriarchs and high councils; the reporters and broadcasters who chronicle sports events and tabulate their statistics are like the scribes of religious traditions; sports trophies and memorabilia are like religious icons; the formally stated beliefs that are commonly accepted about a sport are like religious dogmas; sports stadiums and arenas are like houses of worship, and halls of fame, both the facilities for different sports as well as the most local of sports ‘shrines’ – trophy cases – are religious shrines. Finally, he identifies the faithful or devoted fans of sports with the true believers of a religious tradition.
In what follows, we will explore another common characteristic between sports and religion: that of the human perception of time and how it changes through religious experience.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” In the Liturgical Theology class offered at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Thomas Scirghi, SJ, describes the ideal of the Mass as being in kairos time, as opposed to the chronos time that we humans are more familiar with operating under in North American culture. It is this idea of time and flow that will be explored in relation to both sports as religion in North America, especially compared to the flow that ideally comes from official religious traditions in North America. The lens that sociology offers to theology is that the idea of flow (or kairos time) is an ideal, but is not always attained. When a Mass is done well, the most devoted Roman Catholics will lose a sense of time and place, and be in this state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi describes. When something is off about the Mass, the people in the pews will be looking at their watches and counting down until they can leave (perhaps right after the Eucharist). Similarly, when team is organized and plays well, it captivates the truest fans to the point where they lose a sense of time and place. When a team doesn’t hold the commitment for the fans, people will look for a moment to exit to the parking lot as soon as they can (perhaps during the next timeout).
Sports fanaticism in Green Bay has thrived for decades, and a lot of it has to do with how the ownership of the team is structured. The Packers have captured the hearts and minds of the people of Green Bay (and throughout Wisconsin, sometimes crossing the Illinois and Minnesota borders) since the end of World War I. The Packers have the most championship titles in NFL history (twelve) and are the only non-profit, community owned major professional sports team in the United States. As of June 8, 2005, 112,015 people own shares of Green Bay Packers stock, with nobody owning more than 200,000 shares to ensure that no individual has majority control over the team’s future. The Packers’ season ticket waiting list has 74,000 people on it as of May 2007, with a wait time of approximately 35 years. This creates a situation where the fans are able to participate more in the flow of the team because they have more self-interest.
The fan’s flow of the Green Bay Packers exists outside of rooting for the team on NFL Sundays. It is also recognized simply in keeping the team in Green Bay. It is hard to imagine how a city of 100,000 residents is able to keep an NFL team without threats of moving to larger markets. After the 1996 Super Bowl season, it became clear that Lambeau Field needed to be upgraded in order for Green Bay to remain competitive with other NFL cities and teams. Proposed renovations were unveiled in 2000, to be partially funded by the team and partially by the residents of Green Bay with a 0.5% sales tax increase in Brown County. The voters approved the sales tax increase in September 2000 and renovations began the following year.
Simply put, people in Green Bay and throughout Wisconsin are hooked on and invested in the Green Bay Packers football team. It is more than going to eight home games a year for Packers fans; it is a lifestyle that has its own norms, signs, symbols, nuances, community gathering, decision-making process regarding the future of the team, and long-lasting impact over the generations. The Packers bring people together, from liberal schoolteachers in Madison, to factory workers in Janesville to hunters from northern Wisconsin. The Packers help the people of Wisconsin to transcend their everyday social interactions, creating an environment where you might share a brat with someone you might otherwise despise. Similarly to the ideal form of the Mass for Roman Catholics, being a fan of the Green Bay Packers allows fans to lose a sense of themselves and time in order to participate in the flow that goes along with being a Packers fan.
A Catholic friend of mine who grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, is not necessarily a Packers fan, but she says that she is a fan of Packers fans. She recalls having the Mass times at her parish changed when the Packers had an early start on the east coast. A cousin of mine, who grew up just outside of Milwaukee, sometimes remembers going to the 11:30 Mass and nobody was there (the priest would still close the Mass with a special acknowledgement that he hoped the Packers would win a game that started during that very Mass). “For better or worse,” write David Morris and Daniel Kraker in The American Prospect, “the Packers are like a community religion (even for the truly religious: nuns in northern Wisconsin proudly sport Packer T-shirts when doing social work in the community).” The closer one gets to Green Bay, the more difficult it is for churches to compete for participants with Packer fandom. The people of Green Bay are consumed by the Packers, especially on Sunday game days, as summarized by one observant writer from Dallas:
Green Bay revolves around its only major franchise, and outsiders aren’t excluded. Driving in on a rainy Sunday morning, fans have already gathered in the Lambeau parking lot — and every possible parking area surrounding the stadium. It doesn’t matter that it’s 8 a.m. for a noon game. (The partying actually began the night before in surrounding parking lots such as Kmart, where RVs park and form their own little community.)
Going to a Packers game (or just being in Green Bay) is an event when the Packers are playing, creating a sense of flow that affects the entire town.
There is also special attention paid to the sense of flow during the game. While many stadiums today have many distractions that take you away from the actual game, Lambeau Field is unique. The focus remains on the game at hand, as there are not even scores shown from other games in the NFL on the two scoreboards at Lambeau Field. The Packers don’t even have professional cheerleaders, as the team moved to get rid of their cheerleaders in 1988 when it became clear that the public opinion of the fans indicated that they didn’t want cheerleaders or were indifferent to them while watching the game. Going to Lambeau Field for Packers fans is like going to a cathedral or perhaps even the Vatican for Roman Catholics. It becomes an experience of time that transcends how people live their day-to-day lives.
Going back to the introduction of what we explored here, it is interesting to hear the professional and academic critiques of why sports cannot function as a religion. Let’s go back to the definition given by scholars trained in literary critical procedures who claim religion “is characterized by transcendental, sacramental, and uplifting social elements.” The Green Bay Packers carry elements of these three characteristics, perhaps even better than some of the ways that religions designated as official by society carry them out. It is preferable to look to the fans, how invested they are in the team and culture surrounding the team, and how their sense of flow within their daily lives revolves around the team.