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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Super Bowl looks like religion

By Ronald Woodbury Sunday
February 14, 2010

"The Super Bowl is our country's most important national and religious holiday." Every time I say this, I get the blankest stares. Is it a joke? Is he serious? People don't get it.

Think about the Super Bowl in parallel with the Christian traditions of Christmas and Easter (or Jewish traditions like Hanukkah and Passover (I don't know other traditions well enough say)). The whole year looks forward in growing expectation to the triumphal celebrations of Christmas and Easter.

Christians sing special Advent and Lenten hymns. Holy Week has even more specials days - Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday - leading up to Easter. Now think about football: Before every game of the football year, everyone - celebrants and congregants - sings the national hymn of joy and praise, mixing devotion to the Game with patriotism. There are special games within a defined playoff season (Advent, Lent) leading up to the Big Game.

Then, the Super Bowl sets aside two special weeks of hype in preparation for its Celebration Game. "Hype" comes from "hyperbole" meaning "excess" or "exaggeration" used to "evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression."

I'll say! One of the most important precepts of ethicists, social scientists, and theologians is that you know a person or a society best by looking at how they actually spend their time and money. What they do, not just what they say. Americans sure spend time and money on the Super Bowl.

Like the Christmas season, Super Bowl weeks are times of commercial excess. Tickets can cost thousands of dollars. Every kind of souvenir representing the teams and the Game are for sale in stores and on the Internet. The whole extravaganza from salaries to food to advertising costs hundreds of millions.

And then comes the Game. Or rather the Super Hype. The game was on CBS. Starting at 9 a.m., CBS had "Road to the Super Bowl," from 9 to 10. At 10 a.m., there was Phil Simms' "Super Bowl Edition" - for us old folks who know who Phil Simms was (an earlier apostle!).

ESPN simultaneously, from 7 to 11a.m., had "NFL Countdown," an "entertaining presentation of NFL news and analysis with host, Chris Berman."

At 11 a.m., CBS broadcast "Super Bowl Today,'' "previewing all the football and excitement leading up to the Big Game [my caps!]." At 3 p.m., the "Kick-Off Show" went on with the kickoff scheduled for 3:25. With a super over-kill halftime blowout starring the priesthood of The Who, the entire event lasted until 7 p.m.

In the United States, more people watch the Super Bowl than attend or watch all religious services combined on any weekend of the year, including Christmas. Millions of people all over the world who never watch a football game any other time of the year watch the Super Bowl.

One year, my wife and I (who don't gamble!) were in Cancun, Mexico, where we actually won the resort's betting pool. All the people I know who watch the Super Bowl on TV do it as part of a group, a party - a celebration. This year's Super Bowl was the most watched show on television ever.

And that's a good thing. By a certain way of thinking, the whole spectacle is a perversion of our professed values in a society racked with poverty, unemployment and people without health care. If the celebration were state-sponsored, it would violate the First Amendment's non-establishment clause regarding Church and State.

But it is not my purpose to demean either religion or the Game. I know I am a Roman bemused by the gladiators. My story is a self-mocking tale.

After all, I watched the game in a joyful coming-together of our entire nation. I cheered for the Saints because they're from Katrinaland and have rarely even made the playoffs. My wife, a Seahawks/Patriots/Eagles fan and far more of a sports nut than I, was torn throughout between Peyton and Drew. Our daughter and husband came over. We had friends over. We had a party.

I hope you did too.

Ronald Woodbury has a Ph.D. in history and economics. Following a career in college teaching and administration, he and his wife retired to Pendleton where their daughter lives with her husband and four children. Ron is an elder at First Christian Church and Coordinator of Elder Mediation for Blue Mountain Mediation.

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