The word religion comes from a root word that means “to bind together.” Thus, the word actually refers to a sense of unity, oneness wholeness (Butterworth 2001). In this sense, the NFL has become a religion to millions of people around the world. Maybe it is right to say that sports in general have become a sort of religious practice. In my opinion, it is a religion based on consumerism and capitalist greed and the adherents of this religious practice are those who seek to escape the reality of daily living in the ecstasy of entertainment based on worship of the human body.
The average official liturgy of the NFL, better known as game time, is approximately three hours during which the ball is actually in motion only about 11 minutes. The NFL does not release its annual financial data, but one NFL team is a public entity: the Green Bay Packers. The Packers are the best barometer for team-by-team revenue because their financial reports must be made public. In 2013 the Packers earned $187.7 million in national revenue, which consists of its portion of NFL national television contracts, sponsorships and a portion of jersey and ticket sales—split between all the NFL teams. (The Packers had total revenue of $324 million in 2013, including local revenue sources, like increased seating and ticket sales at Lambeau Field.) If you multiply the Packers’ national revenue by 32 (the total number of teams in the NFL), it comes out to a little more than $6 billion (Ejiochi 2014). This is hardly an offering to be ignored.
In 2013, about one-third of NFL players were white, and two-thirds were African-American.
Recently the NFL Bishops, or owners, has ruled that it’s clergy, I mean players, cannot kneel in protest of police brutality of Black and Brown bodies, but can stay in the locker room until after the opening hymn, better known as the National Anthem. Many would say that this is white policing of Black and Brown bodies in the grand tradition of the American experiment. Some would even offer that the religion of the NFL is nothing more than a celebration of white gaze and the objectification of Blackness.
I would submit that the NFL is a corrupt authoritarian religion. It is so because it is based on the recognition on the part of its adherents of some higher unseen power (owners) as having control of the destiny of clergy and laity (players and fans), and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship. In fact, one can always see the degree to which a religion is corrupt and its rituals irrational by the degree of fear produced by its violation in any manner (Fromm 1950).
It is my theological assessment that the NFL is performing in the world as an inhumane religion, not just because its rituals require the sacrifice of the bodies of its clergy, but because it is diametrically opposed to humanism and human flourishing. By humanism I refer to a global philosophy which emphasizes the oneness of the human race, the capacity of man to develop his own powers and to arrive at inner harmony and the establishment of a better world (E. Fromm 1966). This is a humanism rooted in the Christian concept of Imago Dei, or the understanding that humankind is made in the image of the Divine. For me the NFL seems to be a religion rooted in evil. Evil such as racism is carried partly through the violence and evil of individuals. But it is possible as an institutional and historical reality because it is mediated by language, culture, economic, and social policies: by a thousand almost invisible structures and powers that perpetuate prejudice and its debilitating effects (Farley 1990).
All marginal groups in this society who suffer grave injustices, who are victimized by institutionalized systems of domination (race, class, gender, etc.) are faced with the peculiar dilemma of developing strategies that draw attention to one’s plight in such a way that will merit regard and consideration without reinscribing a paradigm of victimization (hooks 1995). The NFL clergy (players) were and are a voice to draw attention to the plight of those on the underside of power, what does it say about the Bishops (owners) of the NFL that they would refuse to stand in solidarity with those who attempt to do good in world?
Consider this week what your religious expression is doing to stand with those on the underside of power? How are you personally complicit in systemic evil? How will you engage the NFL in light of its moral choices?
Feel free to comment below.
Peace is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Butterworth, Eric. 2001. Spiritual Economics. Unity Villege: Unity Books .
Ejiochi, Ike. 2014. cnbc.com. September 4th. Accessed May 29th, 2018. http://www.cnbc.com/2014/09/04/how-the-nfl-makes-the-most-money-of-any-pro-sport.html.
Farley, Wendy. 1990. Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion A Contemporary Theodicy. Louisville : Westminster John Knox Press.
Fromm, Eric. 1966. You Shall Be As Gods: A RAdical Interpretation of the Old Testament and its Tradition. New York: Fawcett Primier .
Fromm, Erich. 1950. Psychoanalysis & Religion. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
hooks, bell. 1995. Killing Rage:Ending Racism. New York : Henry Holt and Company.