For the record I'm a Pittsburgh Steeler fan and have been since the age of four. My mood in the fall is determined by their win/loss record. Game days are spent wrapped from head to toe in black and gold, terrible towel in my back pocket, consumed by an insane desire to see them win. I have berated people for calling me on the phone during "Game Days," totally baffled why anyone would be doing anything but watching football.** (The only calls I like to take during Steeler football are calls from other NFL die-hards, and texts are preferred these days.)
When I die I want to be buried in my Steeler jersey, and I want someone to play "Here We Go Steelers" at the service. I identify with football in a way I don't identify with anything else in my life. Yes, I love a lot of rock bands, and I love them so much that just listening to a few of them can bring me to tears, however wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt doesn't really mean shit these days. It's just a shirt. Put on some Steeler gear though and people will roll their eyes at you, mutter at you, or give you a shout-out about the Black and Gold. No one's ever yelled "Jimmy Page is the man" at me for wearing a Swan Song t-shirt. I have heard "Lamar Woodley
is a monster!" while wearing number 56.
Back in Michigan, Ari and I used to go grocery shopping on the occasional Sunday Morning (NFL games start at 1:00 pm back there). Walking around the grocery store there were all sorts of people wearing copious amounts of NFL Gear. Since we were in Michigan Detroit Lions gear was the most common, but not by much, there were lots of Steeler fans running around. What made it so interesting was that the fans of each team were like a gang or a cult. It's ridiculous for grown men to be wearing the football jerseys of other people they will never meet and have it mean something to them, but it does. Putting on your team's colors is like putting on a crucifix or a pentacle, you do it because it means something to you, something beyond just fandom.
Football just seems bigger than anything else in the United States. 100 million people watch the Super Bowl every year, that's one third of the entire country. A top rated television show these days might snag 20 million viewers. The combined viewership for Sunday-Monday NFL Football tops out at over 60 million people, and Neilsen suggests that by the midway point in any given NFL season 150 million unique viewers have watched at least part of a football game. That's about equal to church attendance in a given year as a percentage of the population. Which leads me to the question, is football a religion, a harmless past-time, or an obsession?
The NFL has done something that no other major sports league has been able to do: it's created its own mythology. Sure, diehard fans would have romanticized the "Ice Bowl" or the "Immaculate Reception" but the NFL accomplished that task in a way that made those games and plays "moments." The NFL was able to take something like the "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" and turn it into a piece of Americana, an essential part of the American Experience. The Super Bowl is more than a game, it's a holiday, Thanksgiving would be incomplete without a few football games, the NFL has managed to become a part of our society's fabric in a way that Major League Baseball can only dream about.
A lot of the power the NFL has is the direct result of a little side project known as NFL Films. In the 1970's before cable TV the only way to see NFL game highlights of teams outside of your market was to wait for the football shows produced by NFL Films to show up midweek (by the 1980's HBO's "Inside the NFL" filled this void, also produced by NFL Films). The shows from NFL Films featured music that sounded like it was ripped from a John Williams soundtrack (it was actually composed by a man named Sam Spence), and contained what became known as the "Voice of God" John Facenda doing the commentary.
Facenda had one of those legendary voices, and though he's been dead for several decades, his voice still dominates NFL highlight packages. Facenda's rich, authoritative baritone made football sound more important than it probably was, or is, it made the game sound like a battle of life and death between the forces of evil (the Oakland Raiders) and light (the Pittsburgh Steelers). Don't worry, the Raiders reveled in their bad boy image, and that image resulted in the best two minutes NFL Films ever produced, the epic "The Autumn Wind is a Pirate" song and poem. I hate the Raiders, and yet somehow the music combined with Facenda's voice and the words "The autumn wind is a Raider . . . ." sends chills down my spine.
Growing up the NFL always seemed important in ways that other sports did not. Monday Night Football was an event, a work night party held weekly in my living room. With only 16 regular season games per team NFL contests have an importance that games from other sports do not have. There is no room for error if you want to make the playoffs, no week you can take off, and every game has consequences.
I had to download this song because it's in an NFL commercial, that's the power of "The Shield."
Football has another advantage over every other sport, it's the only sport when you don't see the players faces. This gives it a power that other sports don't have. It takes away the players and gives all the power to the logo. In basketball it's impossible to separate the team from the players, you didn't root for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990's, you rooted for Michael Jordan. No NFL fan roots for a certain player, they might like a certain player, but loyalty to the team always comes first. Since there are 46 players per NFL Roster, and half of those come and go on a yearly basis, the only allegiance a fan can have is to the colors, the franchise.
I originally titled this piece "Football as Religion," but football is not a religion. I keep an altar to the NFL at my house, and my collection of "Terrible Towels" are holy objects, but football is not a religion in the sense that you pray to ghosts of Bill Walsh and George Halas, football is an identity, and for its fans it's a tribal culture. We are do disconnected today, we don't participate in bowling leagues, don't join the Freemasons, etc., we lack connection to groups and bigger things. Football is a connection to that "bigger thing." I wear black and yellow on Sundays because I want to relate to something mythic, epic, timeless, and powerful. Sure, I could just wear Pan shirts everyday, but he doesn't play a weekly game on TV. Football fanaticism is a socially acceptable passion and identity, socially acceptable in ways that religion and politics are not.
When you see someone walking around town with a big "Jesus Loves You" shirt on you look at them sideways. They are sharing their faith and identity, but it's generally not something everyone else wants to be bothered with. I don't want to know you are a Rick Perry supporter and I'm going to judge you for it when you put his bumper sticker on your car, but you can wear a Cowboys hat and while the Cowboys suck, I don't immediately hate you for it. Football lets you express something without provoking the immediate negative that is "Tea Party Supporter."
Football also creates a rush of energy that is often absent from our mundane world. Walk into an NFL Stadium and tell me you don't feel energy. Sure it's crazy and misdirected, but it's there. It's an adrenalin rush that most of us can't recreate in our daily lives. You can burn all the candles and chant as much as you want, I'm sure there's more energy in my living room on a Sunday afternoon game day than half of your circles any day of the week.
Bring on the NFL Season, bring on the myths, and bring on that black and gold.
*Though I will watch a CFL game in August or July when there's nothing else on, the league is not a priority like the NFL and NCAA are.
**Pagans as a whole do not watch a lot of sports. There are some, but we are definitely in the minority. I tend to have trouble wrapping my mind around this fact. Other Pagans seem to have trouble with my football fanaticism, and often will tell me to "DVR the game" when it conflicts with something. You don't DVR sports!