In Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer—a fascinating account of the lunacy that is University of Alabama football—the reporter recounts a conversation with a Mr. and Mrs. Reese in their $300,000 motor home, purchased exclusively to travel to Crimson Tide games. The couple, it turns out, had missed their daughter's wedding because it fell on the same day as the Alabama-Tennessee game. They said they had managed to make the reception, and noted that they had asked their daughter not to schedule the wedding so as to conflict with the big game. Asked why he did it, Mr. Reese could only shake his head and respond: "I just love Alabama football, is all I can think of."
If the Reeses' behavior qualified them for sport fanatics award of the century, surely the son of a Philadelphia woman deserves honorable mention. During a 2005 Philadelphia Eagles—Green Bay Packers game, the man ran onto the field, leaving behind a trail of powder coming from a plastic bag he was carrying. Police learned later that the powder was the ashes of his mother, an ardent Eagles fan. "She'll always be a part of Lincoln Financial Field and of the Eagles," the man told police.
Extreme examples, perhaps. But both are rooted in the same passion that drives spectators to paint their faces with team colors, wear bizarre hats, and engage in the collective delirium that one philosopher has called "too close to the religious to call it anything else." Alumni signal their loyalty by flying their alma mater flags on their front porches and plastering the family car with team logos. And now the truly loyal can arrange for their final rest to be in coffins adorned with their college team's colors.
Americans are consuming sports on an unprecedented scale. The ancient Romans, long considered the gold standard for how sports-crazed a culture could be, were dilettantes compared to the sports fans of this century. The Romans could squeeze 50,000 spectators into the Coliseum for gladiatorial contests—a quaint assemblage next to the 107,000 seats regularly sold for University of Michigan or Penn State home football games. In 2006, Americans spent over $17 billion on tickets to sports contests and $90 billion on sporting goods, over double what they spent on books ($42 billion). Sports magazines take up prime space on bookstore shelves; the granddaddy of them all, Sports Illustrated, sells as many copies in a month (13.2 million) as To Kill a Mockingbird has sold since its publication in 1960. A tenth of The World Almanac is devoted to sports, more than is allocated for business, science, and politics combined.
Joining The Parade
None of this has been lost on evangelicals, who have been quick to harness sports to personal and institutional agendas. Less than a century ago, major segments of the evangelical community considered sports a cancer on the spiritual life; today their denominational progeny lead the parade to stadiums. The cozy coupling of sports and evangelicalism shows itself not only in the outsized athletic complexes that are common features of church architecture, but also in the ease with which sport and its symbols show up in the sanctuary. Pastors incorporate pithy sports metaphors into their sermons. Famous athletes are invited to pulpits to tell how their faith helps them compete. Some churches celebrate Super Bowl Sunday by canceling the evening service and assembling in the sanctuary to watch the game on large-screen TVs. "Faith nights" sponsored by local baseball teams draw entire congregations to the ballpark. Evangelistic organizations that center on the public's fascination with sports flourish.