Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY, The Times-Union
The thousands of visitors this weekend for Super Bowl XXXIX are more than football fans, they're pilgrims.
And that makes the city, until Sunday at least, the American version of Mecca or Jerusalem, said Joseph L. Price, author of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion and professor of religion at Whittier College in California.
Price teaches a class called "Sport, Play and Ritual" and he is known for his traveling presentation titled "The Super Bowl as A Spiritual Experience."
Price said he's serious when he describes football as faith and the Super Bowl as pilgrimage.
"Football is certainly a religion," Price told The Florida Times-Union.
Football provides its devotees with heroes of mythic proportions (Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr), sacred stories (Joe Namath predicting an unlikely Jets victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III) and fellowship (tailgating and game parties).
The game also gives fans a reason to sing, chant, dress alike and celebrate victory -- or mourn defeat -- in unity.
Devoted fans don the jerseys of their favorite players, paint their faces and otherwise submerge their identities into "a spirit and community" larger than themselves, Price said.
"It's really an extension of the phenomenon of masking, which itself is a very old religious tradition that allows one to try on a different role," he said.
The nature of the game, winning by marching across the field and taking an opponent's territory, evokes memories of winning the West and settling the frontier, Price said.
The Super Bowl fuses big-time entertainment -- super hyped half-time shows, much-anticipated commercials, celebrity parties -- with corporate culture and economic impact, Price said.
"The Super Bowl as a kind of whole religious festival is more than the championship game, it is also a celebration of the American corporate experience witnessed by the corporate hospitality tents and as witnessed by economic impact in Jacksonville," he said. …