Ecstasy, Joy, and Sorrow: The Religious Experience of Southern College Football

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Ecstasy, Joy, and Sorrow: The Religious Experience of Southern College Football


Eric Bain-Selbo

Department Head, Philosophy and Religion, Western Kentucky University

Abstract

Beginning with the assumption that college football in the American South at least looks religious, this essay explores the possibility that it functions religiously to the extent that it provides opportunities for fans to have religious experiences. The essay draws upon fan descriptions and survey data, classic accounts of the nature and import of religious experience, and the contemporary philosophy of religion of Wayne Proudfoot. The conclusion is that a reasonable case can be made that the experience of the Southern college football fan is similar to the kinds of experiences of religious adherents.

Introduction

[1] The fundamental assumption of this paper is that if we think of religion in terms of myths and legends, heroes and saints, rituals and sacrifice, sacred sites and community, then we can come more and more to see sports in the modern world as religious.[ 1] Writers and scholars like Michael Novak, Joseph Price, and William Dean have effectively made this argument, even if in importantly different ways.[ 2] There are innumerable sporting examples that can be used to make the case. The beliefs and practices of Boston Red Sox baseball fans, of Duke University basketball fans, of Oakland Raider football fans, could all be used to illustrate the ways in which the beliefs and practices of sports fans can function religiously. College football in the American South, however, may provide a particularly exceptional example with its game day rituals, legendary or mythological figures and games, sacred spaces, and much more. But while Southern college football may "look" like religion or have the "trappings" of religion, do fans really experience it religiously? In other words, do Southern college football fans have religious experiences?

[2] Renowned college football analyst Tony Barnhart writes that Southerners have formed an "emotional bond with college football that I have not seen in any other part of the country or with any other sport" (Barnhart, xiii). But what are these emotions? Are they similar to those of a religious experience? How is the experience of the fan comparable to the experience of the religious adherent? In this essay I will defend the claim that there are good reasons to believe that the experience of the Southern college football fan is similar to many experiences that people generally would describe as religious.

Sports and Spirituality

[3] Michael Novak claims that "sports are at their heart a spiritual activity, a natural religion, a tribute to grace, beauty, and excellence" (Novak, 346). Football, for example, can "touch you deeply, and to probe further and further in the depths of your psyche, you will find that it can go far more deeply than you ever had imagined" (Novak, 87). But what do Novak and others mean when they say that sports are "spiritual activities"? What are these emotions to which Barnhart and others refer? In my survey of college football fans in the South, conducted during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, I asked participants to provide me with words that described the game day experience for them. Some of the words provided may or may not have religious connotations. For example, participants described the experience as fun, great, entertaining, drunk, utter chaos, and better than sex. Whether or not these make any sense in a religious context probably depends on what kind of religion you practice. But other terms were provided that easily could be used--and, in fact, stereotypically have been used--to describe religious experience. Friendship, fellowship, and community were used 40 times (out of a total of 220 surveys completed). These certainly are positive terms used to describe the experience of religious organizations, rituals, or institutions. Excitement or exciting (46 times), tradition (17 times), awe-inspiring or awesome (15 times), passion or intensity (11 times) also were used frequently. …

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