If the secular religion of America is sports, then the Super Bowl is the nation’s highest festival.
In a course added last year at Creighton University, the NFL championship — awash in American superlatives of patriotism, passion and economics — is inviting an examination central to what two theology professors hope will be the ultimate outcome of their studies: How and why do we do this very human thing called sport and can it lead us to some higher spiritual plane?
“From a Christian, Catholic perspective, sports have the potential to be so profound because they are such a deeply human experience,” said Max Engel, PhD, a professor of theology and education who is co-teaching the Magis Core course, Sport and Spirituality, with his colleague in the Department of Theology, Jay Carney, PhD.
“We know through the Incarnation that when something is authentically human, that’s deeply divine,” Engel said. “We are often at our most divine when we are passionate, creative, exerting ourselves in support of our fellow humans, our teammates. We see that in sports and we also see some of the things that also mark the other side of our humanity there, too, the conflict, the greed.”
Later in the semester, students will be working on presentations after attending a live sporting event, drawing parallels to what they might see in a religious liturgy. The Super Bowl, as a national, televised spectacle with its attendant parts including media attention — and, of course, the commercials — is a dry run for that assignment.
Engel and Carney will ask students to observe what they are seeing in the run-up to the big game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. How are the athletes, coaches, fans and commentators treating that spectacle as something approaching religious phenomenon?
“Sports may be drawing us closer to God or it may not necessarily be drawing us closer to God,” Carney said. “For the participants, it’s interesting to see that in some sports, sometimes there is that moment of prayer followed by, ‘Now let’s go out there and kill!’ I hope this is an opportunity for students to critique those moments that can dehumanize, as well as the moments that are humanizing.”
As a course, Sport and Spirituality began taking shape after the 2015 college football season when Engel witnessed Dabo Swinney (head coach of the 2016 National Champion Clemson Tigers), begin a post-game interview by saying, “All glory to God,” before proceeding into the usual platitudes of any winning coach.
It was far from the first time the Creighton University theology and education professor had heard athletes and coaches point to the Almighty in the wake of victory, but this time, he turned the brief thanksgiving over in his head a few times and wondered if there was a way for a sports-obsessed culture to think more incisively about the dual, sometimes matching roles athletics and spirituality or religion play in American society.
Approaching Carney, who also said he’s a lifelong sports fan, the two realized they could have something of a captive audience in first-year Creighton students, many of whom are just coming out of high school sports careers.
“I had a lot of students who, in their opening statement on the course, said very simply, ‘Sports were my life,’” Engel said. “That’s a massive statement. So we’ve said, ‘Let’s unpack that a little bit.’ What does that mean now? How can we now look at the effect sports have had on our lives and what does it look like through this religious perspective? Through a perspective of social justice?”
Armchair quarterbacking and theologizing aside, the students are grappling with that bromide of sports as an American religion. The ultimate goal, Carney said, is a deeper, more meaningful realization of what and how the human experience in sport looks like in terms that seek the divine and also have resonance on the earthly ground of the gridiron, the pitch, the court, the diamond, and in the simple collisions and elisions of human bodies, minds and spirits.
“We have a desire to experience something transcendent, something that goes beyond the ordinary,” Carney said. “For many Americans, sport provides these types of peak moments — often more than traditional religions. And sports also intersect with questions of social justice and injustice. Sports can affirm human dignity, but sports can also tear it down.
“We need to examine these intersections rather than ignore or avoid them. This is exactly what we’ll be doing all semester.”