The National Football League (NFL) is doing something that churches across America have not been able to do: deal with issues of racism, matters of justice, and other societal concerns on Sundays. Each autumn, stadiums in major cities have taken the place of churches as sites for the masses to gather for ritual and to release spiritual energy in expressions of deep faith. Vestments are replaced by uniforms, the amice (which priests sometimes wear over their shoulders under their alb) is supplanted by shoulder pads, helmets fill in for veils or birettas, and jerseys of favorite players are now our “Sunday-best” dress up clothes. Like in cathedrals or basilicas, congregants in stadiums anticipate the rituals, sing the chants, and perform the gestures, while knowing when to respond and when to remain silent. “Liturgy” is a Greek word meaning the work of the people. Fans-as-worshippers certainly understand their role in NFL liturgy and take it very seriously.
Though they don’t go as far as one Catholic University, where opponents face west to symbolize darkness while the home team looks east to greet the light of God’s Son that shines upon them or slips in spiritual numbers with ten marching guardsmen who wear large hats to make them each seven-foot tall (corresponding to the number of commandments and sacraments), the NFL is just as direct. Decals on players’ helmets read, “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “Inspire Change, “Choose Love,” “Black Lives Matter,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Salute to Service,” and “Say Their Story.” These proclamations are viewed and digested by millions of observers who, in between shouts and gulps, contemplate the messages—probably more than they do most sermons or homilies. Fans learn the backstories of players and heroes while witnessing Black, White, Hispanic, and players from other ethnic backgrounds come together, work together, and succeed and fail together, while supporting each other on a common mission. From locker rooms and meeting rooms to practice fields and Sunday’s show, they are a band of brothers that look out for and take care of each other irrespective of color or politics, much like the first disciples. The NFL’s commitment to social justice is lived out powerfully as an example for all citizens.
It doesn’t stop there. Each October, pink apparel is added to their ceremonial garb, drawing our attention to breast cancer and other diseases that change or destroy lives. They raise awareness of social ills and health challenges in ways that many churches wish we could. It pains me to think that many Catholics are inspired more by Sunday football than Sunday Mass; but at the same time, I am glad that, even though the churches have lost credibility, the message we seek to proclaim is made strong by this other prevalent Sunday ritual. I am a big fan of the social justice initiatives of the NFL!
“Never on Sunday” was the title of a movie about a prostitute who was guided to find a moral compass to follow, if even only on God’s Day; it was later the title of numerous songs and even a dance. It reminds me that there are many bad things that happen out in our streets most days of the week while Sunday is set aside as sacred. While many Catholics have become passive about church attendance on the day of the Lord, we must still do our part any day to end racism, inspire change, and all the other things that we know are right to do. We cannot simply expect God to carry us across the goal line to the victory of heaven’s gate—or as Bobby Bare sang in the mid-70s, “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalpost of Life”—we must actively live out the social Gospel. If the NFL can lead us to a place of greater social awareness, we would be wise to follow them. And if, on Sunday, they can help us rise above racism and other social ills, let’s cheer them on and celebrate it.