Faith & Football
Updated: Jan 28
Millions will watch when the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs line up Sunday night after attending church earlier that day. Other believers will tune in after worshiping on Friday, Saturday, or other days. The game won't have eternal implications, but millions of faithful will gather to watch.
It will be a worship service for football in a cathedral for sports. Football and faith are deeply intertwined.
At their core, they both offer transcendent experiences one cannot find alone or during the work week, which people crave. According to surveys by Statista, 22% of Americans attend church every week or about 72 million people. NFL football viewership comes a close second on Sundays, as a popular NFL football game can garner almost 10% of our population as viewers. These numbers grow when considering other faith communities' attendance and college football viewership on Saturday.
And much like how occasional worshipers pack Christmas and Easter services, Super Bowl viewership spikes with casual fans. Last year's game with the Bengals versus the Los Angeles Rams pulled in just shy of 100 million viewers. The 2015 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots set a record at 115 million people watching in the United States.
Secondly, the zeal of believers and fans share characteristics. The word "fan" draws from the term "fanatic." Webster's dictionary defines "fa·nat·ic" as "a person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion toward some controversial matter (as in religion or politics)."
As we know, fanatics can cause trouble. Negative fanaticism can exist in the pews or the stands. We have all experienced the off-putting nature of people drunk with a sense of divine appointment or just drunk.
But at its best, fervent devotion builds deep community and a commitment to weather the trials of life or disappointing seasons. My Christian faith has provided meaning, guidance, and answers about the hereafter. While sports cannot reach that far, the potential for community is what attracts so many to both faith and football. And even when allegiances differ between teams (athletic or spiritual), I always find a special kinship with those with a shared commitment to their sporting or faith community.
I experienced this two weeks ago when I attended Cincinnati's first-round NFL playoff game to watch the Bengals take on divisional rival Baltimore Ravens. Much stood on the line. The contest came down late game heroics and a goal-line stand for Cincinnati to win. The crowd thundered with cheers. As a lifelong fan, it was euphoric. Strangers gave each other high fives and exchanged the traditional greeting of "Who Dey!"
The Bengals' success over the past 12 months feels like an answer to prayer. While successful in the 1980s, for 30 years the club failed to win a single playoff game. Watching my underdog Bengals strive for more, I've often felt the desire to pray for the team to win. Everything changed last year. The team notched that elusive playoff victory and then surged into the Super Bowl (and was one drive away from winning). Now they’re on the cusp of returning again.
Yet while I believe in the power of prayer, I doubt God cares who on Sunday. However, when Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, I am confident the prayers helped. God was there.
Lastly, similarities exist in how I personally promote the two. As a longsuffering Bengals fan living in the Washington, DC, area for more than 25 years, football community has been hard to find. However, as more people noticed the team's success and our charismatic young quarterback Joe Burrow, I happily answered their questions and invited everyone onto the bandwagon. In the same way, in my personal life, I have encouraged friends and family to attend church and welcomed their questions about the Christian faith.
On Sunday, the faithful will gather in churches and stadiums around the country. Prayers recited, Hail Marys said or thrown. God cares about everyone but probably not the outcome. (However, please God, help the Bengals beat the Chiefs.)
Knox Thames is a former diplomat who worked on international religious freedom. A lifelong Cincinnati Bengals fan, he lives in the Washington, DC, area with his family.