Sunday, January 25, 2015

Super Bowl Idolatry

Like many Americans, I enjoy a good football game. While not particularly a professional football fan, I do follow the Kansas City Chiefs. (As many of you know, the Chiefs played in the very first Super Bowl, which was on Jan. 15, 1967.) I watched at least some of almost all the Chiefs games in their rather mediocre 2014 season.
Next Sunday I am going to be preaching for the first time in many months, so I am looking forward to doing that. As one of the lectionary Scripture passages is from 1 Corinthians 8, I decided to preach about idolatry, past and present.
Upon realizing that February 1 is Super Bowl Sunday, I began to reflect upon the idolatrous characteristics of the Super Bowl. In searching the Internet, I found that I am not the first to have such thoughts.
Thus, I may not watch any of the Super Bowl—mainly because with all of the hype it seems to border on being idolatrous.

New USAmerican "Golden Calf"?

Consider the cost of attending the Super Bowl. Five days ago I checked to see what it would cost to purchase a ticket. The most expensive one, and there was only one at this price, was $115,000!
Most were much cheaper: I found 64 tickets priced from $10,000 to $13,500. The cheapest tickets, and there were 226 of them left, were $2,491.35. That is the price for just one football game! And even the parking costs more than $100.
In addition, millions are spent for the television advertisements: it is reported that a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl costs $4,500,000—not to mention the cost of making the ads.
In addition to those exorbitant prices, the football “idols” make outlandish salaries. For this past season, the top twenty players in the NFL made salaries of from $14,000,000 to $22,000,000. Some made more than $1,000,000 a game!
Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots who will be playing in the Super Bowl, isn’t even in the top 20. But he, and others, makes a great sum of money from endorsements.
Of course, there are other idolatrous segments of American society, such as is seen in the world of entertainment and advertisement. For example, Tom Brady’s wife is Gisele Bundchen, a model.
According to this August 2014 article on, since 2002 Gisele has made more money than any other model in the world. “At 34, she is still sitting pretty at the top of the world’s highest-paid models list, pulling in an estimated $47 million before taxes and fees in the last 12 months.”
The article goes on to say, “Bundchen also made about $16 million more than quarterback husband Tom Brady’s $31.3 million annual paycheck.”
Actually, Super Bowl is just one part of the extensive hedonistic idolatry of this country with such excessive emphasis placed on pleasure and consumption, spurred on by millionaire models and multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ads.
In a Jan. 22 online article in Christianity Today, Kutter Callaway of Fuller Theological Seminary says, “The NFL is, in a real sense, our civic religion. It has Sunday worship services, mid-week Thursday celebrations, patron saints (Hall of Famers), and a liturgical calendar that begins with the NFL draft (in April) and ends with the Super Bowl (in February).”
But rather than confronting Super Bowl idolatry, many churches buy into the hype and have watch parties and other activities embracing it. even suggests making Super Bowl day “Football Sunday.”
There is a legitimate place for athletic contests, even championship football games. But let’s not make an idol of them!


  1. This morning I was reading Deuteronomy 5 about God giving Israel, and all those living with them, the 10 Commandments with His terrifying voice. My first thought was on the 7th Commandment, "You shall not steal", and the wise understanding of a Muslim father to his son in the movie "Kite Runner" of this being the greatest commandment regarding human relations. The next thought was on the Reformed understanding of the 4th Commandment, "Six day shall you labor" - the commandment to work and be productive. Finally my thoughts turned to the 2nd commandment to not produce the image of anything God created in order to bow down and worship it - idolatry. Within Christendom there are significant and divergent variations in the interpretation, and application of the understanding of important words. Idol is just one of those words which causes divisions. Americanism, both religious and secular, just adds to the confusion. Certainly Americanism has lead to aberrant theology in several areas. I agree that the focus on the vicarious nature of sports is not productive or healthy. But neither is politics or the pop media in there promotion of divisive messages and personalities (celebrities). So much is wrong. But then all the ills of the world are not isolated to our country - they are pretty universal. Maybe the issue is not idolatry, but gluttony, and escapism.
    I am not a fan of celebrity, and not really a fan of American Football, but I do enjoy the Association Football World Cup, Rugby World Cup, and the Olympics, and I do have "heroes" whom I look up to (although not in sports or politics).

    I guess I will stay on my sojourn, which is pointed toward traditional Christianity, and considered aberrant by so many others within Christendom. Idolatrous? I hope not... But God, help me not to steal.

    1. Thanks for sharing your reflections, 1Sojourner.

      Although the Super Bowl in particular and professional sports in general can be seen as at least bordering on idolatry, there are, as you point out, many other aspects of contemporary society which can also be seen as idolatrous.

  2. While I agree with you that sport, entertainment and other industry salaries as well as associated expenditures are ridiculous, I am not sure whether you are saying this makes football idolatrous or if it is the churches recognizing a secular game that makes it idolatrous or both. NFL as the civic religion is probably true also, but I was too lazy to investigate the context of Kutter Callaway's comments so I do not know if that is a bad thing.

    Just for fun though, I would point out that NFL followers are a lot like some Christians today. Only practicing the religion on Sundays and Thursdays as well as endorsing war are similarities that come to mind. Anyone knows that if you want to have a daily civic religion, you have to turn to baseball. Regarding the war endorsement, I refer you to George Carlin's comparison of baseball and football that can be found by searching the web or using the following link that avoids the YouTube advertisement.

    1. Thanks, Dennis, for your comments--and for linking to the interesting video of George Carlin.

      Like Dr. Adams below, and probably like you, I enjoy baseball more than football. But in a way I dread for the new season to begin--and am looking forward to it just the same.

      With professional football, there are just 16 regular season games. (And, unfortunately, for the Chiefs this year no playoff games.) But with baseball there is a game almost every day. As you say, that is where we have "a daily civic religion."

      And perhaps with all the hype at World Series time, such as we saw here in Kansas City last fall, maybe it borders on being idolatrous also.

    2. Dennis, I think what you sent me in an email is worth posting here also:

      :There have been comments about income inequality and rightfully so, but I have not seen anyone express the connection between cable bills and the contracts to carry sports and movies.

      "Whenever you see that the NFL, MLB, SEC or others have gotten billions of dollars for TV rights, you can count on cable bills increasing again. Since many people regardless of their own incomes believe cable is a necessity, that is a direct transfer of money from the poor to the rich.

      "The highest bidders (e.g., ESPN, TBS, CBS, FOX) are in the base package, which means everyone pays or goes without."

  3. You have me thinking about this thing called "idolatry." Of course, I've written and preached about it over the years, but it's not really an easy thing to get clarity on. I want to say, tentatively, that idolatry occurs when something less than God takes on ultimate importance in our life, reducing life to something that is not transcendent, and thus depriving us of our sense of transcendence. But any human activity can do this, not only sports, money, nationalism, but also romance, religion, and so on.

    It's complicated by the fact that we come to experience transcendence in and through these very mundane realities of life. The thrill of the game in sports takes us outside ourselves. So does the all-enveloping experience of romantic love. One of the most obvious is nationalism; few things get us beyond the machinations of everyday life (its menial tasks, boredom, trivialities, tedium) like the grand sense of patriotism. Religion, of course, should point to the transcendent, but anybody with any experience inside religion is aware of the politics, the pettiness, the preoccupations with doctrine, ritual, form and function that seduce us into taking it too seriously.

    A Baptist evangelical friend of mine thinks I was committing idolatry when I participated in a Hindu service on the banks of the Ganges several years ago. Was I? I think that same friend is guilty of bibliolatry, given his fundamentalistic views of the Bible and Christian doctrine. Is he?

    If, on Superbowl Sunday, I join with family and friends to watch the thing, indulging them in their enthusiasm and fellowship rather than studying my Bible and/or praying by myself, is that more or less idolatrous that my own preoccupation with my righteousness? Hm...

    You've opened for us probably the most important spiritual issue. But it ain't an easy one.

  4. Pastor George, one of my Thinking Friends in Canada, sent these comments:

    "Wow! love it. You have hit the nail on the head. I share similar sentiments, i.e., although I am/was an ardent hockey fan, I have refused to watch any of the National Hockey League (NHL) games for the past two decades or more simply because of 'violence' in the games and the ridiculously high salaries players receive.

    " you name it, in Canada, we seem to have things turned around. The thing that irritates me, too, is the fact that many fans cannot really afford to spend this kind of money to attend games but they do and then they 'cry out' and say how poor they are....that "bugs" me.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your take on the upcoming Superbowl Game and the idolatry associated with it."

  5. Thinking Friend Melvin Bradshaw, my 90-year-old former colleague in Japan who now lives in Virginia, shares this:

    "I agree with you strongly. AND in addition to the idolatry football is the cause of more physical injuries than any other sport.

    "I don't plan to watch the Super Bowl because of the idolatry and injuries potential."

    1. Melvin, thanks for bringing up the problem of physical injuries that occur in football.

      What you mention, as well as my son Keith below, certainly needs to be considered seriously. This is a different issue from the "idolatry" I wrote about, but perhaps I will address that issue later.

  6. Thinking Friend John Bush, my 92-year-old fellow church member, is a fairly avid sports fan. I told him yesterday after church that he might disagree with my blog posting, which he hadn't seen yet. So yesterday afternoon he wrote,

    "Believe it or not, I agree with you. I enjoy watching but wouldn't be too upset if I would be doing something else!"

    And then he sent a second email with this brief message:

    "P.S. I will probably watch it since I have nothing else going on of any importance!"

  7. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky writes,

    "I share your sentiments, Leroy. As Neil Postman said quite a few years ago, we are amusing ourselves to death. Football, like other sports, is entertainment, which edges God out of our lives."

    1. I didn't know (or remember) who Postman was. Here's what I found in Wikipedia:

      Neil Postman (1931-2003) was an American author, media theorist and cultural critic. He is best known by the general public for his 1985 book about television, "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

    2. I like that term, amusement. So descriptive of the American culture.

  8. My feelings on the SuperBowl are not as strong as my feelings on college football here in Dixie. It is completely out of control. Case in point: UAB dropped football and the president may end up losing his job over it--Birmingham Southern (a great sister institution to Samford University, where I teach) dropped several academic programs due to financial problems and it barely caused a stir. Granted, the UAB president may not have handled the decision in the best way, but the real issue is "We're talking about football!" If there is another god here in Alabama, then the liturgy is primarily the chanting of "Roll Tide" or "War Eagle."

  9. I see three issues mixed together: idolatry, blood sport, and income inequality. So many people have said that football is a religion that I could not successfully web search for the particular quote I was seeking. Football, like boxing, hockey and NASCAR has a blood sport element. We are always wondering if someone, hopefully on the other team, will get hurt. Finally, those ridiculous salaries are more than idolatry, they are a symptom of the economic crisis of our age (and many others). When most of the wealth flows to a few at the top, both the economy and the people suffer. Even information flow is impeded, as the wealthy seek to maximize their profits and minimize resistance. We live in a time not unlike when the Roman elite invented the "bread and circus" distraction for the masses. As 1 Timothy 6:10 tells us, "The love of money is the root of all evil. . ." (KJV)

  10. My son Keith, who is also a Thinking Friend, sent the following comments:

    "I too wonder about the Super Bowl as the pinnacle event glorifying consumerism, but am most concerned about the violence and injury to the players, as I find it easy not to buy tickets to the spectacle or even most of the products advertised."

  11. Local Thinking Friend Will Adams writes,

    "I agree with you completely. Long ago I opted out of pro football, don't even watch college football. My addiction is Royals (and Phillies) baseball, which of course has its share of idolatry.

    But your blog lacks something I was looking for. What, if anything, can be done about it? Probably nothing, but I'd like to see suggestions."

    1. Dr. Adams, thanks for posting your comments -- and for the challenge.

      You are right: I didn't suggest anything that could be done about the "idolatry" of the Super Bowl and the widespread hedonism in the country.

      It is hard to know what could possibly be done, other than non-participation -- and perhaps seeking to raise the consciousness of others, which was partly the intention of this article.

  12. Eric Dollard, another local Thinking Friend, shares these comments:

    "Although I believe physical activity and sports are important, sports has become the most popular religion in the world, at least by a somewhat twisted definition of religion. I do not watch sporting events on TV because of general lack of interest.

    "I will admit to attending a Chicago Bulls basketball game last Thursday in Chicago; it was the only time I have ever attended an NBA game (I have also been to only one NFL game in my life). The game was something of circus with, between quarters, dancing dogs, acrobats performing slam dunks, senior citizen women shaking their booties, and eye-popping cheerleaders.

    "In addition, there were lots of ads for various material goods. It was essentially an orgy of materialism and hedonism, albeit a rather entertaining one.

    "Despite the entertainment, I will not watch the Super Bowl this Sunday."