The Ritual of Football in the South

UT football

by David Cassidy, Pastor at Christ Community Church

There’s a pageantry to sports that is woven deeply into the rhythms of fan bases and their families. It extends past themselves and the teams they follow into the wider culture of calendar and food, education and entertainment, scheduling and finance. Whether the sport is football or futbol, golf or tennis, baseball or basketball, lacrosse or volleyball, various tribes arise around the teams that participate, and these unique social structures have various rituals, practices, expectations, and ways of celebrating the team’s play.

Take a college football gameday and suppose for a moment that you and your spouse are graduates of the University of Tennessee and loyal supporters of your Volunteers as they run on to the field to face a major SEC opponent in a nationally televised game on ESPN.

What do I already know about you?

I know you own clothing that is bedecked with a wildly luminous shade of orange, and that you will be wearing some article of it today. This will be true whether you are at the game, gathered with friends around a TV to watch the game, or while shopping at COSTCO for the supplies needed for that gathering.

I know you have an orange UT flag you fly from your car or on your house.

I know that you know the tune and the words to Rocky Top, and that you sing it lustily, especially in the presence of one hundred thousand of your closest friends at a game in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

I know that you know the significance of names like Dickey, Battles, Majors, Manning, and Martin. Oh yeah, and Kiffen.

I know you know a checkerboard is never just a checkerboard, that the Vol Walk is never just a stroll, the Band isn’t just the Band but rather ‘The Pride of the Southland Marching Band’, and that Smokey is a dog, not a bear.

I know you follow this team not only as they play during the season but as they recruit new players from high schools during the ‘off-season’. I know you hope to see your team playing in the post-season, especially in the Final Four after winning the SEC Title, and that you know the dates of the home and away games, the pecking order of the various bowl games, and the minimum number of wins necessary to qualify for a bowl and the current coach to keep his job.

I know you despise the teams from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama – unless they’re playing in a bowl game against a team that isn’t in your conference, in which case you cheer for them because of some bizarre loyalty to said conference. Ok, maybe not Florida, but that’s what I’m told.

I know you know that the SEC is not the Securities and Exchange Commission, that ‘BCS’ and ‘BS’ are roughly equivalents, and beating Vandy is expected not celebrated.

How did you learn all of that? You were probably raised in it. Or maybe you moved here and caught some flavor of Orange fever. Or maybe your kids went to college in Knoxville, became fans, and infected you with their passion and enthusiasm. You loved them and so you joined them in their fun and games, ultimately finding your own heart longing for – dare I say it? – the ritual and beauty of gameday. You became a believer, a fan.

A special calendar; unique traditions and music; large gatherings and home groups; special food and drink; colorful clothing associated with a particular day of the week – sounds like a religious ritual of some kind. In some ways, that’s exactly what it is; or rather, it works in the same way a religion works. It’s odd to me that people who publish pictures of their newborns wearing team colors would object to infant baptism; discipleship, after all, begins in infancy, as every football fan parent knows.

More to the point, I sometimes hear Church and de-churched people rail against ‘ritual and form’ when in fact ritual and forms inform our entire existence. The heart is deeply shaped by the external norms that surround our lives. Church is filled with its own pageantry, with ritual color, calendar, song, clothing, food, and ‘insider language’ (which can be off-putting and confusing at times, in much the same way that the phrase ‘safety blitz in the red zone’ can be to a football neophyte). This is all essential because it is about life formation. The Faith is not a philosophy or a mere set of intellectual affirmations; faith cannot be reduced to mere propositions, vital as the dogmas most certainly are. No, it is living and vibrant faith, an experienced faith, one entered into by being present. You can read a history of UT football but until you go to the game your notion of things will be impoverished at best. So let me invite the curious to do more than online research and show up this Sunday morning for the big game. We promise to teach you the songs and share the food. We won’t sing the National Anthem (or Rocky Top), hate any other teams, and we don’t even charge you for the seat. I hope to see you soon.

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