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Football and the Need to be Epic


AP Photo/Reinhold Matay

Tom Hoopes - published on 10/06/14

The game showcases all that is best, worst and weirdest about America today

It is fall in America, and that means it is time for ground-shaking showdowns between helmeted men wearing bright-colored costumes surrounded by tiers of screaming fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I love football. I hate the bad rap it has gotten. Saturday Night Live featured a skit in which players announced themselves for the television by name and crime instead of name and college — but statistics say NFL players’ arrest records are half that of society at large. It stands to reason. To succeed in the NFL takes extraordinary self-discipline and hard work.

I also recently rediscovered the joy of watching football on Sunday afternoons, something I hadn’t done for most of my married life. But that didn’t prepare me for what I found when I went to Arrowhead Stadium to watch the historic Chiefs vs. Patriots Monday Night Football game.

In the flesh, football culture seemed to say a lot about American culture.

Everything about the game was exaggerated in importance. We sang the National Anthem while a football-field sized flag was unfurled down below. At the words “the rockets red glare,” red rockets glared. When we sang “the bombs bursting in air,” fireworks crackled above us.

As the starters’ names were called, huge balls of flame shot up from two columns that the players ran in between. We could feel the wave of heat across our faces where we sat in the upper deck.

The game seemed to showcase all the best, worst and weirdest about America today.

The Best: Fans showed unabashed unity and love for each other, high-fiving anyone with a raised hand, and talking like old friends about the action unfolding below them. This crowd sang the Star Spangled Banner, cheered the U.S. Marine Silent Drill Platoon, and roared their appreciation for the firefighters honored at the game.

The Worst: Many in the crowd raised middle fingers high as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took the field (while others delivered the same message verbally). Shouts of “Break Brady’s knee!” filled the air, recalling without shame the time the Chiefs did just that. On the way in, a fan stood outside the gates finishing a six-pack of Sam Adams, smile wide and eyes at half-mast with a Patriots helmet at his feet. On the way out, we passed a stumbling, handcuffed Chiefs fan hurling invective at two cops. They were drunken bookends on a game filled with drunkenness.

The Weird: In messages to the fans, the Jumbotron kept referring to the stadium as “The Chiefs Kingdom”: We were to “respect the kingdom” and “protect the kingdom.” Each Chiefs touchdown (and there were four of them) was punctuated by more rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air — as well as runners hauling Chiefs flags around the football field, and a cheerleader galloping across the middle of the field on horseback.

As the over-the-topness of it all ratcheted up around me, a thought rose to my mind which I couldn’t shake: Football is the national pastime of a culture of narcissism.

Ours is a culture where every action hero has to save the world by the end of the movie and every child has to get a trophy at the end of the activity. And there is football in the middle of it, treating each touchdown like the Fourth of July. Ours is a culture where brand names are slick and exciting and spark a longing which can only be satisfied by spending. And there is football, where everything about the game is branded and brought to you by someone who wants your money.

In our culture, we want wedding photos, barbecues and Halloween costumes to be “epic” and “awesome”and if they aren’t, we know how to make them look like they were, on Facebook. Football performs the same function, putting ordinary folks like us—my son and me—up on its Jumbotron, showing the world our epic time at the game. 
In our culture, we click on articles titled “Celebrities As Kids,” “Red Carpet Dresses” and “Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Twins.” Football takes our identification with celebrities a step further: We wear  the names of our favorite celebrities on our backs.

But, as I say, I love football. I know it is just one example, and not the root cause, of the culture of narcissism.

The desire for life to be epic is innate in the human heart. We long for more beauty than we can ever find on earth, more truth than we can ever fathom and nothing but absolute justice will satisfy us.

These are natural desires that the Church understands.

The best churches are soaring structures meant to dazzle and overwhelm us like a Jumbotron. The Mass’s liturgy at its best is a larger than life ritual, filling us with a sense of the importance of what is going on. The vestments and altar dressings and candles and incense fill our senses subtly and soberly with the same message: Something transcendent is happening here.

In the end, the culture of narcissism is a misplaced desire for the greatness that only God can give, because only God owns it.

It would be a shame to let football, or video games, or TMZ cheat us out of what we really want: An intimate encounter with the Creator of it all.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

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