"You know something that makes our family different from a lot of my friends' families?" Rosa asked me this question this week, musing out loud. "We don't have a team."
Rosa started a semester of health class this week and for some reason the first assignment was to decorate a picture of a teddy bear with things that indicate your interests and activities. Rosa said she colored in running shoes and added a violin. But when all the teddy bears were hung on the wall of the classroom she noticed that most of her classmates' bears had on a Ravens or a Redskins jersey. Some had Orieoles caps. But not her bear. Her family, she realized, doesn't have a team.
This is not, strictly speaking, true. My husband Dan is clear about being a Yankees fan--a point of lifelong contention with his brother who is Mets fan. Dan doesn't really follow the baseball season, but that doesn't matter. His support for the Yankees is more a matter of heritage and identity than a current practice. And Rosa's brothers, who were born in Boston, are of course fans of the Red Socks and the Patriots. But it isn't what they lead with.
We watch the Superbowl every year not because we're fans of the teams or super into football, but because we like to observe the occasion. The commercials, the halftime show and the snacks provoke my interest more than the teams do. The truth is, I don't really understand fandom. How does someone come to identify so strongly with a team that they would fly a flag with that team's logo on their car? I am trying to learn more about our experience of community, so I need to learn more about how professional sports inspire and cultivate a sense of group identity among their fans.
An article in today's Washington Post entitled, "What We're Really Worshipping on Sundays" sheds a bit of light on these questions. The authors repeat familiar statistics about the decline in the percentage of Americans who are affiliated with a particular religion and then point out that affiliation with sports teams is on the rise: "Fifty years ago, just three in 10 Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, that proportion exceeded six in 10." The authors then ask a provocative question:
Are Americans shifting their spiritual allegiances away from praying places and toward playing places?
Perhaps, the authors suggest, sports play a function in our that religion no longer plays in our current, multi-faith culture. Sports stadiums bring us together like great cathedrals once did. The colors and logos of sports teams give us a visual sense of unity in a ways that religious symbols cannot. A city or a state can all celebrate their team without worrying about needing to give equal time to competing teams.
In short, sports are succeeding by the measures that have traditionally define success for religious institutions: regularly immersing people in a transcendent experience and keeping them ardently committed over the long term.
If there is something in us that wants to be on a team, then I'd rather we all be sports fans than religious fanatics or political partisans. If we want to scream and cheer for our side to crush their rivals, let's bring that impulse to a football game. I want something else from my religious life--something that in the end isn't really compatible with fandom. I want my religious life to help me become more compassionate, more loving, a better channel of God's peace. I don't want to cheer for Jesus. I want to follow him. (On this point, I completely agree with Kyle Idleman.)
Now, time to make nachos....