I teach Sunday school for children. On Sunday morning of Super Bowl 2022, we learned about young King Josiah, who began his reign at age eight (the same as some kids in our class) and did “what was right in the sight of the Lord.” He sets about repairing the temple, and when renovations uncover the long-lost book of the law, and it is read aloud, he tears his clothes, “because [his] ancestors did not obey the words of this book.” After inquiring of the Lord, Josiah cleans house, smashing, destroying, and burning the array of idols that have accumulated in and around the house of the Lord.
Our twenty-first-century idols are not made of wood and stone. They are implicit and not easily destroyed. Reading Josiah’s story in 2 Kings, most Christians find themselves rooting for Josiah. But average Judeans under Josiah’s rule had, over time, merged their idolatrous practices with their more orthodox religious observance, without noticing the stark contradiction we see with clarity centuries later. As sociologists Jay Coakley and Elizabeth Pike write, paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, “It can be difficult to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”
That’s the thing about idols. The most dangerous are not the obvious ones but rather the ones we take for granted. The Super Bowl masquerades as a public good but participates in some of the most celebrated, supported, and hidden-in-plain-sight idols of our age—violence, avarice, eroticism, and consumerism.
The Super Bowl packages these together and presents it to us as entertainment. Peeling back the layers of social class, race, and gender—three social forms that combine to produce the stratified order we take for granted in our society—we can start to see the Super Bowl as a potent manifestation of the City of Man. A City that blurs and perverts the City of God.
Social Class in the Super Bowl
A Nielson survey found that more than 208 million viewers watched the Super Bowl in 2022. Nearly 90 percent of all people using a television that evening were watching the game, the highest Super Bowl share on record. Tickets to the live event cost around $10,000 per seat on average. With a capacity crowd of over seventy thousand, the revenue generated was roughly $700 million, plus concessions, plus commercials, plus revenues from sports betting. In 2022, advertising prices hit record highs, with some thirty-second ad spots costing as much as $7 million dollars—just over $233,333 per second!
In some ways this simply reflects the realities of free-market capitalism, but it’s a damning indictment of America’s priorities. What’s more, many major league stadiums are built and maintained using sales tax revenues—that is, they are funded by those who live and work in the cities. It’s difficult to tell how much public money (from sales taxes or tax breaks) was used to recoup the cost of around $5 billion to build the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the site of this year’s Super Bowl. But the AT&T Stadium in Dallas received $444 million in public funding for its construction. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis received a whopping $619 million in public funds. Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta received about $200 million from tax revenues, and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa drew $168.5 million from public coffers. All these venues hosted Super Bowls between 2011 and the present.
The staggering cost of building these venues is often justified as an economic boon for the community. But the sociology of sport literature documents how city officials funnel tax revenues to NFL team owners for new stadium costs, while schools, libraries, and after-school programs in their cities stay grossly underfunded or shut down entirely. Investments in pro stadiums, in fact, tend to have little long-term benefit for cities, while investments in schools, housing, and other infrastructure offers much greater long-term benefit. The reality is that most revenue generated from professional sports stadiums does not go back into the community in which the stadium is located, but rather is invested and spent elsewhere. Investment in entertainment generates more entertainment.
While football players are pointing skyward, giving God a bit of credit, the Jesus they claim to worship is outside the stadium. The needs of vulnerable people in a society—widows, orphans, and strangers—are overridden for business as usual.
All this might be written off as harmless amusement or diversion for the masses. But many among those masses are seen as a liability to the entertainment machine. Multiple news stories offer first-person accounts of how encampments of homeless people living near SoFi Stadium were literally pushed out of the way, and their belongings taken, to clear things out and clean things up for the 2022 Super Bowl. The rich physically push out the poor, so their entertainment is not compromised by the uncomfortable presence of those in need. While football players are pointing skyward, giving God a bit of credit, the Jesus they claim to worship is outside the stadium. The needs of vulnerable people in a society—widows, orphans, and strangers—are overridden for business as usual.
Human rights abuses associated with big sport are even worse beyond US borders. News articles about migrant worker abuse in Qatar, the site of the spectacular 2022 World Cup, abound, with some sources stating that sixty-five hundred migrant workers have died there since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. Even if that’s too high, even if it’s just half that, it’s still too much. But the games go on. Perhaps the worship assemblies God hates are located in Super Bowl and World Cup stadiums.
Reinforcing a Racialized Society
The Super Bowl reproduces, legitimates, and normalizes the racialized social order of the United States—something that profoundly affects many who call America their home. While most are familiar with the term “racist,” far fewer understand the concept of racialization. Majority-group people may legitimately take issue with a charge of racism—something that implies intentionality—yet fail to grasp the larger and related problem of racialization.
Sociologist Michael Emerson explains that the concept of racialization is rooted in the principle of inequality. In the United States, African Americans are unequal to whites on all social indicators, including income, wealth, health and mortality, social mobility, mortgage rates, child poverty, politics, criminal justice, education, housing, and a host of other variables. In other words, inequality maps along racial lines. Racial inequality is vast, measurable, predictable, and stable in the United States.
The Super Bowl offers the public a magnified view of the racialized order. With few exceptions, the Super Bowl displays white team owners, a white commissioner, white head coaches, white quarterbacks, mostly black defenders, and predominantly white fans in the stadium. All this in a league where some 60 percent of players identify as black, and 70 percent as people of colour. In fact, in Super Bowl history, there have only been seven black quarterbacks, two of whom appeared in two Super Bowls. While black NFL players certainly make a great deal of money, the lion’s share of NFL rewards go to whites—especially white owners. Some years the Super Bowl shows a bit of progress and fans may see a black coach or a black quarterback in play. But, for the most part, the Super Bowl offers the public a pleasurable experience that does little more than ruffle the status quo of a racialized society.
Many think that sports are a place where African Americans get ahead—where they have the same chance as anyone else. Blacks, however, are underrepresented in all sports save three. African American boys have a significantly greater likelihood of becoming attorneys or medical doctors than professional athletes. And the Super Bowl does little to dispel the cultural mythology that envelops young black athletes and diverts their focus from other, perhaps more realistic opportunities. Few institutions do a better job at reinforcing the racialized status quo and legitimating various other forms of inequality than the NFL and its iconic, culture-defining event, the Super Bowl. And few Christians seem to voice opposition to this aspect of the NFL/Super Bowl apparatus: In supporting the Super Bowl—if not its peripherals like the halftime show or crass commercials—Christians mostly stand in lockstep solidarity with the “world” from which we claim distinction. The Super Bowl represents an idealized world, but not an inevitable one.
Gender in the Super Bowl
Every year I offer a sociology of sport course at the theologically conservative Presbyterian college where I teach. Because this course takes place in the spring semester, I time a lecture on the Super Bowl to correspond with the actual event. Much of my lecture centres on identifying and analyzing the roles played by women in this secular festival.
I’m convinced that almost nothing objectionable, no matter how crass or fallen, will deter us from giving the event our enthusiastic support the very next year. In 2014, Bruno Mars, the Super Bowl halftime show headliner, sang his hit “Locked Out of Heaven,” serenading us with words that combined religious and sexual imagery with dubious theology:
You bring me to my knees, You make me testify
You can make a sinner change his ways
Open up your gates ’cause I can’t wait to see the light
And right there is where I wanna stay
’Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah, your sex takes me to paradise
And it shows, yeah, yeah, yeah
’Cause you make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven
When Mars and his all-male band performs this for a Super Bowl audience, they bring their message to just about every ten-year-old boy and girl in the nation and beyond. The event is billed as family entertainment and is broadcast on prime-time network television. Were I to sing this to some ten-year-old in a smaller setting, I’d be arrested. Yet the next day in the Christian circles in which I move, I heard little besides praise for the show Mars put on.
In 2015 Katy Perry headlined the Super Bowl. As part of her act, she performed a highly erotic rendition of her hit song “I Kissed a Girl” while “twerking” with Lenny Kravitz. At the time, Kravitz was fifty-one and Perry thirty-one, just four years older than Kravitz’s daughter.
At a cursory glance Perry’s song seems to be about lesbian experimentation. But make no mistake, this is about garden-variety heterosexual male fantasy—the sort of thing with which our culture has not only become comfortable but celebrates.
The year 2022 brought rap and hip-hop to the biggest stage in the world. The headliners included the likes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg—some of the biggest names in misogyny. Snoop has turned the trivialization of women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies, into an extremely lucrative industry. Dr. Dre is, as one columnist put it, a serial abuser, well known for punching women, including the mother of several of his children while she was pregnant.
Critics of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s choice for Super Bowl halftime headliners in 2022 pointed out the obvious hypocrisy in his stated concern with the NFL’s problem with racism and gender-based violence, while at the same time hiring some of the best-known misogynists on the planet. And as long as Snoop and the others keep it reasonably clean for one night, we marvel at the show. Wasn’t it great? Read their lyrics to your daughters. Read their lyrics to women at the places you work. Read their lyrics at your synods and general assemblies.
Giving Up Ground for the God Outside the Stadium
Our allegiance to the Super Bowl, and by extension the idols that lurk beneath it, can hinder us from listening to, taking seriously, and bringing to public expression the stories of those marginal ones buried under the deafening noise of the dominant culture. The homeless ones outside SoFi Stadium. The women trivialized, objectified, used, and hurt by the Snoop Doggs of this world. The African American boys and girls blinkered by racialized horizons. The children from poor parts of our cities who sit in underfunded schools. Jesus stood with such as these, and advocated for a world that honoured them, cared for them, privileged them, listened to them, and took them seriously. We have the opportunity to stand with King Jesus, but he’s most likely standing outside the stadium, pushed aside by those rushing for the $10,000 seats.
Abraham Kuyper, Dutch statesman and neo-Calvinist theologian, famously stated, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Though I agree with the point Kuyper is making, I’ve never really cared for the statement’s tone. To me it seems a bit “grabby” for Jesus, as I understand him. I prefer altering it to read, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Ours!” We join with Christ in exercising just dominion over God’s creation. However, our allegiance to the Super Bowl to me represents one square inch we refuse to concede.
The Super Bowl is the symbolic epicentre of American culture, and it participates in forms of violence, racism, misogyny, inequality, and disregard for the poor that place Jesus decisively outside the stadium. Though American football is rooted in the military principle of holding ground and never giving an inch, perhaps this is one inch we should concede.