Super Bowl is Religions Experience for Whittier Professor

Whittier College News Release

For Immediate Release - January 12, 1998
Contact: Kristin Tranquada, (562) 907-4974
Reference: 97-98/54


(WHITTIER, Calif.) -- What do devout Muslims headed for Mecca and football fans on their way to San Diego for the Super Bowl have in common? More than you might think, says Joe Price, Whittier College professor of religious studies. According to Price, the Super Bowl and its attendant hoopla qualify as a religious event, and bowl-bound fans are actually making a form of pilgrimage.

"We don't think of the Super Bowl as a religious event because we don't relate a football stadium to a church or mosque or synagogue," says Price. "But in terms of how it orients people's life patterns and demands unusual commitment from its followers, the Super Bowl operates like a religion."

Price attends the Super Bowl whenever he can -- although other commitments will probably keep him away this year -- to watch fans inside and outside the stadium. "If Martians were to observe the Super Bowl, they would notice no difference, other than in dress and location, between many things they see there and in a traditional religious setting," he says. He points to such examples as gestures (fans raise their hands to heaven when their teams score and clasp their hands as if in prayer during crucial plays), clothing (fans wear special clothing and even paint their faces and bodies to signify their loyalty) and commitment (fans believe that the strength of their belief in the team will help spur them on to victory.)

Price, who is working on a book titled The Super Bowl as Center of American Religious Pilgrimage, says viewing the event in religious terms helps explain a lot of what may seem silly to non-football fans. For instance:

Why would anyone pay that much money for a ticket to a football game when you can watch it on TV for free?

"Being there, and sharing the experience of being there, is what's important. And just as in a pilgrimage, the hardships you encounter along the way make the journey more meaningful. In Super Bowl terms, hardships mean things like how much you paid for your ticket, how hard that ticket was to get, how far away you had to park, how much grief your spouse gave you about coming to the game. The more difficult your experience, the more significant."

Why do people buy all those expensive souvenirs?

"Super Bowl souvenirs perform the same function as holy relics. Relics in religion take a person back to a transformative religious event, and souvenirs are the secular equivalent. And the authenticity of the souvenir is important -- that's why a game program bought at the event is 'better' than one bought by mail-order, even though it's the same program."

Why do we see ticketless fans hanging out at the stadium during the game, when they could be enjoying the game in comfort at home?

Those fans are like Muslim pilgrims who make it to Mecca but don't get into the holy mosque, says Price. "Just being there is important, whether or not you make it in," he says. "The closer you are to the center of things, the more significant your experience is seen as being."

Located 18 miles east of Los Angeles, Whittier College is a four-year, independent liberal arts college offering traditional liberal arts majors and strong pre-professional programs taught in the context of the liberal arts. Whittier Law School is located on a separate campus in Costa Mesa.

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