Some time ago on T&S, I survived a discussion on the history of Sunday (got no t-shirt though). That knock-down drag-out event included some talk of sports, but overall was pretty general. In light of the upcoming Super Bowl I thought it might be fun(?) to look at the rise of Sunday sport more specifically. So get out the nachos and dip. Or lace up the gloves, or whatever.
This isn’t meant to provoke another tiresome debate over what’s right or wrong on Sunday, but to try to understand how sport became common that day. I hope comments will go in that direction. I also hope for world peace.
Super Bowl Sunday is such a prominent part of the American cultural landscape that maybe only a few egghead historians (or die-hard Sabbatarians) would even stop to wonder how in the world “Sunday” and “Super Bowl” ever wound up in the same phrase at all.
It wasn’t inevitable.
The Puritans would have been horrified at the phrase. Most of them were not against sport per se, but they were most energetically against sport on Sunday.
They were convinced that the Sabbath had shifted from Saturday to Sunday, and that the Sabbath commandment’s ban on work somehow banned play as well.
But most Americans, even if they were Christians, were not Puritans, and for these others Sunday wasn’t just a day that might include play but was actually the ideal day for play. Most, after all, didn’t know such a thing as the weekend, an English invention, until after 1920: until then, their only free day was Sunday.
The competing visions of Sunday were strong enough that struggles over Sunday sport, and Sunday anything else, were the predictable result, extending all the way from colonial times to the 1920s.
In other words, to precisely the time when Sunday professional football was born. The national debate ended just about then too, and mostly in favor of the Sunday sport people.
The NFL became possible at that moment for two main reasons.
The first was practical: Sunday was the only real day available for the pros. Saturday, the other serious possibility, was ruled by college football, which was far more popular than any pro version into the 1950s. The earliest pro leagues, made up mostly of factory workers, tried Saturdays, but they couldn’t compete with colleges and folded fast.
Right around the time of World War I a new league in the Midwest, which became the NFL, had the idea to try Sunday instead. Some professional baseball teams (not all) had tried the same for decades, once they realized that they drew their biggest crowds that day.
The NFL decided to imitate them: they built (well, mostly rented), and people came, even if for long in fewer numbers than college crowds.
But there was a second reason, besides convenience, why Sunday football came to pass (no pun intended): growing respectability, even reverence, for sport in general.
Games couldn’t be moved to Sunday simply because the day was available. Attitudes about sport and Sunday play had to change as well. Because though not all fans belonged to churches, of course, the vast majority did; in fact people were joining churches in record proportions by now. And without their general approval, there would be no pro sports on Sunday—as even those who liked Sunday play weren’t so sure they liked pro sports on their sacred day.
Those hesitations were overcome largely because sport itself was made sacred.
By 1900, more and more Christian leaders were mixing sport into a religious message often called “Muscular Christianity.” Mormons joined in this movement too: this was just about when gyms began showing up in church buildings and health became a big Mormon identifier.
In other words, religious leaders did to sport what had been done to so many other aspects of religion over the millennia: they “sacralized” it, bringing something once seen as profane into the realm of the sacred.
Jesus was now held up not merely as a perfect spiritual leader, but a perfect physical specimen and the “captain of the team.” Games were sanctified with prayer, even transformed into prayer. Father John O’Hara called Notre Dame football a “new crusade” which showed that “play can be offered as a prayer in honor of the Queen of Peace.” And Coach Jesse Harper of Notre Dame said that he got the “Notre Dame shift” (sending a man in motion), from Amos Alonzo Stagg, who in turn got it from God.
Reverent attitudes about sport were not universal, and they did not automatically lead to the acceptance of Sunday play. But once sport was sacralized, it proved difficult (and even seemed nonsensical) to banish it completely from society’s holy day.
Most ancient and more recent civilizations celebrated their holiest days with some form of sport—played not merely for fun, but to act out the great cosmic struggle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, even life and death. Such things transcended ordinary time, precisely one of the goals of a holy day.
At any pro football game today you’ll find the struggles and the timelessness in abundance. The ecstasy and crying and anger (not all of it beer-induced) suggest that fans are there for something more meaningful than fun or more important than their jobs or daily lives. The same holds true at BYU games, even without the beer.
Sport has always been uncannily good at condensing and giving tangible form to an achievement-oriented society’s highest and usually invisible values: courage, physical prowess, and especially winning.
Once Christian leaders and coaches saw the ability of sport to promote those virtues, and sacralize them, then Christian followers did the same—even on Sunday, when those virtues were arguably on greater display than any other day because of the proficiency of the athletes.
And make no mistake, winning was the greatest virtue of all, even on Sunday. Vince Lombardi was famous for his supposed quip that winning was the only thing, but less known is how central this sentiment was to his religious makeup. He found winning, and his other cherished values, present in both football and Catholicism and thus had no second thought about whether the game was suitable for Sunday, or whether to give away tickets to nuns and priests.
Other factors also mattered in the growth of Sunday football. Pro sport’s twin, business, was also sacralized in the US. So was a growing consumer culture, which included spectator sports. Also vital was a strong dose of patriotism: peculiarly American pro sports such as football and baseball, which began with the Star-spangled Banner from World War I on, were most sacred of all.
The growth of Sunday sport didn’t occur everywhere at once. Leading the way was the Midwest, where a largely Catholic and non-Puritan Protestant population had few qualms about Sunday recreation after church. The Northeast moved more slowly, thanks to its Puritan roots. The South, more relaxed on Sunday in the nation’s early years, was stricter by the 1920s and was thus the last holdout: pro teams emerged there only in the 1960s.
But clearly Sunday football in America is now widely entrenched, and Super Bowl Sunday most of all. Sunday debates about anything are all local now, or occur within specific religions or groups, which any Mormon knows. But that some churches put a giant television right in the middle of the building on Super Bowl Sunday, hold a “holy huddle,” “pre-game prayer,” a cheer, and a pep talk with the “team owner,” Jesus, reflects the generally successful sacralization of Sunday sport.
Super Bowl Sunday now has all the hallmarks of a holy day, whether understood in the sense of civic or traditional religion. The Super Bowl does not occur on Sunday coincidentally, or in spite of it being Sunday, but precisely because Sunday in general, and Super Bowl Sunday in particular, are holy to Americans, however differently they may understand the term.
For it is on holy days that a society collectively shows, for better or worse, what it values most. On display during the Super Bowl are the values of winning, religion, spectacle, festival, money, consuming rather than producing, and much more.
As James Michener once put it, an NFL game (and especially this game) is a strange mix of religion, strip-tease, violence, and patriotism.
All supremely American.
Most Mormons probably don’t love all of these values. Some won’t participate in Sunday sport at all, whether as athletes or spectators, and they always get a pat on the back for it.
But Mormons love most of these values enough that plenty have played in the Super Bowl, and far more have cheered them on, even felt a surge of pride when a player’s Mormonness or BYU connection is mentioned (except die-hard Ute fans maybe). Even if they may not cheer quite as loudly on Sunday as some other people. At least until Austin Collie catches a pass.