The Religion of Roll Tide: God, Pilgrimage, and Alabama Football

It the moment I’m writing this, there are 121 days, 13 hours, 19 minutes, and 7 seconds until football season begins. Where I am from, this is sacred knowledge. When my college friends relive their childhoods, there is often talk of carefree Saturday mornings: cartoons while curled up in pajamas or reading the comics with Dad. For most of the year, my Saturdays mornings reflect theirs, but when the Alabama weather falls below 90 and school is back in session, there is only one agenda for Saturday mornings: football. My neighborhood at home is split. You can either drive two hours to Auburn (Auburn University) or forty-five minutes to Tuscaloosa (University of Alabama) for home games, and if the games are away, every member of your family will be staked out in front of the TV. This is every year, every fall, every Saturday.

Most people in the South do not look at their day-to-day lives and consider what they do outside of church as inherently religious. Most do not see their everyday lives as a place for practicing pilgrimage. Yet, most Southerners practice religions and go on pilgrimage every Saturday during football season. If we take an analytical framework, at least are two arguments for the relationship between pilgrimage, football, and religion: one, that football can be made secular pilgrimage, or two, that football is a religious pilgrimage because football can be made a religion. This essay argues the latter, stating that football fits the criteria for post-modern religious pilgrimage using classical and contemporary scholarly definitions of religion.  This essay contends that making the trek to Bryant-Denny stadium for Saturdays in the fall is just as much of a pilgrimage as walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

What makes football a religion? Kent Babb writes that “in the Southern part of America, college football fits somewhere between pastime and obsession, and like church, it is more than a weekend activity. Nothing says more about a Southerner than the team he cheers on Saturdays and the church he attends on Sundays — ‘the two things we love the most,’ says author Chad Gibbs, Auburn fan and Methodist.” Babb writes about two cultural forces coming together, particularly the combination of religion and football. The author he quotes, Gibbs, identifies himself in two ways: Auburn fan and Methodist. These are the two most important identities in the southern United States. These importance of one’s football identity has become so prevalent that several years ago, the Westboro Baptist Church showed up at the University of Alabama to protest Alabama placing football over religion. They held protest signs with nasty words: God Hates Fags, God Hates You. The University of Alabama is, though not technically a religious school, a conservative school with very religious students. Yet even on this religious campus, the Westboro Baptist Church claimed they put football before God. Games (from physical to television and radio) are watched far more  than Church services, but football fans can argue that their Sunday service is intricately tied with their Saturday games. Alternatively, their Saturday rituals may be seen as just as integral to their religious identity as their Sunday ones.

According to Kent Babb, “some religious leaders worry that football could be replacing churches: crowds in cathedral-like stadiums the new congregation, the all-knowing coach seen as pastor, prayers offered up for one more big play” (Babb). The worry may be legitimate, agrees the Ole Miss chaplain, Jon Powell: “It’s amazing to see how religious they become when their team is down by two points and there’s a field goal to be made and they’re praying to God that, if there’s any way possible for us to win this game, I’ll change my life.”  Both of these examples do not provide clear evidence for football as a religion; they make football seem like a religious activity. This is an act of using “God” (in the case of the Southern United States, a predominantly Christian area) to win games. These fans do not see football as their religion. Rather, they see their religion as a way to help their players to do well. Fans believe that their presence and prayer can alter the performance of the players and the outcome of the game. If one prays to God for good fortunate and happiness, it makes sense that one would also pray over football.

In earlier times, the emphasis on football might not have been looked so kindly upon by devoutly religious people. In the post-modern world, however, football can act as a new kind of secular religion because it is filling in the gaps that the decline in organized religion has left behind. Ed McMinn’s devotional God Bless the Crimson Tide exists because people turn to football, and McWinn wants to find some way to also connect them to evangelized Christianity. By making a devotional about something people are passionate about, he tries to bridge the gap. Mark Axelrod, a professor of literature at Chapman University who focuses in postmodern thought, writes:

Post-modern humankind would like to think of itself as […] without a need for a belief in a “higher order.” […] We post-modernists have [lost religious] : Symbols, myths, and rituals, that pay homage to the creation. With […] the decreased interest in organized religion, post-modernists have lost touch with our primitive intuition and […] apparently lost our need for those symbols and rituals that reflect those intuitive feelings about nature, life, and the cosmos; however, the sacredness that wo/man seems to have lost in a strictly religious sense, has successfully manifested itself in another less obvious but equally sacred way … sport; and for the purposes of this approach, American football.

Axelrod’s argument that people fill in the holes of their lessening religion life with football seems reasonable when one analyzes what postmodernism truly is. Post-modern argues that “there is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate.” The combination of no absolute truth and growth of sport has turned football into a religion of the 21st century; Southern football has become a truth based on the community that surrounds it.

However being tied to one and other does not make football its own religion. It is the scholars of religion, classic and contemporary, who end up allowing for football to be classified as religion. In a classic early-twentieth century text, Rudolph Otto argues that “religion is the experience of the holy.” This manifests in football with the moment where your team scores a field goal in the last ten seconds of the game, you are just a breathe away from losing only to win by one. To fans, this is a holy experience. Anyone who has sat through a football game knows that those moments are sacred. People are moved to tears in these final moments, their hands clasped with their neighbors and their breathe is held. It is a moment not experienced independently; instead, it is a moment that all 100,000 people beside you are feeling, too. This is not simply happiness over winning the lottery; it is a community experience of prayer, hope, desire, and faith. As they watch the games, the players, the coaches, the parents, and the fans are crying, screaming, and cheering. They are a much more fully engaged audience than the audience that is found in a church. The fans are the congregation, the players are the saints, and the coach is the minister, leading us on.

This common system of beliefs appears in the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim describes religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” Football fits this almost perfectly. Alabama fans arrive early to tailgate and drink beer, stay until the last second and drive home late on Saturday night. The fans compose is a single community that chants roll tide, over and over, claiming Alabama football as their community, a compass that points to the lesson that the better the fan, the better the person.

A third classic scholar, Clifford Geertz defines, “Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [people] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” In football, the symbols come from terms like “touchdown”, “field goal”, and holding up four fingers in the last quarter. The powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that formulate the concepts of a general order of existence come with every game and every ranking, every win and every loss, because football fans live for football season and spend the eight months outside of the season recruiting for their team. Football as a religion seems ridiculous to those who are not fans, but to those who are, how could it be anything but?

During football season, there is a ritualized “holy day” of sorts on every Saturday. One wakes up early and puts on the appropriate religious regalia. For Alabama fans, this consists of red, white, and houndstooth. Some may put on a jersey sporting the number of their favorite player. Others may wear t-shirts with dramatic announcements “MOST NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS OF ANY FOOTBALL TEAM”. Clothing marks a social divide between classes: the people in the lower-middle class tend to lean more towards jeans and t-shirts, whereas people of upper-middle class are in khakis and sundresses, but still, everyone is a sea of red, white, and houndstooth. The red and white matches the jerseys of the players, and the houndstooth is in remembrance of Paul Bear Bryant, the greatest coach that has ever lived.

Once you arrive in Tuscaloosa, you immediately find your neighborhood. Tailgates are set up, beer and hotdogs served, and you walk around from tent to tent speaking to friends, neighbors with whom you have grown up, college buddies, work associates, and extended family. You share drinks and laughter. And then, right before kick off, everyone swarms to the stadium in a sea of red, with shakers and painted faces, ready to cheer. For the next four hours, football is life. The win becomes the ultimate high, and for most of the audience, the journey consists of sitting still and believing. The stadium can fit 101,821 people… and it does almost every Saturday in the fall. Four hours spent screaming, crying, drinking, and fighting come to a close with the scoreboard’s countdown hitting zero, two undeniable numbers on the screen. There is no debate between who won and who lost. If your team won, you carry with you the high of knowing that you were just part of something totally indescribable. If not, you carry the weight of knowing next week must be better. The drive home feels infinitely longer than the drive there, traffic that makes forty-five minutes into three hours, and it is filled with the sounds of radio stations reporting about the game. Driving back means passing by cars, some with red and white and others with enemy colors, who you greet with waves or middle fingers. The whole day describes the “moods and motivations” of the people, whose Saturday’s consist solely for football. In the morning, they dress for football. Midday, they participate in tailgates, drinking beer and eating hotdogs and hamburgers. In the afternoon, they watch football. Finally, nighttime ends their day with the drive home. To them, this is their reality. They have built different symbols and actions that shape their world on Saturdays.

More recent scholars also have their own ideas on what defines religion. Thomas A. Tweed in his book Crossing and Dwelling: a Theory of Religion analyzes other scholars and then finds his own definition: “religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” For this essay’s purposes, he most important part of Tweed’s definition is “human and suprahuman forces”. Without this, anything that creates joy or eases sadness could qualify as religion, but the idea of there being human and ‘suprahuman’ forces inspires what religion truly is. With football, the human force is the community. The people who cheer for the games, who paint their faces and shake red-and-white shakers, screaming their favorite chants. They show up every Saturday. In contrast, he ‘suprahuman’ force becomes the coach and the players. They are raised above human status; they are the ones for whom the fans cheer. Nick Saban, head coach of Alabama, is treated as though he is a God; people regularly make remarks like “all hail Saban”. Though they are joking, this statement has roots in the truth. Saban wins, and people worship him because of that. If Nick Saban is a God, Paul Bear Bryant is Zues. People still wear regalia in his honor and they pray for his intervention. Because he is already passed on, there is never fear of him losing his touch. He will always be remembered as the greatest Alabama coach that ever lived, at least, until Saban leave the world, too. The coaches and the players carry equal responsibility in the games. The players win and the fans equally love them. The fans form a community around them, and the fans truly believe that the team can do the impossible. They find a home in Saturday rituals, together regardless of where they come from (even though the wealthier one is, the better the seat), and they cheer. They believe their presence can change something, that their intervention can cross physical boundaries and change the outcome of the game. Even when the team is losing, the fans hold onto hope and onto each other. They seek football.

Even if we take football as a religion, the question still remains: can it usefully be conceived as a pilgrimage? Linda Davidson and Mary Jane Dunn-Wood define “pilgrimage as travel to a site which is known as a point of  connection between the spiritual world and those in this physical space.” This is what Saturday mornings are about in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Empty, the stadium lacks what makes it so sacred. Yet when over 100,000 people trickle in to connect with the players and the game, the stadium becomes alive. The Bryant-Denny Stadium is a shrine-centered pilgrimage. People travel far and wide to walk up the stairs to the stadium, sit in the dome, and cheer for the next four hours. It is the journey to this particular stadium that provides the feeling of the spiritual world. At this site, one connects with something higher than oneself, she has feelings that could never exist outside of this space. She and her 100,000 closest friends have journeyed, from five minutes to five hours, simply for this spiritual connection.

According to John Eade and Michael Sallnow, two of the most prominent scholars of pilgrimage, “many writers on pilgrimage have perceived the activity as a crucial operator which welds together diverse communities and social strata into more extensive communities”. This is especially true for Alabama football games. The people that come to the games from a variety of classes, races, and genders, all to support their team. They’ve all at one point or the other come across the University of Alabama and fallen in love, so their goal is to come back, time and time again, to support it. Some people can only come out once a year, for their favorite game, to support the team and others come out every weekend. Regardless of who you are, where you come from, or which seats you have (which can vary according to class), there is camaraderie between the fans. Diverse groups of people are able to come together because they have one purpose: to win. Turner argues:

Pilgrimage […] always tends towards communitas, a state of unmeditated and egalitarian association between individuals who are temporarily freed of the hierarchal secular roles and statuses which they bear in everyday life […] . Because pilgrimage cults are essentially inclusive and universalistic, the tendency towards communitas will always be discernible. Pilgrimage, in other words, to the degree that it strips actors of their social personae and restores their essential individuality, is the ritual context par excellence in which a world religion strives to realize its defining transcultural universalism; for to reach the individual is to reach the universal.

The individual experience of participating in a football game (cheering and supporting) while also being part of the bigger picture is one of the highlights of the pilgrimage. Everyone experiences the game differently (some with boredom, some with distaste, some with passion), but regardless, they are part of a community of people experiencing it. The only tension with Turner’s definition of communitas appears with the tension between fans of different teams. Though fans of the same team can come together with much more ease than in normal life, there is tension between the fans of two different teams. Eades and Sallnow write, “Pilgrimage is not just a field of social relations but also as a realm of competing discourses.” There is a competitive narrative played out by the fans because, though both believe they represent the best football religion, only one team can be so at the end of the game. These two communities are pitted against each other because their final goal is the same. Yet, like with many religious narratives, only one group is allowed to reach the highest level.

Even in John Eade’s  approach to pilgrimage, where he points out that pilgrimage does not just have to be place centered, Saturday football games fit into his model. If one looks at pilgrimage that is “holy person” centered, one must look no farther than Paul Bear Bryant. Alabama fans wear houndstooth in his memory, they make visits to his grave (as have I, seven times), and pay tribute to his family still at games. He is the Deity of Alabama football, a holy figure that cannot be replaced. It also points to pilgrimages that are place-centered. In this case, Tuscaloosa as a whole with the Bryant-Denny as the center forms of the foci of the place-centered pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage on Saturdays does not have to be an actual journey to Bryant-Denny Stadium. It can exist sitting in front of the television and having a transformative experience watching the game, even if the best experiences happen in the trek down to Tuscaloosa. Kathryn Rudy writes about ‘virtual pilgrimage’ in her Virtual Pilgrimage in the Convent, where she mostly discusses how virtual pilgrimage benefits those who cannot take pilgrimage. Virtual pilgrims (in this, mostly women) participate in pilgrimage even though they are not allowed to physically be there, and in this way, they find some connection with the sacred in a parallel fashion. Not everyone can afford to buy football tickets every week, take a Saturday off of work, or find someone to watch their children. The virtual pilgrimage of television allows for people to still feel connected to the sacred shrine and its ritual performances. One can even invite friends over, put on their Alabama shirt, and yell at the screen. Virtual pilgrims still find a way to participate in the pilgrimage without physically being there. Virtual Alabama pilgrimage can be a place-centered pilgrimage where one does not really need to do anything but turn on the television.

Attending SEC football games is a religious pilgrimage. People take time out of their week, out of their lives, to have a transformative experience. They worship the coach and the players. They participate in the congregation, and then they go back to their everyday lives trying to explain what has happened that Saturday. In Alabama, this experience is shared by almost everyone. It creates religious divides over contested spaces (Alabama verse Auburn, where only half come out happy though everyone feels deserving) and it changes narratives. Attending Alabama football is a seasonal pilgrimage that takes out twelve consecutive Saturdays in the fall, all building up to the eventual goal of the National Championships Games.  A ‘game’ where one prays to win, to move forward, and hopefully, take home the crystal football. The ritual of attending an Alabama football game reveals where the post-modern world is going. pilgrimage that deserves to be respected and accepted as legitimate. Alabama football is postmodern American pilgrimage.

Bibliography

Axelrod, Mark. “Popular Culture and the Rituals of American Football.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 3, no. 1 (2001). Accessed April 3, 2015.

Babb, Kent. “The Southern Union of College Football and Religion Is Natural for Some, Uncomfortable for Others.” Washington Post. August 29, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2015.Davidson, Linda Kay., and Maryjane Dunn. Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages: A Research Guide. New York: Garland, 1993.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Eade, John, and Michael J. Sallnow. Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage. London: Routledge, 1991.

Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 87-103. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1996.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University, 1958.

Tweed, Thomas A. “Confluences: Toward a Theory of Religion.” In Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, 54. Cambridge and London: Harvard University, 2006.

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