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Social Class in the Super Bowl

God’s wrath is kindled when the needs of vulnerable people in a society—widows, orphans, and strangers—are neglected and the “business as usual” of the wealthy takes priority. A Nielson survey found that more than 208 million viewers watched Super Bowl 2022. Nearly 90% of all people using a television that evening were watching the game, the highest Super Bowl share on record.1 Tickets to the live event cost around $10,000 per seat on average. With a capacity crowd of 70,000+, the revenue generated was roughly $700 million, plus concessions, plus commercials, plus revenues from sports betting, and so on. In 2022, ad prices hit record highs, with some 30-second ad spots costing as much as $7 million dollars—just over $233,333 per second!

These prices reveal the priorities of a culture, and place in-person participation out of reach of most people, but especially the poor. While some might argue that this simply reflects the realities of free-market capitalism, most will be unaware that many major league stadiums are built and maintained via a rigged capitalism using sales tax revenues that find their way into the pockets of billionaire team owners.

Though it’s difficult to tell how much public money (from sales taxes or tax breaks) was used to recoup the LA Ram’s SoFi Stadium costs of around $5 billion, it’s fair to say that the building of new stadiums reflects a city’s priorities. For example, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home to the Colts, received a whopping $619 million in public funds, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta received about $200 million from tax revenues.2 Raymond James Stadium in Tampa drew $168.5 million from public coffers.3 The AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play received $444 million in public funding for its construction. All of these venues hosted Super Bowls between 2011 and the present. Allegiant stadium which will host the 2024 “Sin City” Super Bowl in Paradise, Nevada drew $750 million from public coffers.4 Allegiance indeed!

Sociology of sport literature documents how city officials funnel tax revenues to NFL team owners for new stadium costs, even while schools, libraries, and after school programs in their cities are grossly underfunded or have shut down entirely.5 Investments in pro stadiums, while touted as an economic boom, tend to have little long-term benefit for cities, while investments in schools, housing, and other infrastructure offers much greater long-term benefit.6 Most revenue generated from professional sports stadiums does not go back into the community in which the stadium is located but is invested and spent elsewhere.

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 pushing out the poor, so their entertainment isn’t compromised. Cue God’s wrath.

While football players are pointing skyward, giving God a bit of credit as they bask in the Shekinah glory of their own magnificence, the Jesus they claim to worship is outside the stadium offering comfort to the marginal and forgotten. Perhaps the worship assemblies God hates (Amos 5:21) are located in Super Bowl stadiums. Perhaps we should remain outside the walls of those temples whose $5 billion-dollar construction costs far exceed anything Solomon ever saw, lest the God whose anger burns against those who disregard and disrespect the poor take note of our allegiances.

Reinforcing a Racialized Society

None of my three children are White. My oldest daughter, adopted from Bulgaria, is Roma, and my younger daughter and son are both Chinese. Imagine watching the Super Bowl through their eyes. Few people of significance look like they do or make recognized contributions to the event. That, in itself, while concerning to me as their father, is true of many social environments my children inhabit.

My greater concern falls on how the Super Bowl reproduces, legitimates, and normalizes the racialized social order of the United States—something that profoundly affects my children. Although 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. Consequently, we—I write as a majority group person—come to believe that racial problems reduce to whether or not we intentionally injure or disparage those in minority groups.

Sociologist Michael Emerson explains that the concept of racialization is rooted in the principle of inequality.7 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, social networks, 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 ideology of meritocracy—that we receive in proportion to our merit—supports social inequality by blaming the victim. In effect, you would be better off if you just tried harder; you have only yourself to blame. If we accept meritocracy as an explanation for inequality, we tend to perceive differences between racial groups as the “natural” consequence of individual choices, rather than a function of social structures and related cultural norms.

However, this explanation raises troubling questions for those at the top of the stratified order. How do we in good conscience accept such profound social inequality? How can we enjoy our abundance in the face of so many who do without? The answer, Emerson says, is racism. Racism offers a justification for why racial inequality is acceptable. Racism legitimates the inequality so pervasive in American society. Why are we unequal? Because “they” are inferior, and inferior people make poor choices.

Such thinking can function to absolve one of responsibility for their neighbor and obscure the realities of a racialized system. That we accept the stratified order as legitimate partly explains why we generally don’t categorize the distribution of public money to wealthy NFL franchise owners as welfare. When “aid” goes to those we already see as having “merit,” it doesn’t upset our beliefs about the way things should be. Conversely, when a Black, single mother with two children receives public assistance, it can reinforce dominant beliefs about the relationship between race and inequality.

The Super Bowl offers the public a magnified view of the racialized order. With few exceptions, the Super Bowl evidences 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% of players identify as Black, and 70% as people of color. In fact, in Super Bowl history there have only been seven Black quarterbacks, two of which appeared in two Super Bowls.

Although Black NFL players certainly make a great deal of money, the lion’s share of NFL rewards go to White people—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. For the most part, the Super Bowl—that central arena where skill and merit purport to prevail—offers the public pleasurable experiences that ensure the racialized symbols of White superiority stand without serious challenge. The dominant image supplied by the Super Bowl depicts Black people at the bottom of the stratified order providing entertainment and profit for the White people who preside over them. Business as usual.

Many suppose that sports are a place where African Americans get ahead—where they have the same chance as anyone else. Some even believe that African Americans have “taken over” sport. Such beliefs have little merit. Few know that Black people are underrepresented in all sports, save three.8 There’s no Black dominance in hockey, NASCAR, tennis, golf, yacht racing, polo, swimming, downhill skiing, or lacrosse.

Yet many young athletes of color set their sights on playing in the NFL or NBA— places where it seems they can succeed. But the evidence is against it. African American boys have an infinitely 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 deprives them of better opportunities.

Few institutions do a better job at reinforcing the racialized status quo and legitimating inequality than the NFL and its iconic culture-defining event, the Super Bowl. And few Christians seem to voice opposition, or if they do, it’s mostly directed at the window dressing surrounding the NFL/Super Bowl apparatus—peripheral elements like the halftime show or crass commercials.

But what do my minority children learn when all around them, including many in our churches, celebrate and unreservedly support an institution that powerfully promotes inequality and legitimates a stratified order? Christians against “the world?” In supporting the Super Bowl—not its peripherals, but the game itself—we stand in lock-step solidarity with the “world” from which we claim distinction. The Super Bowl represents an idealized world, but not an inevitable one, and not one we should enthusiastically accept.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Journal of Sociology and Christianity.

Footnotes

  1. “NFL, Nielson Reveals Total Viewing Audience of Over 208 Million for Super Bowl LVI,” 2022, accessed March 7, 2022, https://www.sportsvideo.org/2022/03/03/nfl-nielsen-reveals-total-viewing-audience-of-over-208-million-for-super-bowl-lvi/.
  2. Johnny Kampis, “Atlanta Provides Super Subsidies to NFL,” Taxpayers Protection Alliance (February 1 2019). https://www.protectingtaxpayers.org/corporate-welfare/atlanta-provides-super-subsidies-to-nfl/.
  3. Tom Joyce, “This Year’s Super Bowl is a Reminder of the Taxpayer-funded Stadium Scam,” Washington Examiner (February 4 2021). https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/2605877/this-years-super-bowl-is-a-reminder-of-the-taxpayer-funded-stadium-scam/#google_vignette.
  4. Bob Cooper, “12 Times Taxpayers Footed Big Bills for New Stadiums and Arenas,” Stacker (May 27 2022). https://stacker.com/sports/12-times-taxpayers-footed-big-bills-new-stadiums-and-arenas.
  5. D. Stanley Eitzen, “Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport,”  (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
  6. BER, “The Economics of Sports Stadiums: Does Public Financing of Sports Stadiums Create Local Economic Growth, or Just Help Billionaires Improve their Profit Margin?,” Berkeley Economic Review (April 4 2019). https://econreview.berkeley.edu/the-economics-of-sports-stadiums-does-public-financing-of-sports-stadiums-create-local-economic-growth-or-just-help-billionaires-improve-their-profit-margin/.
  7. “Racialization and its Impact on the Church: Sociological Reflections,” Mosaic TEDS, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=146unQdbNJM&t=10s.
  8. Jay J. Coakley, Sports in society: Issues and controversies, Twelveth edition. ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017).

Matthew S. Vos

Matthew S. Vos (PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville) is professor of sociology and chair of the department at Covenant College. His recent work includes the book Strangers and Scapegoats: Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins.

3 Comments

  • Bill Dyrness says:

    Thank you Matthew for this witty and timely reflection. Every thoughtful Christian who turns on the TV this Sunday should reflect deeply on the issues you raise–to which one might add the environment with over 1000 private planes due to land in Las Vegas over the weekend. But, as you note, none of these has to do with the Super Bowl per se. Which leads me to wonder whether “idolatry” is the best framework for criticism, rather than, say, the structural brokenness that inflicts all our necessary and important institutions. In fact when I saw reference to Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote in your title I thought you might head in a different direction: What would it look like to reclaim this enormous square inch for the Lordship of Christ? Imagine what such a Super Bowl might be? Isn’t that what we pray and work for? Meanwhile, if Kuyper were to tune in Sunday, I think he might wonder at the virtuosity of two stellar quarterbacks who rose to the top of their sport, or the amazing aesthetics of the half time show or even of the commercials (which my Kuyperian professor Hans Rookmaaker claimed was a key site of the best contemporary aesthetics.)

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    What is at the heart of the idolatry involved in the entertainment building and racial injustice?

    Is it not the human heart? And does responsibility begin with society or with the person each of us sees in our mirrors. “The wisdom from above is first pure”; responsibility begins in the mirror, not with an event. And it is with each one of us.

    To illustrate, here is an article about something that concerns me far more than the money involved in one football game:

    https://nationalpost.com/news/polyamory-triads-vees-quads

    It is sick, and the problem begins with the human heart. Not with society. Doubtless society has not helped, but we know where sin begins.

  • Steve petarra says:

    I think there is plenty to dislike about our modern sports culture without having to resort to racial arguments. Sports is probably one of the few fields today that is completely meritocratic and the fact that most owners are white just reflects the larger social and economic realities of today. As far as quarterbacks if they can do the job they can have the job and I think that is being shown tonight in Kansas City quarterback Mahomes. The one race related comment I would make is I am very surprised that celebrities like Jamie Foxx would advertise for MGM sports books that prey on minorities and encourage them to gamble. I think it is disgraceful that he would do this, and use his status among the black community to spread this poison.
    Concerning funding for stadiums I am concerned that too much public money is being used for private use, but there certainly is some role for public investment in infrastructure that can benefit the wider public. There is probably a sweet spot that is appropriate and actually generates revenue that can be used by the state. I also don’t think it is a zero sum game that every dollar spent on public works is a dollar that does not get spent on humanitarian type projects. The poor will always be with us, and if there is one needy person out there it does not follow that the state needs to spend all its money on welfare until there are zero needy people. Anyway, enough said on this topic and I appreciate your writing.

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