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Every year I offer a sociology of sport course at the conservative Presbyterian college where I teach. As this course takes place in the spring semester, I’ve been able to time a Super Bowl lecture to correspond with the actual event. Much of my lecture centers on identifying and analyzing the roles played by women in this secular festival. Where are they? What are they doing? If they are absent, why is that the case? And so on.

I conclude that amidst the never-ending debates Christians, churches, and their governing bodies have concerning women’s roles, what we really believe about women, gender, and gender roles is revealed in how we watch and support the Super Bowl.1 And oh does our support run deep! I’ve come to believe 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 SB 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 10-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 10-year-old I’d be arrested on the spot, and rightfully so! 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 51 and Perry 31, just four years older than Kravitz’s daughter. Here are a few lines from the song:

This was never the way I planned, not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion
It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on
I’m curious for you, caught my attention

I kissed a girl and I liked it. . .

At a cursory glance this song seems to be about lesbian experimentation. But make no mistake, this is about garden variety heterosexual male fantasy—the sort of thing we’ve gotten comfortable with. Either way, no one took much issue with it. But it is precisely the sort of thing many Christians lament when they bemoan our secular and worldly culture—when the Super Bowl is not going on.

In 2020, entertainers Shakira and Jennifer Lopez performed a choreographed, highly erotic, highly graphic duet in which a stripper pole featured prominently. During my sociology of sport class the following morning, when I offered to replay the routine on the classroom screen so we could analyze it, multiple male students begged me not to show it. To which I replied, “Why not, every 10-year-old boy in the nation has seen this? Why can’t we watch it in a Christian college class setting where we can view it through a critical lens?” But I didn’t show it. As part of the “big game,” we will watch it, but disaggregated from the event as a whole and brought under analysis, we consider it profane. And that was the lesson for Super Bowl Monday.

2022 brought rap and hip-hop to the biggest stage in the world. The headliners included Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem—some of the biggest names in misogyny—among others. As a sociologist and college professor, I receive various flyers in the mail promoting academic books, documentary videos and other educational resources. Almost without exception, videos critiquing, lamenting, and explaining misogyny, gender-based violence, and pop-culture oriented exploitation of women showcase the work of Snoop Dogg as their central example.

I ordered Sut Jhally’s documentary “The Codes of Gender” for my college library, but have never shown it in class.2 The imagery from Snoop Dogg videos and other similar fare is just too raw and disturbing. Snoop has turned the trivialization of women’s bodies, and especially Black women’s bodies into an extremely lucrative industry. Look up a few of his lyrics—or not. Almost everything he’s written requires complete redaction. His “hit” “Ain’t No Fun” provides a chilling example.

Dr. Dre is, as one columnist put it, a serial abuser. He’s well known for punching women, including the mother of several of his children while she was pregnant. Kendrick Lamar’s discography includes “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and Eminem is well-known for misogynist and homophobic lyrics. Critics of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s choice for SB halftime headliners in 2022 point out the hypocrisy in his addressing the NFL’s problem with racism and gender-based violence by hiring some of the best-known misogynists on the planet.3 All in the name of diversity and not getting sued. 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. Is this the best we can do? We really don’t contest it.

There’s so much more. Take for example the ongoing accusations against the NFL by their own cheerleaders for the sexual abuse and harassment many endure as part of the job, and for their spectacularly low pay in an industry where the league’s minimum salary was $660,000 in 2021.4 Or consider the complete absence of women in the ranks of those who call the game, offer serious during-game commentary, or are in head coaching positions.

But is this not our normal? Is this not how we like things—men doing the high paid important work and women doing the low paid sexuo-supportive work? Maybe that’s just the game. But for Christians, especially those who see themselves in contrast with “the world,” there’s little in Scripture that commends allegiance to the worldly rules of the game. What sort of world do we want anyway? If I throw my support behind the dark, misogynist, fleece-the-poor hopeless world of the Super Bowl, whatever can I offer to my minority children?

In discussing the concept of ideology, sport sociologist Jay Coakley writes:

Researchers using cultural theories and a poststructuralist approach are primarily concerned with whose stories about sports become dominant in a culture and whose stories are ignored. The dominant or most widely told stories are important because they are based on ideological assumptions of what is natural, normal, and legitimate in social worlds; therefore, they promote ideas and beliefs that often privilege some people more than others. . . . Researchers using a poststructuralist approach also study more privately told stories representing voices that are silenced or “erased” from the widely circulated and accepted stories in the dominant culture.5

A poststructuralist approach subverts the hegemonic normal and directs us to locate, listen, take seriously, and bring 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 ones punched by Dr. Dre between cutting platinum hits; The African American boys and girls living under racialized horizons that deny them the fullness of life and future; The children of Asian descent, like mine, who look in vain for someone resembling them in this culture-defining event; The children from poor parts of our cities who sit in underfunded schools and who struggle to locate themselves in a world that continually pushes them under; The women athletes who, Title IX notwithstanding, stand quite far behind their male counterparts despite paying the taxes that fund the stadiums where they rarely get to play.

Jesus stood with such as these and he pushed for a world that honored 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 outside the stadium where it’s a lot easier to hear the quieter ones pushed aside by those rushing for the $10,000 seats inside.

2024’s Super Bowl LVIII will be held in “Sin City,” Las Vegas, Nevada where, the American Gaming Association estimates, just over 50-million people in the US will bet on either the San Francisco 49ers or the Kansas City Chiefs. If this prediction holds, it will represent a 61 percent increase over last year’s Super Bowl gambling.6

A recent article in Time magazine noted that one in 10 college students is a pathological gambler, and indicated that the legalization of sports betting has produced the largest expansion of gambling in US history.7 Were I to sponsor a youth group road trip to Las Vegas to hang out in the casinos, and take in the shows, I would undoubtedly come under scrutiny from church leaders and more than a few parents. But package all that gambling into the Super Bowl and we can turn a blind eye and lend it our support.

Instead of placing our own bets we can laugh at funny commercials which, even if free from erotic content, still represent the very dark kingdom of the gods of consumerism. These gods are the ones claiming our allegiance at Las Vegas’ Allegiant stadium. We had a taste of this during the 2023 Super Bowl when Rihanna, the halftime headliner touched up her Fenty Beauty brand makeup, which went on to make $5.6 million dollars in the 12 hours following8 —a commercial within a commercial. Rihanna gets richer as the homeless ones lie outside the stadium. And all on the Lord’s Day. But we mostly don’t notice.

The title of this essay contains a partial quotation from Abraham Kuyper, Dutch statesman and neo-Calvinist theologian. The full quotation reads, “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!”9 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, for me anyway, the Super Bowl, what it stands for, and our no-matter-what allegiance to it, represent one square inch we refuse to concede. The Super Bowl is the symbolic epicenter of American and Western culture, and it celebrates the violence, racism, misogyny, inequality, and disregard for the poor that place Jesus decisively outside the stadium.10 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.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to rationalize away the objectionable features of the Super Bowl, continue watching and celebrating this version of a world that should not be, and let the liturgy capture our hearts and minds. But, WWJD? What would Josiah do?

Josiah tore it all down. And there’s something noble and right about casting out idols. But where does this leave us? Simply avoiding the Super Bowl, refusing to watch, and boycotting the NFL and the products it hawks would be an abandonment of the world to which we, the people of God are called. In a compelling book entitled Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, Marcia W. Mount Shoop tells several stories involving drunken, half-crazed, foul-mouthed football fans who, during games, and within earshot of her, yelled terrible threatening things at her husband who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach for the Chicago Bears. Things like, “John Shoop needs to rot in hell” and “Someone needs to shoot John Shoop and put us all out of our misery.” She explains how difficult it was to offer such people grace and generosity, rather than anger and retaliation. These harrowing experiences led to an epiphany, and Mount Shoop came to see something deeply spiritual at the root of even the most obnoxious and destructive sports fanatism.  She writes,

I have encountered this kind of fanaticism over and over again since and have found myself in different spaces at different times. . . . I try to see in these fans something about human life, something about who we are and what we really yearn for in life. Somehow the sports fan embodies deep truths about humanity, about who we are and who we wish we were. And somehow this truth-telling is dissonantly displayed in the midst of fragments of truth and falsity that compose the fan(atic) imagination.11

She continues,

Perhaps, underneath all of the collective anger and frustration is a deep sadness that there really is no one who can make things work when so much is on the line. Those who we look to for such potency and efficacy disappoint us again and again. Like Job’s exasperation with God in the face of his life falling apart, frustrated fans have had enough and they desperately want something to change.12

The Super Bowl reflects a similar search for transcendence, and, perhaps, can be viewed as a place where people seek something redemptive—where things work out, where life is more than mundane, where the future seems hopeful, where we don’t feel powerless, and where one can get lost in the wonder of it all. And we need that sort of thing. But it’s something the Super Bowl will never really provide us with. If we must enter in, perhaps we should do it by watching more intently, with a more penetrating gaze. When we momentarily turn away from an eroticized half-time performance, mute a commercial that ventures a bit too far into the profane, or gloss over some of the real and important features of the game itself that stand at odds with our faith and theologies, we sanitize the event just enough to make it palatable, and just enough to avoid seeing the truth about it. If we’re going to watch it—especially at youth group with our sons and daughters—let’s look at it full on, without flinching, muting, or averting our gaze. Let’s stare intently into the truth of the Super Bowl, while recognizing the human need it’s ill-equipped to meet. And let’s talk about it with a depth beyond fandom. For we the people of God, have a much better kind of transcendence to offer than the Super Bowl does, and a more compelling and beautiful liturgy to follow than any half-time show has ever offered.

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

Footnotes

  1. I develop this more fully in Matthew S. Matthew S Vos, “Prizes and Consumables: The Super Bowl as a Theology of Women,” Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good, February 1, 2013 (2013). https://comment.org/prizes-and-consumables-the-super-bowl-as-a-theology-of-women/#.
  2. Sut Jhally, The codes of gender: identity and performance in pop culture (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2009), 1 videodisc (73 min.)
  3. “Does Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show Glorify Misogyny?,” iheartradio.ca, 2022, accessed March, 7, 2022, https://www.iheartradio.ca/news/does-super-bowl-lvi-halftime-show-glorify-misogyny-1.17129364.
  4. Reem Abdalazem, “Who are the Lowest-paid Players in the NFL? Is there a Minimum Salary in Pro Football?,” AS (January 19 2024). https://en.as.com/nfl/who-is-the-lowest-paid-player-in-the-nfl-is-there-a-minimum-salary-in-american-football-n-4/.
  5. Coakley, Sports in society: Issues and controversies, 72.
  6. “How Much Money Will Be Bet on the Super Bowl in 2024?,” 2024, accessed January 4, 2024, https://www.thelines.com/super-bowl-how-much-money-bet/.
  7. Oliver Stanley, “An Explosion in Sports Betting is Driving Gambling Addiction Among College Students,” Time (December 12 2023). https://time.com/6342504/gambling-addiction-sports-betting-college-students/.
  8. “Rihanna’s US$6 Million Payday From 3 Second Act,” Forbes Australia, 2023, https://www.forbes.com.au/news/billionaires/super-bowl-halftime-show-rihanna-earns-5-6-million-from-makeup-touchup/#:~:text=Rihanna’s%20makeup%20touch%2Dup%20during,in%20the%20first%2012%20hours.&text=It’s%20a%20known%20fact%20that,time%20show%20are%20not%20paid.
  9. James D. (ed.) Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A centennial reader (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
  10. The spirit animating the Super Bowl is, of course, alive and well in places other than the United States. In response to my 2013 article, “Prizes and Consumables: The Super Bowl as a Theology of Women,” a journalist who wrote for “Saturday Dispatch,” a newspaper in South Africa, contacted me asking if I would adapt it for their publication. She told me that their Super Rugby was plagued with many of the same problems I had identified in the American Super Bowl. I shortened the article to meet their requirements and they printed it.
  11. Marcia W. Mount Shoop, Dick Jauron, and John Shoop, Touchdowns for Jesus and other signs of apocalypse: Lifting the veil on big-time sports (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 18.
  12. Mount Shoop, Jauron, and Shoop, Touchdowns for Jesus and other signs of apocalypse: Lifting the veil on big-time sports, 20.

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.

6 Comments

  • A provocative and engaging piece. It comes in the shadow of Rolling Stone’s article, “This Evangelical Billionaire Family Wants to Convert You on Super Bowl Sunday” (Perez and Stuart, 2.7.24). My wife’s immediate response: “I suppose they could say the same thing about commercials by Draft Kings and Miller Lite!” Personally, I think the “He Gets Us” commercials are brilliant. I am curious about Dr. Vos’s assessment of what was the last wholesome halftime show at a Super Bowl. Likewise, what is the suggested best counter? Pushing for Lauren Daigle for half-time, or Carrie Underwood? Or For King and Country. Tauren Wells?

  • fred putnam says:

    Thanks for this series. Now to address the equally serious problem of (some) college sports, especially at “major” schools where football or basketball may attract donations of tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars, while the athletes who are making all this money for the school “earn” a degree, but graduate functionally illiterate (I am thinking of my own experience when teaching in a seminary–he lasted less than two weeks).

  • Jenell Paris says:

    Sports and the search for transcendence. I extended this post yesterday, the anthropology class topic was indigenous games, past and contemporary. Students played Crazy Eights and analyzed how they were “playing” with the big things of life — morality, identity, death, suffering. I watched for language related to death: “I’ll kill you!” “I’m dead!” “I’m still alive” “Ha ha, you’re dead!”. Volleyball players count their “kills,” other sports have death matches, sudden death, and so on. Then I went home yesterday to learn that someone I care about had passed away, for real: not funny or playful at all. I’m praying that God will show me how fun, joy, play, and sport prepare and support us in times when we encounter real death, suffering, conflict, cheating, and defeat. It’s such a fascinating line of inquiry, and it gives my brain and spirit something to ponder while the rest of my family is watching the Superbowl on merely the literal level.

  • Mark Bjelland says:

    Ironically, on this morning’s Public Radio morning program Stever Inskeep interviewed a NPR music critic who gushed about the amazing Super Bowl Halftime shows in recent years. The critic raved about shows by Prince, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Dr. Dre and mocked the “cheesy” pre-Michael Jackson shows which featured marching bands and Up With People medleys. So, the gatekeepers of high culture (NPR) are fully on board with all this Super Bowl idolatry, misogyny and all.
    See: https://www.npr.org/2024/02/09/1230337058/besides-the-game-a-lot-of-people-watch-the-super-bowl-for-the-halftime-show

  • Brian Howell says:

    Great piece. I appreciate that you aren’t calling for boycott, nor are you expecting some kind of moral reformation of these institutions, but rather you’re asking us to be critical in ways that go beyond what is “wholesome” to consider what is honoring of God’s creation and those who bear His image. We shouldn’t really expect those in the wider society to support Christian understandings of these things. We should understand that in a world largely uninterested in the things of God, this is the world. I hope folks don’t take away from this that the best Christian response is offense, or condemnation of overly-sexualized displays. Frankly, I find the commercialism, sexism (rather than the sex), and militarism far more troubling in that those are the parts regularly overlooked by Christian critics, and, arguably, because they are overlooked (and subsequently absorbed if not celebrated!), more damaging to our souls.

  • Petarra, Steve says:

    Matt, did not Maximus say it best in the movie Gladiator “Are you not entertained? “
    There is no question that the Super Bowl and all of these modern sports are of the world, deeply, and accurately reflecting many of the flaws of our culture. To expect it to be otherwise is to expect something that they are not able to understand. Sin corrupt everything, even a simple game, and it can bring out the worst in people as you have demonstrated. I don’t think the toothpaste is going back into the tube and I agree that Christians should for the most part just avoid this. As far as they’re not being any female, head coaches, or referees, I really don’t care, and it seems to make total sense since there are no women players and female sports figures make less money because they bring in less money that’s just simple economics just like a pediatrician makes less money than a brain surgeon. Anyway, thanks for sharing this.

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