Is Gator Football a Religion?

Excerpts from a talk given to CLAS alumni by religion professor David Hackett


David Hackett

David Hackett

Every fall weekend thousands of students and alumni here drape themselves in sacred colors (orange and blue), bear on their bodies images of their religious totem (gators), snake across the Southeast in long pilgrimage lines (car caravans), in their journey to houses of worship (football stadiums), where they sing hymns ("We Are the Boys of Old Florida"), drone chants ("Defense, Defense") and participate in rituals (the Gator chomp, the Two Bits Cheer) in worship of their saint-like team (Danny Wuerffel) and super human coach (Steve Spurrier).

Gator FootballUp in Tallahassee, the coach's biography is titled Saint Bobby and the Barbarians. Further north, at Notre Dame, the "Touchdown Jesus" mural high on the library behind the stadium seems to bless every Irish passage into endzone heaven. Is football a religion?

Vasudha Narayanan, a Hindu faculty member in my department tells me that she just loves Gator football - not so much for the game itself but for the spectacle. A spectacle that reminds her of religious worship among throngs of believers at the large Hindu temples of her Indian homeland.

Sociologists tell us that every community must have some sort of religion that organizes and reinforces the purpose of its members. In essence, football's sacred pageantry and rituals appear to act as a religion for many colleges and universities. People come together from all walks of life on a Saturday afternoon to participate in a kind of religious experience that affirms their common bond as members of the same college tribe.

But let's not take this too far. Unless we take such bumper sticker lines as "Floridian by Birth, Gator by the Grace of God" as somehow profoundly meaningful, the religion of football offers precious few explanations for life's purpose and meaning. Following Spurrier cannot easily be confused with following Christ. Can it?

Gator FootballI'm drawing this analogy between football and religion partly because it's fun and partly because it demonstrates the work of a religion department in a state university. Our purpose is not to preach to students, convert them, or in any way impose religious beliefs upon them. We take as our task a willingness to interpret religious goings on around us and, more importantly, to enter into conversation with students about fundamental questions of meaning and value in our lives.

You know it used to be that the only education was religious education. All of the great private universities in this country--Harvard, Yale and all--began as colonial era colleges for training young men for the ministry. In fact, as late as the Civil War, the president of every college in this country was a moral philosopher whose primary teaching role was to verse the senior class in what it might mean to lead a good and moral life.

Those days have passed. With the rise of science in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning of knowledge, religion--once the core of the curriculum--was shunted further and further into the background.

At the same time, religion departments continue to carry with them the responsibility of seeking to understand and explain the many religious goings on in our world today--from Afro-Carribean Santeria, to Protestant Fundamentalism, to the many Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic temples now populating the state of Florida--and we even try to explain the religion of the Gators.

Beyond this effort to explain religion, we also have students coming to us with important questions about the meaning of their lives or simply with ethical questions about right and wrong.

The Department of Religion, like everyone else, believes that getting good grades is indeed a harbinger of success. But, at the same time, we are also interested in what students mean by success. The discipline of getting good grades is a tremendous tool to have as students proceed in life. And yet having this ability alone--without any idea of the ultimate end they have for their lives, the kind of person they aspire to be, the moral commitments, the values that are central to who they are--without some idea of this larger context, the discipline that they have to get good grades may go to waste, or be misused. Our department, and the college as a whole, is particularly concerned with this question of values as well.

The Presbyterian's Westminster Catechism begins with this question: "What is the chief end of human beings?" Its answer, learned by twenty generations of the theological heirs of John Calvin, states, "The chief end of human beings is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever." This is a vocational question. It asks, What are human beings here for? In what consists the virtue or the excellence of human beings? In what pursuits will human beings find deepest fulfillment?

In modern societies the vocational question of "How best can I make this a better world?" has often been replaced by "How can I get ahead, make the most money, find security?" and the like. "How can I best glorify God?" has become "How can I secure my financial future?"

What I am suggesting is that there is considerable tension these days between career and vocational goals, choosing paths that fulfill the self rather than paths to serve others. Our images of what it means to be a good woman or a good man are in considerable ferment.

What then should be the purpose of a college education: to prepare young people for a career, or to prepare them for life? Of course, today, we need to do both. What we do in college should both prepare us for careers and for life, but I want to emphasize the latter right now and give you my view of what a college education is all about.

What a good undergraduate education offers, I believe, is a short period of time with the opportunity to survey in a fairly organized way the range of human achievement--to explore the upper reaches of the human spirit, as well as the depths. And it offers this opportunity not at a distance, but brings students to grips with detail so that the full operations and stature of the creative mind are revealed.

And so, for example, we are invited to consider Beethoven, and wonder how, from music which he could never hear played, he could produce such subtle modulations with such exalted power. Beethoven expanded the range of human emotions, bringing all his listeners together in a new and loftier place. You could take examples from every discipline.

But the point is that in all these confrontations, students are asked not merely to admire, but to weigh evidence and data, to measure the significance of words. And they are invited to do this not merely with great literary, artistic or scientific achievement, but with the great moral moments of humanity, the great decisions or the great rebellions. I believe that these are the major confrontations of the spirit, which force us to reckon with ourselves and set standards for ourselves.

So, you are saying to yourselves--this is all well and good, lofty stuff, perhaps a bit stuffy--but what about the practical stuff, the courses that do lead to good careers, safe jobs? They are important too. I don't deny that, but I am saying that what we in the humanities do, in religion, philosophy, English--actually across the curriculum when we do it well--is to engage questions of meaning, value, right and wrong, so that when students enter their careers they are equipped with answers or, better yet, enduring questions, that will help to direct and enrich their lives for the greater good of all.

UF is one of the few places in the country where the wearing of orange and blue together is encouraged. We do this, I think, to affirm our common bonds as people of this place, this university, but also I would hope, to affirm our common commitment to the highest ideals of what it might mean to be a good person, a responsible citizen in a changing society. Pencil

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