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The Bad Liturgy of Sports

The Bad Liturgy of Sports

Dear Parishioners,

Have you ever considered that football is similar to liturgy? They both have pomp and circumstance.  They both have beloved traditions. They both have particular uniforms. They both bring people of varied backgrounds, politically, socioeconomically, intellectually, etc. They strive to unify the people towards something that is true and noble. They strive to help bring out or encourage the best in humanity. Of course there are many differences.  For example, liturgy is not a competition. It is not entertainment. It is not violent in any way. The action on a football field is not essentially an act of the Divine, but of humanity, yet liturgy is the work of God and the people.

This past many weeks, and particularly, this last week, many people have been upset by gestures made by football players on the field when the U.S. flag and National Anthem were presented. The events have cause people to take sides and become more divided.  So, I was pondering on how it has become such a flashpoint. As a liturgist, I started pondering and has some insights that may be of help.

In liturgy, the actions, symbols, rituals, words, and music are all supposed to be done well such that all understand what they communicate.  When these things confused the congregation, this is the litmus test that we have experienced “bad liturgy.” In the context of the intersection of liturgy and sports, particularly football, it seems that the actions taken during the opening ceremonies (presentation of the the US. flag and National Anthem), have caused confusion. I believe it is safe to say that we all love our country.  It is also safe to say that we all reject racism and brutality by anyone in authority. If these are values that we share, then liturgically speaking, we should be able to find ways to communicate our values in a clear and coherent ways. This clearly did not happen, demonstrated by the divisive responses that resulted.

As Catholics, we are called to be ecumenical, that is to be open to the faith of another, to be desirous to understand another’s faith and belief system. The Catholic Church does this very well in its official channels with delegates and representatives to other faith traditions. Our goal is unity.  But, short of perfect unity, we seek understanding to find some unity amidst diversity, and charity must be the means by which this is done.  Unfortunately, the events of recent weeks have failed in this endeavor. They have demonstrated that we have a variety of interpretations of the presentation of the U.S. Flag and National Anthem. It has demonstrated that there is a conflagration of politics, sports, social justice, and patriotism. 

As Catholic Christians, we are called to be people of charity seeking understanding and reaching out to those who are poor and oppressed.  We Catholics even have a soundbite which helps us in our focus. We call it the “preferential option for the poor.” So, in light of this Gospel call, we should have concern for those who are victims of injustice and critique how those who have power, wealth, and influence are responsible for their duty to promote the common good and help the poor. In this light, my prayer is that in our national discussion about the events of the past several weeks, we will be people of faith first which will drive us to enter into dialogue which finds common ground. I hope that the signs and gestures that players and teams decide to use to express themselves will be made clear so as to rally us all around the common cause for peace and justice. In a way, I’m going to give the NFL a “mulligan” if you will.  I hope that in the coming weeks, they can come up with a clear and coherent way to express themselves that will unify their fans and our country.  Here’s some of my own personal thoughts on how that could be done which the NFL has done in the past:

The NFL could make all their players wear extra arm bands or ribbons on their uniforms, symbolic of the injustice they desire to remedy while also promoting all our service men and women. They could kneel at some other time outside of the presentation of the U.S. flag and National Anthem so as not to create confusion. They could change socks and wristband to a common color in order to raise awareness of the cause. Teams could give away or sell t-shirts or wrist bands with the team logo alongside statements promoting racial harmony and social justice, and give the proceeds to non-profits that further that cause. They could have a moment of silence expressly for the victims of racism and violence. The NFL could make a concerted effort to show how players go out into our communities and give talks to school children and others. They could publicize meetings where NFL players and officials go talk to our senators and representatives. Teams could publish a group photo in their local newspaper stating that they are unified in racial harmony, are against brutality by people in power, and lift up all those who serve our country.

I’m sure there are many other ways that could been used that could have expressed our unifying desires for our country and challenged our ills. The NFL’s recent bad liturgy has made things more difficult for fans and non-fans alike. Even the players have expressed confusion and struggle as to how they can help express their views and unify at the same time. How do you think they can more clearly help unify us using clear methods which we could all understand and rally behind?  I hope these thoughts will add to the ongoing discussion of our national debate and faith-filled community.


Fr. William Holtzinger