- Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South, and: Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports
A large portion of the literature on sport and religion focuses on whether or not sport is religion. Eric Bain-Selbo’s book, Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South, fits this sub-category; Shirl Hoffman’s text, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport, does not.
While Bain-Selbo answers a previously debated question, he enters the sport as religion discussion with a fresh perspective by elaborating on religion and the experience of college football in the American South. As a philosophy and religious studies scholar and an avid University of Tennessee football fan, Bain-Selbo expresses some first-hand personal experience with religion and college football in the South that validates his deeper theological, cultural, and historical claims.
In Game Day and God, Bain-Selbo gives specific arguments to underscore his thesis that Southern college football is a civic religion. His early chapters connect such theological topics as the sacred, the social function of religion, ritualized violence, and religious experience with college football in the South. Through these chapters the author effectively weaves pertinent scholarly theories with popular anecdotes about legendary coaches and players, zealous fans, and particular emotions that encourage and support the communities that have formed around Southern college football teams in particular, and their flagship association, the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
Although these chapters are interesting in themselves—Bain-Selbo helpfully identifies and juxtaposes key voices in the existing academic discussions of the sacred, the social function of religion, ritualized violence, and religious experience—they beg the question: how is college football in the American South any different from the civic religion of, say, English soccer, Canadian hockey, or playground basketball in New York City?
Bain-Selbo responds in stride with a detailed analysis of the creation of the identity of the American South. While losing the American Civil War erased any claims of international identity and civil autonomy that the South may have sought, its defeat and surrender in 1865 “gave birth to the idea of the South” in the form of a community set apart from mainstream America by the “Lost Cause” (p. 86). That is, although the South had been militarily defeated, its ideas, beliefs, and history became increasingly valuable as noteworthy markers of its identity. Over time, then, the identity that the South had taken on through the war and the legends of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and the Appomattox Courthouse evolved by adding further community identification through the national success of Southern college football and the legends of Paul “Bear” Bryant, George Blanda, and “Rocky Top.” After all, Bain-Selbo asks with his tongue partly in his cheek, what else is Alabama, for instance, known for besides football and the “Lost Cause”? [End Page 307]
The author continues his manuscript in a decidedly political fashion. In his final chapter, he argues with great tact that college football has held the South back on many political issues. In other words, while the South has woven college football tightly into its identity as something of which it is proud and at which it has had great success, this same cultural tool has helped perpetuate antiquated social divisions that have encumbered the South more than other parts of the United States. The author takes a Marxist slant by stating that college football has become, in many ways, an “opium” of the Southern masses because although it has promoted many young men (especially African Americans) as gods of the gridiron, “the worship of them has not altered the fundamental living conditions of their admirers” (p. 202).
As this thoughtful analysis of college football’s relationship with religion and culture...