In several regions of the United States, it is common for the local folk to tell interested visitors something along the lines of, “Football is a religion here.”
Presumably, this is meant as metaphorical shorthand for a culture in which people form unbreakable allegiances to certain teams, ritualistically attend games, perform chants and cheers and sing songs and generally regard fans of other teams as being misguided.
But a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates the “football as religion” trope is, for many Americans, a literal expression.
The PRRI found that half of American sports fans believe supernatural forces affect the outcome of games, while 26 percent say they have asked God to help their team.
The survey was not specific to football, but it revealed that football fans were more likely to believe in the effect of supernatural forces on games than fans of other sports, with 33 percent saying they have prayed for God to help their team (as compared to 21 percent of non-football fans), 31 percent (to 18 percent) saying they believe their team has at one point been cursed , and 25 percent (to 18 percent) saying they perform rituals they believe will influence the outcome.
PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones summarized the findings in a press release.
“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans—as many as 70 million Americans—believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” he said. “Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game.”
The survey also revealed that millions of Americans also try to help their teams with a variety of superstitious acts, such as wearing specific items of clothing and – quoting from the press release here – “dancing in a circle, sitting in the same seat or giving a pep talk to the television."
Athletes and sports fans are a notoriously superstitious lot, but any attempt at scientifically measuring that superstition will have a difficult time sorting through the ambiguity of faith. In other words, are these things people earnestly believe, things they think may or may not be true but are practicing just in case, or are they just comforting rituals that add to the fun?
Less murky were the results that explored sporting tastes along regional and demographical lines. Football, as expected, is the overwhelming favorite sport among Americans, who were almost four times more likely to name football as their favorite sport than basketball, which finished second. Adults ages 18-29 were twice as likely as the general population to identify soccer as their favorite sport. Hispanics were more likely than any other group to say soccer was their favorite sport, while African Americans were twice as likely to prefer basketball over any other sport and whites ranked basketball third, behind football and baseball.
Americans are slightly more likely to go to church on a Sunday (25 percent) than to choose football instead (21 percent), but the survey shows there is still plenty of overlap between religion and football.
“America’s football fans stand out from other fans in their belief in the supernatural, which may not be surprising after last year’s Blackout Bowl,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s Research Director.
PRRI reasoned that, “These differences may also reflect the fact that football fans are concentrated most heavily in the Midwest and South, regions that also include large religious populations.”
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