According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “nonreligious” has increased more than 10-fold since the 1950s. Meanwhile, the percentage of those who identify as Protestant Christians, America’s largest religious denomination, has almost halved. Today, 31% of Americans never attend a church or synagogue.
In contrast, 36% of Americans say they at least watch collegiate sports once a month. As sports replace attendance at institutional worship, our fascination with Texas football is rooted in a desire to satisfy a deeply religious impulse.
Visitors to Texas soccer games will often witness practices such as ritual intoxication, ceremonial chanting, and superstitious hand gestures. At the beginning of the games, the UT fans will “hook” them in solidarity, as if to bring good luck to our team on the field.
As Jack Putman, senior and Silver Spur of the organization said, “Half the stadium yells ‘Texas’ and the other half replies ‘Fight.'” Like any traditional mass, our chants serve to create a sense of unity.
According to Bruce Wells, a professor in UT’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, bulls were commonly used in the ancient Near East to represent the qualities of worshiped deities. Because bulls were the driving force behind agriculture, they were often associated with power and masculinity. Similarly, Bevo embodies the powerful spirit of UT worthy of our love and honor.
Putman also said that Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington often talks to Bevo before every game as a superstitious act.
“Every game he says, ‘I’ll come see you after I score a touchdown,'” Putman said.
Of course, our game rituals also include hostility towards the other team and their supporters. This is usually verbal, but on several occasions I’ve seen flushed-faced fans get into physical scuffles with rivals. This level of passionate outrage is comparable to the ancient Israelites’ scapegoating rituals, in which priests would cast all of the people’s yearly sins onto a single goat. The people would then spit on the goat and curse it as it was led into the wilderness, taking evil out of the camp with it.
Our “othering” of rival fans fulfills a very similar function to those scapegoating rituals, namely the cohesion, strengthening and preservation of our collective identity. What once worked for the Israelite nation continues to work for the Burnt Orange nation. Just being able to point and shout out who we are not gives us a more real idea of who we are.
Ultimately, football appeals to a deeply primal human desire. It creates social boundaries where there would otherwise be none. It offers stories of superhuman strength and mental endurance reminiscent of biblical prophets and saints.
“What satisfies it?” said Dr. wells “I think that in some way we rise above our limits and are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
In its traditional place, football is a beautiful thing. But concern is warranted as it becomes the primary religious outlet in our increasingly non-religious society. The “Spirit” embodied by fans can take on a degree of forbearance and a hostile us-versus-them mentality at odds with virtues like gentleness, love, and self-control.
The spiritual experience of the stadium differs from the solemn experience of the cathedral. It’s short-lived, maybe for that reason.
Martin is a commercial and radio television film junior from Rockwall, Texas.