KOKOMO, Ind. – College football as religion?
It is in the south, according to research published by Eric Bain-Selbo, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University Kokomo.
His research in that area recently drew the attention of ESPN filmmaker Jonathan Hock, who interviewed Bain-Selbo and featured him in his recentFootball is US: The College Game, currently airing on the sports television network.
“I was impressed with how well the documentary was done,” he said, and pleased to be able to contribute. “It got me all excited about the college football season.”
Bain-Selbo, who earned a master of arts in religion and a doctorate in religious ethics, said the idea of football as religion was not a new concept, but he put a new twist on it by testing the idea through the rules of religious study.
“My conclusion was that people who have identified college football as a religion in the south were correct,” he said. “The general idea is that for many people, sport fulfills certain needs. It functions in particular ways that both in the past and present, religious institutes also fulfill.”
To do his research, he attended college game days at the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi, the University of Tennessee, and Louisiana State University, observing, surveying, and interviewing fans. He published his findings in his 2009 book, Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South, which is what drew Hock’s attention.
Bain-Selbo identified many parallels between religion and football in the south.
“You show up to campus, which is itself a sacred space, there is a team walk-through the crowd to the stadium, with the band coming soon afterwards, it’s just the same, game after game, that’s ritual,” he said.
“You get into the stadium, which is a particularly sacred space, the field, of course, is the most sacred of spaces. The time during which the game is played is the most sacred of times. It’s about that sense of transcendence.”
What people find through sports is fulfillment of the need to connect with other people, and become part of something bigger than themselves.
“Today, a lot of people don’t find that in institutional religion, so they have to find it in another place,” he said, adding that college football is just one of those places. Fans connect with the team values, the determination of the players, their loyalty to the university, and the players’ skill, dedication, and willingness to sacrifice.
“The fact is, somebody on that field is representing us and willing to sacrifice their bodies so we can win and experience that joy, and exuberance, and excitement,” he said. “As college football fans, we should be deeply appreciative.”
It’s deeply meaningful to the fans, however it may appear to outsiders, Bain-Selbo added.
“We all have the need to have these sacred, different and powerfully meaning experiences,” he said. “We can look at them and say, ‘That’s silly, it’s just a football game,’ but you see the fans and it’s not silly to them. It’s deeply meaningful to them, and to me. I’m one of them.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.