By Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
During my doctoral studies in Boston, my wife was a youth minister. Because she was supporting me in the lifestyle to which I had grown accustomed (that is, the only source of actual revenue in our home), I, therefore, also functioned as a de facto youth minister, especially on annual summer service trips. This privileged position meant spending a week each summer sleeping on the ground in a non-air-conditioned public school, painting homes each day, and then enduring nondenominational religious programming each evening.
One such evening, the youth were asked to reflect on the idols in their lives. They stood before money and were queried: Where do you choose mammon before the kingdom of God? A young man (not from our parish) who took a dollar from the pile of cash answered that question not only in word but in deed. If you can’t serve God and mammon, you can at least serve mammon.
The young men of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish were more attracted by the collection of sports equipment. Where in your lives have sports become an idol? I saw them pick up the football, and then immediately shed tears! At last, I thought proudly to myself. They recognize that their obsession with athletic prowess exceeds what is necessary for human flourishing. They understand the need to re-order their desires.
We assembled in the room after the session, and I waited to hear about their Augustine-esque religious conversion precipitated by the evening devotional. My hope was at once dashed when the first young man, holding a football in his hands, began to cry out: “Men, make sure that you never forget how brief your high school football career will be. How I wish that I could go back and start again.” Sigh, I thought to myself. What could have been an occasion of memento mori, recognizing the brevity of our lives, became an act of nostalgia.
These young men, of course, were not born with such idolatry. It was passed on, the result of Sundays watching the then-dynastic Patriots and participating in the obsessive commentary that followed each game during the season. Sports radio in Boston could take a three-hour contest and analyze each moment as if it was sacred Scripture itself. Remember when Bill Belichick took that one timeout right before halftime? What was revealed in this moment? What meaning did it possess for your life? How might it foreshadow what is to come?
Of course, the young men and women of Boston are not unique. American football functions to many citizens in the United States as a de facto religion. In 2022, the NFL made $18 billion while occupying our collective attention on Sundays, Mondays, and not a few Thursdays. Individual college football programs make hundreds of millions of dollars, while also offering us a spectacle to watch on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (and Sunday and Monday during Labor Day weekend). What would high school be without a football game on Friday night under the lights, young men clashing with their neighbors across town, while dreaming of future revenue made from playing a game they love?
Now, this kind of commentary might lead you to presume that the author is yet another academic incapable of understanding the lives of ordinary Americans. This guy, Tim O’Malley, probably sits in a library every Saturday and Sunday reading and writing books that no one cares about.
While I do, in fact, read and write such tomes, I reflect on football in American life as a full, conscious, and active participant in the annual autumn carnival. I have done so since I was in high school at a public school in east Tennessee. I still vividly remember the moment in which William Blount High School (zero state championships in football) defeated Maryville High School (17 state championships in football). We (note the use of the collective pronoun, despite the fact that I did not play football) beat Maryville on a two-point conversion in overtime. We rushed the field. We would later lose in the playoffs that season to Sevier County High School on some atrocious calls by referees who I presume were paid to make these decisions by boosters of Maryville High School (who would later go on to win state that year, but I digress).
My love of football didn’t stop in high school. As a student and later faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, I can mark the time of my undergraduate, graduate, and professional career through some fairly remarkable games, not a few of them losses. I am so committed to attending these games that I shape my entire fall travel schedule around Notre Dame football.
Should I really be doing this? Is this a good use of my time? Tim, shouldn’t you get a life apart from watching Notre Dame? These are the questions that I ask myself (and I suspect my Notre Dame alum wife also asks of me). Especially with all the problems with football today. College coaches who pledge lifelong fidelity to a team, only to depart when the right offer comes along (names need not be mentioned but Brian Kelly). Players who transfer schools when playing time doesn’t come along, or if there’s more money to be made through Name, Image, Likeness deals at other institutions. Schools that discourage students from getting the kind of degree that could change their lives in the long term, preferring that they put all focus on athletics. Concussions. Hazing. Racism. Fans who get blitzed out of their mind before the games, spending three hours yelling profanities at 18- to 22-year-old men. How can I keep watching in good conscience? How can I participate?
I have no great answer to these questions, which continue to haunt me. At the same time, I recognize the gift of college athletics. I admire the way that Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame, for example, is calling these young men toward excellence on the field and in the classroom, while simultaneously providing a formation into virtue. The kind of virtue that will benefit them when they have careers, but most importantly, when they are husbands and fathers.
Maybe, for me, the way forward is to properly order my love of this game. I’ve been known, during really important games, to turn to opposing fans to mock them (I apologize to fans of Clemson, in particular, for anything I said to you in 2022). After Notre Dame lost to USC in 2005 (when USC cheated, but that might not be specific enough to help you remember), I couldn’t sleep for a week. My mood was too often affected by what happened on Saturdays, causing me to be a rather grumpy husband and father.
During one of these grumpy moments, my son turned to me and said, “Dad, it’s only a game.” That’s true. It’s only a game. Its merits are a deeper connection to something larger than yourself, a community of past, present, and future fans of a beloved school, institution, or team. But it is a game.
Maybe, those of us at Catholic institutions in particular need to underline this to the young men and women who play football and attend our institutions. Even if there is a particular delight to being in Notre Dame Stadium on a Saturday afternoon, it is not the highest or even the most excellent of delights.
It’s a lesson, perhaps, that I might need to remember when Ohio State visits Notre Dame this fall. Go Irish! But, if we lose, then the sun will rise again. The beauty of existence will continue. And all of us are made for something more important than this game, however beloved it may be. Communion with God and one another.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.
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