When a football team scores a touchdown or beats a rival, students of the game might credit the coaching strategy or its execution by the players. For Pat Solitano Sr. (played by Robert De Niro) in the film “Silver Linings Playbook,” the outcome on the field for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles largely depends on the placement of his remote controls, a lucky handkerchief and where his son Pat (Bradley Cooper) sits on the couch.
When the elder Solitano loses confidence in the Eagles’ chances of beating the New York Giants, he claims that Pat’s new friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has brought a curse upon the team. But she swiftly rebuts the accusation by rattling off five recent occasions when she and Pat were together and a Philadelphia sports team won. Snap! (The streak did in fact occur, during the 2008 season, when the Eagles won three straight games and the Phillies advanced to the World Series.)
Sports fans can have unorthodox views of cause and effect, thinking it worthwhile, for example, to shout at the TV and plea for self-interested outcomes. Some even engage in rituals not unlike those in the Solatano household. In a survey released on Jan. 16 by the Public Religion Research Institute, 60 percent of Americans identified as a fan of a particular sports team—and of those fans, half believe that some aspect of the supernatural is at play in sports. About one-fifth of fans practice some sort of ritual before or during the game, like wearing a team jersey or doing a special dance.
A quarter of sports fans, mostly in the Midwest, believe their team has experienced a curse. Apparently, belief remains strong in the Curse of the Billy Goat, the consequence of ejecting the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago from Wrigley Field in 1945 because of the foul smell of his pet goat. Anyway, the “evidence” is supposedly incontrovertible: the Chicago Cubs have not returned to the World Series since the incident.
Some sports fans move beyond superstitious belief in unnamed forces and actually invoke the God of Abraham and Sarah to deliver their chosen team. More than a quarter of sports fans (26 percent) have prayed for God to help their team, and 22 percent of all Americans “completely” or “mostly” agree that God plays a role in who wins. What besides the intercession of Our Lady could explain Doug Flutie’s successful Hail Mary pass that sent Boston College to victory over the defending national champion University of Miami in 1984?
Superstition, in my view, is contrary to faith in Christ. But I firmly believe that a supernatural force is at play in sports. That force is God. God is intimately involved in every sports contest, everywhere. I do not think that God wears particular team colors, is primarily concerned about who wins or wants to satisfy the shallow desire to have bragging rights at the office on Monday morning. Rather I have a conviction that God is in each person’s life. God is present in all things, including sports.
As a sports fan and a believer, I think it is important to step back and critically reflect on our practices as fans. What unseen forces do I believe in? Do I invoke the spirit of God or some other spirit? Are my rituals and prayers focused on self-interest or others? Do I objectify coaches and players as means to my own satisfaction, or do I recognize them as individuals with dignity? Can I cheer for my team without turning the opponents (and their fans) into enemies?
It can be helpful to reflect on the real-life hopes and struggles of players and coaches involved in the contest. God is laboring in each person’s life. Perhaps a point guard in basketball struggles with selfishness but decides to make the extra pass to a teammate. Maybe a linebacker’s mother has breast cancer, and he is quietly playing on her behalf. The invitation is to pray for people, not points.
If God does cheer for a team, I imagine God showing partiality to the heavy underdog or a team from a city suffering from a poor economy. God has a track record—and makes a promise—of orchestrating great reversals and lifting up those who are poor (see the Magnificat). These great events, in my view, have nothing to do with superstition and everything to do with God, who has compassion for people, on and off the field.