“The National Football League owns a day of the week,
the same day the church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”
—from the 2015 film, Concussion
I have a confession. Like so many other Americans, I absolutely love football. I am a gridiron acolyte who worships at the secular altar of our nation’s most popular sport. Since that warm fall New England afternoon in the fifth grade, when I first placed oversized shoulder pads on my undersized twelve-year-old body, I’ve been smitten with the game—both as a player and a fan. I played competitively through high school and have fanatically followed my hometown team, the New England Patriots, for most of my 55 years. So of course my eyes were glued to a big screen TV on the night of February 7th, 2016, when the Carolina Panthers took on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
There really is nothing else like the cultural juggernaut that is the NFL and its mid-winter showcase, the Super Bowl. This year’s game was watched by 111.9 million United States viewers—nearly half of all American households. Of the top ten most watched U.S. TV shows of all time, seven are Super Bowls. Facebook featured 200 million Super Bowl posts and Twitter 16.9 million tweets about the game. The Super Bowl is America’s most popular secular holiday. Even houses of worship bow to the power of the pigskin. On Super Bowl weekend, the church I serve always reschedules our evening confirmation class to Sunday afternoon, and we also hold a Super Bowl potluck supper the night before.
While the actual game draws many viewers, it is the commercials which run during the game that tend to dominate cultural conversation for days afterward. At a cost of $5 million for a thirty second spot this year, the commercials were a mixed bag of humor, weirdness and yes, theology. One for Doritos corn chips imagined a baby in utero escaping the womb for a taste of that snack. Another for Heinz showed a stampede of hot dog-costumed daschunds leaping into the arms of their condiment clad owners. And one, called “Cam’s Prayer,” stood out both for its star, Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton, and its message: a prayer to “the Lord,” that asks God, (I think?!), for a Super Bowl win.
Newton wears a pair of Beats Powerbeats2 wireless headphones, a brand owned by Apple Computer. The camera zooms in on his sweat laden face in a series of slow motion cuts. In a voiceover, Newton prays: “Dear God… people say you should be yourself, but they never considered me. I know you molded me different. You placed purpose on my shoulders. So now I come to you. Lord—give me the strength to finish this… my way.”
As a person of faith, I’m not quite sure what to make of this odd mash up. It’s got personal piety, a heavy dose of individualism (Frank Sinatra anyone?), all-American commercialism—bottom line, the prayer is selling headphones— and seems to infer that the God of the universe favors just one team, in one time and place, with one true star, for victory. My way. Is the “purpose” God placed on Newton’s shoulders really that personal and precise? Where are the rest of his teammates, the 52 other players that Newton depended on during the season, as they all collectively struggled and fought to get to the championship game? What is God’s purpose for them? Or for the Denver Broncos, their opponent? Does God bless some for a win and curse others for a loss?
Watching the commercial, we should also consider the larger context of Newton as a very successful and visible African-American man in the wider culture. In the midst of one of the best seasons ever for a quarterback, Newton was often criticized for the way he plays. He and the Panthers love to “dap”, an exuberant form of on field celebration and dancing, which some see as joyful and others label as arrogant, not the true way to play “the game.” Layer onto this the “Black Lives Matters” movement, police shootings of young African American men (often the same age as Newton), and the flash point of a black President either reviled or revered by the citizenry, and the commercial operates on an entirely different level. Newton’s prayer to fulfill “my way” can be judged as a defiant and powerful declaration. But is it a declaration as a member of a community, or a declaration for himself?
In faith, there is always a tension between personal call and communal call; each of us is given a life purpose by our God and yet each of us lives out this call, always, in relationship. In families and teams and churches and neighborhoods and nations. As the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed to God’s people in exile, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) It’s easy to read that promise as having been written to “me” alone. Who doesn’t want to trust that God has some amazing purpose for each one of our lives?
Yet the reality is this: we all rise together and we all fall together, whether as a football team, in a worship community or for a country struggling to find its new identity in a postmodern, multicultural, multi-faith world. Just ask Newton. His team, heavily favored and expected to win Super Bowl 50, lost instead. Lost together, in spite of Newton’s Herculean efforts. Maybe next year, if he makes it back to the championship, Cam’s Prayer might be a little different.
A prayer for me. And for we. And maybe not in the context of a commercial.