January 31st, 2014
05:49 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editorFollow @BurkeCNN
(CNN) - Before he watches his beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl this Sunday, Kyle Herman has some important rituals to perform.
Just as he has for years, in the morning he will pick out the Broncos jersey to wear for the game. He will slip on his high-school ring, refashioned in Broncos blue and orange, and surround his television with team paraphernalia, from signed footballs to a pillow.
Herman has several Broncos jerseys, and if a certain player is stinking up the field, the 21-year-old from Beaver Falls, Wisconsin, will put on that player's jersey. You know, to give them a little more mojo.
“I don’t know why,” he says with a loud laugh, “but I feel like it really works for some reason.”
Herman may think his rituals are silly, but he’s far from alone in his sports superstitions.
According to a poll released in January by the Public Religion Research Institute, about half of all Americans believe that some element of the supernatural plays a role in sporting events.
That could mean fearing your team is cursed, as a quarter of sports fans said they do. It could mean you’re among the 26% who said they pray for God to help their team. Or it could mean performing rites like Herman, believing that, by some mysterious force, they will affect the outcome of the big game.
Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, said he wanted to explore the remarkable parallels between religion and sports: the tribalism, the loyalty, the uniforms, the lore, and, of course, the rituals.
Hearing people describe their game-day rites and customs, was eye-opening, Jones said with a wide smile.
“People were very very specific. They put on certain underwear, danced in little circles, gave their TVs a pep talk. Some of these things were playful and some were more serious.”
To hear Tamara Murphy tell it, what she and her husband wear on Sunday could have win-or-lose consequences for the Seattle Seahawks.
Dustin wears a Seahawks jersey that he only washes when the team loses, which means that shirt should be pretty ripe right about now (their last loss was October 6). Tamara wears a pair of Seahawks underwear on Sundays.
“The one time I didn’t wear them during the first half we lost,” she wrote on CNN’s Facebook page. “Now my husband asks me before kickoff if I have them on.”
Football fans tend to be more supernaturally inclined than baseball or basketball devotees, the PRRI poll found. That’s probably because football is most popular in the South and Midwest, the most religious parts of the country, Jones said.
Football fans were more likely to pray for their teams, perform pre-game rituals or believe their teams are cursed, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,011 American adults between January 8-12.
Even football fans who are not especially religious said they are asking God to help their team this Sunday.
Michael Kung, for instance, penned a prayer on CNN’s Facebook page after we asked fans to share their supernatural Super Bowl plans.
“Dear God, I know that I don’t talk to you much and I haven’t been to church since middle school," he wrote, "but please, let the Seahawks win on Sunday.”
(Now would be a good time to mention that while CNN has many sources in high places, the last time we checked, God is not one of our Facebook followers.)
Other CNN Facebook friends challenged Kung’s priorities. Praying for a game while millions suffer in poverty is “sick,” said Jennifer Smith.
We wanted to explore the question a bit, so we asked well-known Christian theologian William Lane Craig: Does God really get involved in our games?
Craig’s answer: Yes and no.
“Everything that happens in this world is by his divine will or permission, and that includes fumbles and interceptions,” he said, “but it’s not as if God intervenes to deflect a pass in the end zone.”
Rather, God sets up the basic circumstances (kind of like the NFL commissioner) and allows the players to determine the outcome, said Craig, a professor at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.
The Rev. Warren Hall, a Catholic priest at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, teaches a class on sports and spirituality and had roughly the same response.
God cares about the people on the field, their conduct and character, but not the outcome of games, said Hall. If God really were a sports fan, Catholic colleges would boast much better records, he said with a laugh.
While God may not be intervening in the field of play, Hall said he sees an element of the divine in the stands, in the communion of bleacher creatures.
“To be in a stadium with 60,000 people, and feel the energy of that, it touches on something transcendent,” the priest said. “I think God likes to see his people happy. He likes it when we gather together to enjoy each other’s company.”
Of course, any American crowd these days includes many atheists – and they’ll have a big presence on a billboard down the road from MetLife Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl.
The billboard depicts a priest holding a football and giving a thumbs-up sign. “A ‘Hail Mary’ only works in football,” it reads. “Enjoy the game!”
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