This past November 24, the Liturgical calendar and the Canadian Football League (CFL) schedule occasioned a coincidence of events: to wit, the nation’s premier football (not soccer) championship, the Grey Cup, was played on the Solemnity of Christ the King.
I shall not presume to say which of these events caused more Catholic hearts to burn in my part of the country.
In general terms, the football match is a big deal (Canadian version of the Super Bowl).
This year it was won by my province’s team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders (for only the fourth time in the club’s 101-year history).
It was more a coronation than a contest, as the Western winners routed their hapless Eastern opponents.
The Riders, as they are affectionately known, are the only CFL team named for an entire province, as opposed to an individual city.
The fans’ sense of proprietorship (and loyalty) is widespread and has been dubbed “Rider Nation”.
For many years, Saskatchewan’s chief export was people, as souls in search of gainful employment fled the province.
Thus, the Riders have fans living in every part of Canada, much of the US, and other spots on the globe, including (I can personally vouch) Australia.
With a current population of 1.1 million (and climbing, due to a recent economic boom), the province of Saskatchewan is the smallest market with a professional sports team in all of North America.
The city of Regina, where the team is based, boasts a mere 200,000 souls.
Yet the Riders consistently sell out the stadium (fans will drive 500km or more to see a game), and the team turns impressive profits; their merchandise sales rank third in Canada, behind hockey teams from Montreal (population 1.6 million) and Toronto (2.5 million).
The team colour (green) is apropos on more than one level: once perennial underdogs, the Riders have become the envy of the CFL.
Sports writer Bruce Arthur (Toronto’s National Post) says “The Roughriders have become a monster. They are the biggest franchise in the CFL, the most profitable, the beating green heart of the league.”
Not the Sacred Heart or Immaculate Heart, but perhaps as close as a sports team can hope to come.
Mr Arthur continues: “The rest of Canada views Rider Nation as this adorable thing, this church-going earnest green tribe… the love suffuses this province”.
There you have it: they will know we are Rider fans by our love.
While Saskatchewan could certainly teach the rest of Canada (especially cynical, condescending urbanites) a thing or two about the concept of “community spirit”, I nevertheless maintain that there is nothing particularly adorable about the veneration of idols.
The Roughriders’ president and CEO, Jim Hopson (“a sort of secular Pope” quips Bruce Arthur) fell short when he called their Grey Cup win “phenomenal” – for many, it mimics a religious experience.
No one would brave sub-zero temperatures for a Corpus Christi procession in the streets, but celebrating fans paraded outdoors in Regina long into the frigid night, shouting and dancing (and would have done so, even barring alcohol as a factor).
Many sober fans have taken “The Rider Oath”, a quasi-religious pledge (see YouTube), which borders on ridiculous if not creepy.
To truly combine the experience of faith and fandom, one can wear a team jersey to Sunday Mass, which devoted Catholics did in droves, week after week as our team advanced through the playoffs.
I’m old school enough to think that if you have something – anything – more dignified in your closet, sports clothing (such as sweatpants and team jerseys) is simply not appropriate church attire.
We ostensibly attend Mass to worship God, not to draw attention to our sports teams. (I don’t like rock star or beer ad T-shirts either, so I’m not just picking on sports fans.) Worse still, many priests engage in Rider boosterism at the beginning or end of Mass.
Few have the courage to suggest that some aspects of fan devotion border on idolatry. Oh come now, you’re over-thinking this, you grumpy old hen (so says my inner voice).
It’s all good, harmless fun, isn’t it? Fandom is an expression of communal solidarity, common cause, love and devotion. Exactly my point. We’re getting excited about the wrong coronation.
There’s a problem if we feel more anguish over our team’s losses than we do over our sins, or wrongs like abortion, poverty or hunger; if we have more zeal for Game Day than for the Gospel; if we experience more heartfelt elation in a championship win than we do in the knowledge that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to save us from the power of sin and death. To paraphrase St Paul, we may care more for the withering wreath of laurel leaves than for the crown of eternal salvation.
I don’t wish to be too hard on my fellow Saskatchewanians (try saying that after two drinks); after all, I too belong to Rider Nation.
But at the risk of committing heresy: it’s only football; the Riders are just another team; the Grey Cup is just another game.
But then that goes for all idols, everywhere. It is we who choose to make them so.
Vivat Christus Rex.