Sermon: Lessons from the Gridiron: Football as Metaphor, Rev. Steve Wilson @ Pacific Unitarian 1/28/18

Next Sunday evening more than 100 million American’s, many who desperately need some exercise will sit and watch roughly fifty guys who will look like they would love a rest.
This game, the Super-bowl will be watched by about as many American’s as vote in a national election, and by more than attended Christmas Eve services nationwide.

You either care about “the big game” or you don’t.

That is your business, I don’t care.

However, since many in this room care more about what will happen at the super-bowl, than what happens here today, not address football is to miss an important cultural metaphor.

It is probably not coincidental that in America, a rise in loyalty to watching football on Sunday afternoons is correlated almost perfectly with a decline in church attendance.

However, it is where we are at. Particularly today, and like it or not, if football is going to take over at least a little of the experience in belonging that religion has provided, and it already has, we should see what impact and lessons it has for us. This sermon is not a pep rally for the game, it’s a moral examination on what lessons might be available tonight for our lives.
Ok, so what does the small R religion of football have to teach us.

FIRST LESSON: Hard Work and Discipline are the key to Success

To talk about the lessons of football without first speaking about its capacity to instill discipline, hard work, and a host of surrounding values around teamwork would be to miss the most obvious positive things football offers.

Football is hardly unique as a sport, or as an activity in providing this.

These values can be learned by any focused pursuit where one’s persona, goals, mind, and often their body is shaped into a tool for a purpose.

I don’t say that pejoratively, I really don’t.

Becoming a soldier, an academic, or a dancer also demands and thus instills the values of hard work, listening, and determination, etc.

However, for many American males, it is on that green and white striped, orderly world of the football field that discipline is first learned.

Mike McCann who played football at Charleston Southern University echoes those values,
McCann says that to really achieve anything significant and worthwhile requires sacrifice and a certain selflessness; and of course, that practice makes perfect.

It’s obvious, but true.
I feel an odd stand up straight pride in delivering them.
And, everyone associated with the game knows this.
Football coaches might be able to create a new play,
or strategize a good game plan,
but if they cannot get their team to absorb the virtues of selflessness, and a commitment to hard work, they will not be good football players, and the team will not win!

In the great religious tradition of assigning saints and icons to represent values, we should think of perhaps modern pro football’s patron saint Coach Vince Lombardi.

If football had a Mt. Rushmore, his face would unquestionably be chiseled into the stone.

*(Image of Lombardi on Rushmore)

In Lombardi’s own words, “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance and competitive drive.”

He’s boringly right. It is so simple that it sounds like it comes like he does, from a simpler time, but he and football is mostly right. As the man known simply as “The Coach,” said “Selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

Let’s take a second to let these values wash over you as you listen to a couple gospel like Lombardi quotes.

Perfection is not attainable,
but if we chase perfection
we can catch excellence.”
-Vince Lombardi

The difference between a successful person
and others is not a lack of strength,
not a lack of knowledge,
but rather a lack of will.
-Vince Lombardi

They have a potency to them don’t they.

Those words ring true like a ten commandments and list of beatitudes.

In football it is pre-supposed and unquestioned that the effort is worth it,
and that the struggle and the goal are worthy.

I would probably be a better minister were I more disciplined.

How about you? This is after all about us.

If you end up watching the game tonight, pause to let St. Vincent ask you that question.

Could you be more disciplined in your own pursuits.


One of the games other inherent virtues, true of all sports is that it is a meritocracy. Your race, family name, or even at times seemingly cruelly ones past fame, matters very little.
Football really is that brutally fair. It is not kind, it is not gentle, but it in its rabid pursuit of winning, it is fair. You really are either good and tough enough to play, or you are not.

I say that as someone who was not!

In an odd way, it is also a model of how creating an equal playing field sustains a buy in.

In the way that professional football as we now know it is structured, having created both a ceiling and a floor on what any team can spend on its’ players has made football a living example of how imposed income equality keeps things competitive.

In pro football, more than half the teams and thus their fans are competitive to make it to the playoffs until the very last few games of the season.

And then at the end of its competitive year there is a draft in which the weakest teams get to pick first on the new crop of college players. The two teams playing next week will pick last.

You might ask, who came up with that idea, Jesus? Karl Marx? No! a league full of billionaire owners who ironically know that equality creates buy in.

Our economists and its policy makers could oddly enough learn a thing or two about the ways, will, and virtue of creating an even playing field from at least pro-football.

Just saying.

If football has a expression of this value, I think the annual ritual of the worst team standing on the stage with the best college player at the draft is that moment.

Show Picture:


Football’s third lesson for us is not all that warm and fuzzy.

If in pro football there are on display the value of discipline, hard work, fairness, and equality, it also contains the truth that life is fleeting and dangerous, …

Although “life is fleeting and risky is hardly likely to become our 8th principle, it is true.

In being difficult, football requires a certain noble toughness.

Football conveys this hard truth better than most mediums not because it is not a sport that can be painful. It harbors that truth simply because IT IS painful, and that fact alone makes it a little different than other less athletic disciplines.

Here is a line would be worth repeating tonight, if you watch the game with a crowd. You can drop this while you saddle over to the chicken wings.

“Violent physical struggle is NOT the only thing that happens on a football field, but it is what is ALWAYS happening on a football field.”

One more time,

“Violent physical struggle is NOT the only thing that happens on a football field, but it is what ALWAYS is happening on a football field.”

And for that reason, football in the relatively safe confines of the 21st century offers up an exaggerated version of life’s hard truth that it can be dangerous, and our vitality fleeting.

This of course can be as emotionally disabling as it is inspiring, but we are talking about football’s lessons here, and that is one hard and real one.

Football reminds us that life requires a certain toughness.

And perhaps ironically enough, some of the people in the room today who are least likely to ever be able to step on a field, know this more than me.

If we were going to sanctify the plodding quality of practice, discipline and teamwork with the image of St. Vince Lombardi, we should hold up as our icons of toughness a couple famous linebackers like Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor marauding the middle of the field. (pause)

Let’s get our toughness on. You should have that gear to turn to when times are rough.

You know around here, who I think is tough, Lora Childers is tough, Phil is tough too.

Are you?

If you end up watching the game next week, let football ask you if you could you be tougher?

I know I would be a more effective if I were a little be tougher.

In life toughness matters a lot. Probably a whole lot more than it normally gets voiced in this room.
Even if your goal is to be tender, more compassionate, or more loving, getting back up and dusting yourself off in whatever it is you are aiming at will be essential.

Can you feel the values of the game washing over you?


In a way we are creating a list of the mostly unspoken of sacred values that will be on display tonight.

I hope this is a worthwhile exercise.

But if discipline and toughness are the obvious lessons our new national sport of ours can teach us.

LESSON 4: Complexity and Interdependence

As the game gets more complex the next obvious lesson available in tonight’s big game is that life is complex and interdependent.

See, football is far more interdependent, fluid, and inherently more complex than it is given credit for.

And, once you come to understand the game, and the strategy behind the monstrous athletes on the field you begin to see football as the ultimate athletic expression of strategy.

That’s pretty, if I don’t say so myself. Now there is another good line to drop while you distract those around you so you can double dip your nacho into the salsa.
(Prop of Nachos and Salsa)

“Football really offers the ultimate athletic expression of strategy.”
“Football really offers the ultimate athletic expression of strategy.”

This might be my favorite part of the game.

And the players tonight, as if they were in something of a smash up derby poker game meets chess match will be looking for very fine details in the way and manner their opposition stand in relation to one another.

Players are frequently sent by their coach in motion, simply to expose the plans of their opposition.

Likewise, tonight, at the start of many pass plays, Quarterbacks will regularly look in one direction simply to freeze an opposing player for the half second it takes to get another player he is not yet looking at into his area. He will of course have to do so, at the same time he is avoiding getting hit by a speedy agile and strong 300-pound two footed truck of a man with anger management issues.

But that is all part of the brutal ballet.

Football strategy is not particle physics, and coaches aren’t brain surgeons, but close.
The game is far closer to a chess match than it is to checkers.

And as big and as fast as football players generally are, and need to be, there are many players who are physically gifted enough, but mentally unable to make the correct split-second decisions about what to do next that don’t make it. Football simply demands a digested wisdom split second intelligence.

And because it is complex, it also is a living expression of interdependence.

In football it is difficult to quantify one’s contribution. Perhaps more than other sports, statistics don’t tell really the story of how balanced and interactive one needs to be to be a good football player.

See a talented receiver, or pass-rusher who commands the attention of two players the entire game can be instrumental even if he never gets highlighted on the screen, or is credited with a single statistic.

So, even if the kind of physical assault football players face is not something you regularly face? It can if we look carefully, beg of us the question to all of us in the living, breathing game that is our lives, of how well we are thinking through the challenges and opportunities that face us.

If you want to view the game through the lens of a cosmic battle watch the game tonight with an eye to see how defenses and defensive players work to create chaos, and disorder, and how the offensive teams and players rely on tight planning and sophisticated orchestration.

I don’t expect, or care whether you to care about this, but contained in this level of detail and prep, is another lesson or question from this barbaric game. Tactical and adaptive thinking.

On or off a football field, having the ability to analyze a constantly shifting landscape are faced with are good skills to have.

Inevitably our lives are always in some flux and adaptation between what we can control and what we can’t foresee. Football is a living contrived example of that, and that makes tonight an opportunity to ask yourself how well you are coaching and quarterbacking your life.

The most iconic image of this complexity and interdependence are the schemes used to plan out the plays.

If not the saintliest, at least the most iconic figures of the tactical lessons football offers are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

You had to figure as a New Englander I would get here right.

As the fable is being written, Tom Brady, was the skinny and slow kid who was the second to last pick in the giant popularity contest known as the NFL draft. And, by sheer work ethic and brain power, the slow and barely athletic Brady turned himself into the person who just may be the best quarterback of all time.

People in places like Miami, may not see it this way, but for us Bostonian’s we have our heroes

(Image of Brady as Jesus)

To spin the fable out one more mythic step this unlikely chosen one, has been by the hands of fate, and the bane of all other teams been paired with the even more intelligent, tactical, and ruthless coach Belichick. He too, in the conversation as perhaps the greatest of all time.

(Image of Belichick as Emperor)

For the faithful watching, this pairing of the unlikely chosen pure son, with the evil, older, hooded emperor from Star Wars is a perfect, seemingly even divinely ordained football marriage. For their adversaries, this union feels like odd fable.

And unlike scripture, trapped in history, this mythic tale of jealousy, luck, skill, and deceit is being written, with a major if not perhaps its final chapter unfolding tonight.

Let’s let our icon of strategic thinking who grumbles through one press conference after another, rudely expressing to the frustration of all reporters wanting him to get emotional and express some feeling, explain a few things to us, and then challenge each of with some questions of his own.

These are not his words, …but they could be.

Football presents for us an excellent example of the constantly shifting nature of challenges that we find in life.” (Snort)”

“Like progress on a football field, life is a mix of constantly shifting calculation of risk and reward.

Life is approached most successfully by charting forward with a combination of somewhat plodding predictably successful moves that are supplemented by a predictable mix of surprise? (Snort)
Knowing when to attack and when to be cautious, knowing when to throw deep and when to punt is the place where the science of football meets the art of life.? (Snort)
Success on the football field, always contains an unpredictable amount of randomness attached to it, but given that, the greatest chance of success is done by putting yourself in positive situations as possible.

So, as Belichek am asking you, are you accurately seeing all the challenges before you. And, are you focused on what is important? (Snort)

As Belichek I am asking you Without the stir of emotion to distract you, have you thought through the options that you face right now in your life?

Are you ready to adapt should things not go your way?


(I put on my high school football jersey) (Or one of Craig’s) Or my football jacket and pick up the ball.

Having just listened to the coach I am reminded that probably my favorite part of being a quarterback was the sense of control you have.
The play doesn’t begin until you say it does. Until you are ready to make a move.

You stroll to the line, in charge. And of course

You are the quarterback of your life, after all. You crouch down (I crouch down under center) standing at the line of scrimmage. Following that image, that metaphor, we all can stand back up and look around at the defense, or more for us, the challenges that we all face.

And context is dependent on where you are in relation to your goals. Maybe you have achieved them, and you are coasting to the end with what to you feels like a lead.
You might decide it is a time to be conservative and run the ball.

With more to lose than gain, and you want to take time, a chance to appreciate the moment.

Or, maybe you feel behind in your goals, the clock running out, and a high-risk act of desperation is required to, get to whatever you might consider success or a win. It that is where you are, you might need to throw deep.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to punt, regroup, and see if you can gain some field position.

Where you are in your life, and what life is presenting, and expecting from you all matters.

What do you see as the greatest challenges to you moving forward? Are they external. Or are they, as they often are internal?

“What can you control?” “And what can’t you?”

Remember your skills, strengths, you think about your limitations?

“How do you play to your strengths” and not get forced into playing the game as one of the popular football phrases suggest, “left handed.”

What by your own standards is, to turn the famous Patriots catch phrase “Do Your Job,” into a question, what is the most important job for you to focus on right now. Coach Belichick says, make that your job to find out, and then with a clear head, do it.

SPECIALIZATION: Look out over the very physical differences among the players. Most are big, but not all.

Some roles require height, some speed, some bulk. Football more than other sports is highly specialized. 350 pound lineman share the field with 150 pound kickers who barely wear pads.

In religious language “know thyself.”

You’re going to enter your game, your life with some innate skills. Your fast, or smart, or nurturing, or tall, or not. You will have to work within the constraints and gifts you are fated.
Your gonna want to work on both strengths and weaknesses. You might be hard working, and or spontaneous. You might be very good with people, or be a misanthrope. You might be smart, and or tall, you will figure this out.

In football Each team and quarterback has a very deep understanding of their own and of others strengths and weaknesses.

For example Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, became adept at identifying and manipulating defenses into call, and then change, a play from the line of scrimmage. Neither are particularly athletic, so their expertise has to be in their strategy.

Russell Wilson, Aaron Rogers, and Fran Tarkington on the other hand had the gift of elusiveness and were able to adapt mid play and scramble, away from trouble to look for a perfect pass.

What are your best skills, your genius, your specialization.

So, what is your gift. You should know your specialty.

Have you put yourself in position to best use them, in the improvement of the world?
Are you working on your weakest spots, mindful of your Achilles heels?

OK, lessons from football are over.

Meaningless, melancholy: In a little while the game will be over. In the end one team will emerge victorious. A trophy will be rewarded, Rings will be presented, Glory will be bestowed, and one team will have bragging rights for a year.

It will be exciting, confetti will fly and hopes will be fulfilled and dashed. However, trailing behind all the hoopla, will, if the fans are willing to listen will be a melancholy, a deep-down knowledge that this is a contrived act of meaning.

Because, fan or not, we all know that the Super-bowl does not matter, not nearly as much as many, many other things we spend less time thinking about do.

It is a game in part, watched by so many because it in itself doesn’t matter.

It is also an excuse to gather, watch something that has an undetermined ending. It is completely contrived.

And because this is a church and a sacred space set aside for real wisdom it must be said.

The final thing I want you to remember is what it doesn’t teach

As we have said Football is something of a chess match played out on a meets a wrestling mat, a perfect ballet of white and blue collar skills, a place where Goliath meets McArthur. However, for all the life lessons that can be found in football, the one missed by football is perhaps more important, and it is this.

(I throw the football away, and take my jacket off), and put my robe back on.

Football doesn’t, ask what’s really important because it cannot afford either the answer or the question to be out there.

Football does not, cannot teach what is most important. Football cannot offer advice on what can best sustain and lift up life and well-being for all of us because it doesn’t offer that.
Football being the focused attention on a distraction, and really is built to be a distraction can’t and doesn’t teach its participants or witnesses what really is important.
It like life, doesn’t pause to ask whether it is all worth it. It doesn’t ask how or what all this ability to compete really means when there just may be no enemy, but our desire and habit of creating one.

It is such an important thing to say, that I am going to say it again.

Football is an excellent teacher of discipline, how to strive, how to compete, even how to cooperate, football is an excellent instructor of how to take little steps towards bigger corporate goals that will when piled on one another lead to success.

What it does not teach you is that in life there really is no enemy.

Football never asks how truly valuable it is to be tough, when it is probably harder to stay tender.

Enjoy the game tonight. Look and listen for the strategies employed, think about being tough, practice your tactical decision making, and marvel at the monstrous athleticism on display. But don’t forget as so many do, that it is a distraction from what really matters, and that is a game that for all its fierce courage, cannot look the question in the eye like we do here, of what really matters.

Stop during one of the flashy, funny, commercials to ask the unasked question about what if any soul damage it does to have a national game that is rooted in the physical domination of one person over another

Is it hard not to be hardened by a pursuit the pre-supposes that competition and winning is paramount?
Ask yourself and those around you, do we ourselves become inured and insensitive to other people’s physical pain as we watch more and more football and become more and more a football nation?
Do we Ask yourself how that might have affected us in the immediate political context we are in.
*Also, Football may build a toughness, but what football doesn’t teach us men is how to blend that toughness in with the healthy need to be vulnerable, to cry, and too be compassionate. And that is more important. Amen