Liturgy and Basketball:
Welcome to March Madness

By Kit Carlson

“We want tacos! We want tacos!”

The score in the Breslin Center is Michigan State 68, Indiana 53. At 70 points, ticket holders can receive a free taco from Taco Bell after the game. The Izzone, MSU’s vaunted student section (named for coach Tom Izzo), is hopping up and down, roaring. The ball slips home, the score shoots to 70, and the place explodes from floor to rafters.

Tacos achieved, the Izzone gets back to the business at hand: a highly choreographed series of actions, cheers and songs that remind me not so much of my past life in college fandom (In my day, we wore what we wanted, yelled what we wanted, and plastered our venues with rude signs. Those days are done.) as it does my past experiences in cathedral liturgies. Something like the Presiding Bishop’s installation, for example, where each moment requires a specific gesture, song or prayer, done with grandeur and at top volume.

College sports are fun, exciting, adrenaline-producing spectacles. They also create ample opportunities for breaking Commandment Number One: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. The gods of college sports, be they the God of Football, the God of Hockey, or omigod, the God of Basketball, seem to demand ever-grander displays of devotion from their faithful followers.

When students enter the Breslin Center, they are vested in white Izzone t-shirts. You must wear a white Izzone t-shirt if you want to sit in your prized courtside student section. Postulants for the Izzone (freshmen!) must also vest in white Izzone t-shirts, even though THEIR section is up in the corner of the roof. If they are good postulants, they may get tickets in the courtside section the next year.

Upon entering the Izzone, each seat has a service leaflet which outlines the game ahead, the teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and which players to keep your eye on. The back of the leaflet has rubrics describing how the section is to conduct itself during the introduction of players, how it is to count down the shot clock in order to confuse the visiting team, and which way it is to wave its arms if seated behind the baskets when opponents step up to the free throw line.

Like any worshippers experienced in the liturgy of the season, Izzone members know all the hymns by heart — The MSU Fight Song prominent among them. They know all the congregational prayers, from “We want tacos!” to “I-Z-Z-O” to “Who’s Your Daddy?” They even know liturgical dance — they hop up and down, roaring maniacally when the opponent has possession, then maintain holy silence when their man is at the free throw line.

The God of Basketball seems to have been propitated by the Izzone’s devotion — the Spartans were undefeated in Breslin all season long. The business of commandment breaking, I’ll leave to their own consciences.

As March Madness comes upon us, one might debate who has the greatest liturgical power in basketball: MSU’s Izzone or Duke’s Cameron Crazies, or the Den at UCLA. But there is no debate — and I never want to hear again that old canard — that modern-day young people would be confused and put off by our Episcopal liturgies. Just get them inside. They’ll know what to do. I can hear them now …

We want wafers! We want wafers!

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

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