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In the Fields of The Lord
Mark Oppenheimer
February 04, 2013
THE MEEK SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH—BUT THEY'RE UNLIKELY TO TAKE HOME THE LOMBARDI TROPHY THIS WEEK. HOW CHRISTIAN ATHLETES RECONCILE THE CULTURE OF FOOTBALL WITH THE TEACHINGS OF THEIR FAITH
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February 04, 2013

In The Fields Of The Lord

THE MEEK SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH—BUT THEY'RE UNLIKELY TO TAKE HOME THE LOMBARDI TROPHY THIS WEEK. HOW CHRISTIAN ATHLETES RECONCILE THE CULTURE OF FOOTBALL WITH THE TEACHINGS OF THEIR FAITH

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After the players had showered, I sat down with defensive end Justin Tuck, one of the principal Christians on the Giants, a kind of in-house pastor. At age eight he was already a "superintendent of Sunday school" at a small Baptist church in Kellyton, Ala., where his father was a deacon. That meant he got up in front of the church to teach Bible lessons. Now he is a co-leader of the Giants' team Bible study. He described the team as a traveling church, filled with Christian men who steeled him in his faith.

"We have a roster of 53 guys," Tuck said, and on Saturday night "there are 25 guys in chapel service. And I don't even know how many in the Catholic service." In other words, more than half the team attends weekly Christian worship—a number consistent with what I heard from players on other pro teams, nearly all of which now have a chaplain from Athletes in Action or a similar evangelical group. Tuck said he and some of the other New York players from Bible study, such as Chris Canty, Adrian Tracy and Chase Blackburn, have ongoing conversations about Scripture, which occur between practices, in the showers, on the team plane.

Tuck says his Christian faith keeps football in perspective for him. "A lot of people rely on the game for their identity," he says. "My happiness and joy aren't based on how well I play or if I get a sack. I should live a life that God is pleased with, not live a life total strangers are pleased with on Sunday."

But Tuck is aware that for many football players, the game makes it harder to keep the faith. This is a career that involves frequent traveling, not to mention working on the Sabbath. Then there's money: The Giants' lot is filled with expensive sports cars and SUVs. And money brings temptation, as does fame. Life on the road is not always a model of Christian morality. Players who aspire to lead a godly life find themselves making certain compromises. "We had a guy here," Tuck said, pausing to laugh, "who would go to the clubs and witness to the girls dancing."

Even if a player could Christianize the strip club, he can't cover up the central irony of big-time football: The sport with the biggest Christian presence, the most famous Christian athletes (the Tebows, the Kurt Warners) and the deepest penetration of chaplains, ministers and Bible studies is quite likely to corrupt a player's Christian values.

Since 1987, Sharon Stoll of the University of Idaho has surveyed more than 90,000 student-athletes on their moral reasoning in matters such as fair play and sportsmanship. Her research shows that athletes on average score lower than the general student population on tests of moral reasoning, and athletes in "male, revenue-producing contact sports" are the most deficient of that group.

One major reason for their moral indifference, writes Stoll, is that in the culture of male team-sport athletics, "the opponent is not seen as an honorable opponent but rather an obstacle, of little worth, to be overcome." This dehumanization of the opponent is amplified by the rules of football. Stars in all sports are rich and worshipped as heroes, but only football adds to the money and adulation a level of violence and physical domination that is deeply at odds with Jesus' message.

In 1994, Stoll asked a group of West Point football players, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, about the role of intimidation in sports. As Stoll tells the story, "One of the linebackers says, 'Ma'am, my job is to kick them in the head, knee them in the groin, stand over them and tell them never to get up.'" Stoll then asked how the linebacker would play against Jesus. "And the guy looked at me and said, 'Ma'am, I'm as Christian as the next guy, but if I'm playing Jesus the Christ, I play the same way. I leave God on the bench.'"

Football corrupts its fans too. A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2011 found that in cities where the home NFL team was upset on game day, there was an 8% increase in male-on-female domestic violence. In Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, his book about Alabama football fandom, Warren St. John tells the story of a couple who skipped their daughter's wedding to attend the Tennessee game. Asked why he would do such a thing, the father responds, "I just love Alabama football, is all I can think of." That's an extreme example, of course, but nobody who follows the college game can deny that many superfans put their devotion to football ahead of family.

These are the kinds of stories that horrify Shirl James Hoffman of the American Kinesiology Association. Hoffman is the son of a Baptist minister, and he played and coached college basketball. But he wants Christians to reclaim their heritage as sports skeptics. As he wrote in his 2009 book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, a century ago the Christian community "was still ambivalent about whether sports were legitimate leisure pursuits for believers." While "the Christian worldview is based on an absolute, immutable, justice-loving God," the culture of sports "is based on material success." For the players, and for the fans: Tickets for Sunday's Super Bowl are fetching well over $2,000 on StubHub. How would Jesus spend that kind of money?

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