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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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But Americans have made their peace with the sport, to the point that some feel no shame preferring the sacrament of football to the actual sacraments on Sundays. That nobody seems even to notice the conflict between obligations to one's church and to one's team is the inevitable product of 50 years of sports evangelism: the work of organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, founded in 1954, and Athletes in Action, which was started 12 years later as a wing of Campus Crusade for Christ (which now goes by the indie-rock name of Cru). The people who run these ministries say sports should be subservient to God, not the other way around, but they have participated eagerly in the deification of sports in American culture, acting as if someone faced with the conflict between sports madness and godly obedience can simply step away from it, like declining a penalty when your team is way ahead. Which, in a sense, their team is.

FCA has 1,000 field staff who primarily run Bible studies and summer camps for athletes from junior high through college, and for their coaches. They say that 57,000 coaches and athletes will attend one of their camps next summer and that the fellowship runs 9,500 weekly "huddles," or local Bible studies, many of them at public high schools. Steckel, the FCA president, says that at last summer's FCA camps there were "5,060 first-time commitments to Christ and 7,351 recommitments"—players and coaches who may have been Christians already but who decided to rededicate themselves. AIA supplies traveling chaplains to many pro teams—Giants chaplain George McGovern's salary is paid by the group.

Both FCA and AIA were founded in an era in which evangelicals realized that they could no longer remain ambivalent about sports: Americans were not going to give up big-time athletics, or even question its primacy. Donnie Dee, a former NFL tight end who is now FCA's executive director and COO, described the fellowship's origins by saying that its founder, Don McLanen, "noticed in the newspaper that professional athletes were endorsing a product, and he felt if they could endorse a product, why not a way of life?" Evangelicals gave up trying to transform the culture and decided instead to use it.

Steckel and Dee both insist their ministry helps turn thousands of people toward Christianity every year, saving countless wayward lives. "If you look at these athletes, [many] don't have a dad, don't have a father figure," Steckel says. "These kids are dealing with so much, they are what the Word says: lost. Completely lost."

But these coaches or chaplains seem less concerned with how the culture of football might also be unmaking Christians. "There's no question of the violence that happens on a football field," says Dee, 47. "I've had a thumb surgery and four knee surgeries because of football. And there seems to be some behavior, some aggression that one might think is counter-Biblical and counter-spiritual. But I think it has everything to do with the heart—how do you draw the line between what's too physical and what's acceptable? We teach that athletes have been given a gift, and it's what you do with that gift that matters."

What about the concussions, the broken bones? The abuse meted out to the bodies God gave us? "You know," Dee says, "football is football. You can get hurt walking across the street." That is the mantra of these ministries: Sports are self-contained moral universes. It's O.K. to break bones if it's for sport. Football can't be subjected to the moral claims that pertain to other aspects of life.

Christian coaches and athletes point to the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew. A master entrusts three servants with some talents, or coins. The two servants who use the money to make more money are praised, while the servant who buries his money in the ground is condemned for wasting what was given to him. Some Christians conclude from the parable that God wants us to use our God-given abilities as best we can; some sports-obsessed Christians take that conclusion a step further, excusing violence and hypercompetitiveness as obedience to God's will that athletes do their best.

Gary Cramer, the FCA campus director at Alabama, contends that the Bible endorses violence in certain contexts as the fruit of an active, decisive and manly life. "When it comes to playing a violent game, we kind of know what we're signing up for," he says. "When you read the Scriptures, some guys would probably be against catching fish and eating them, but Jesus called two fishermen to be his disciples. They were out there in the real world, getting things done." But what if "getting things done" involves hurting other people? "I wrestled in New York and Pennsylvania for 13 years myself," Cramer says, "and in every match somebody leaves the field a winner and somebody leaves a loser."

No serious Christian argues that God cares who wins the Super Bowl. He (or She?) is not a Ravens fan or a Niners fan. Father Joseph Uhen, a Notre Dame graduate who serves as a parish priest in northern Peru, is an old friend of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, and he will be offering Mass for the team before Sunday's game. I asked Padre Jose, as he's known, if God will be rooting for one team or another. "Not so much," he said. "But I do think God wants everyone to use their talents, everyone to play their best." That's the sort of thing most Christian athletes, when they pray, ask for. They don't pray for victory. Instead they pray for health, or just for a good, fair game.

But here's the catch: Jesus' message is not exactly neutral toward winners and losers. The Bible is clear that he preferred the loser. The Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong and the poor at the expense of the rich. For that matter, the Bible also instructs us to keep the Sabbath day holy. And theologians and clergy would agree, almost unanimously, that showering men with tens of millions of dollars in a culture rife with temptation is a recipe for sin and corruption, deeply corrosive to their spiritual lives, not to mention the marriages they are trying to keep intact.

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