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The Word According to Tom

Big names in sport have been used to sell religion, endorsing Jesus much as they would a sneaker or a golf club, but the show-biz approach to Christianity is now losing ground

An invocation by Father Edward Rupp at the dinner before the 1976 WHA All-Star game:

"Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie, we come before You this evening to seek Your blessing.... We are, thanks to You, All-Stars.

"We pray tonight for Your guidance. Keep us free from actions that would put us in the Sin Bin of Hell. Inspire us to avoid the pitfalls of our profession. Help us to stay within the blue line of Your commandments and the red line of Your grace. Protect us from being injured by the puck of pride. May we be ever delivered from the high stick of dishonesty. May the wings of Your angels play at the right and left of our teammates. May You always be the Divine Center of our team, and when our summons comes for eternal retirement to the heavenly grandstand, may we find You ready to give us the everlasting bonus of a permanent seat in Your coliseum.

"Finally, grant us the courage to skate without tripping, to run without icing, and to score the goal that really counts—the one that makes each of us a winner, a champion, an All-Star in the hectic Hockey Game of Life. Amen."

Until recently, the distasteful practice of having loquacious men of the cloth deliver pregame invocations larded with sporting lingo was restricted pretty much to the South and to football. But athletic religion is not so bashful anymore. Increasingly, public team prayer and public-address entreaties to the Divine Goalie or the Head Coach in the Sky are in evidence. Sportianity, as this brand of religion might best be called, is thoroughly evangelistic, using sport as an advertising medium. The idea is simple enough: first, convert the athletes, who are among the most visible individuals in our society; then, use these stars for what is generally known in the business as "outreach," an up-to-date rendering of the old-fashioned phrase "missionary work." To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.

A classic example is an inspirational comic book, written about the life of Tom Landry, the Dallas Cowboy coach who is also chairman of the national board of trustees of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the best-known and most influential of the Sportian organizations. In the comic book, Landry's bald head is never shown. He always has a hat on or, indoors, his pate is cleverly obscured by well-placed lampshades and word balloons. The problem is that he became prominent in Sportianity about the time he went bald, and Spire Christian Comics apparently does not want young readers to get the impression that being a witness to Jesus causes baldness. On the other hand, children are being led to believe that religious wisdom is revealed to the Western world through the National Football League. The comic implies that "God's Game Plan" is guaranteed—coming as it does "From the Blackboard of the Dallas Cowboys' Chapel Service." The plan is being peddled as orange drink or vitamins ("From the Training Table of the Dallas Cowboys") might be. Sportianity is a hard, clever sell.

Athletes are brought along carefully. Only natural ministers move right into the starting lineup. Dave Hannah, the president and founder of Athletes in Action, the jock arm of Campus Crusade for Christ, explains the group's redshirting of Terry Bradshaw. "We spent a long time considering whether Terry was there," Hannah says, "but now he's really coming along spiritually." The major Sportian organizations compete diligently for the best athletic outreachers, the big names that also will be hits at the religious box office.

Too often the star system becomes a numbers game. Sportianity seems mesmerized by numbers. Ben Patterson, an editor of The Wittenburg Door, a contemporary religious magazine, writes, "Look at the thousands who have come to Christ through the witness of a famous Christian athlete or entertainer. My reply is that if all the statistics of all the evangelistic crusades reported in just the last 10 years were accurate, then we would be living on a planet fully Christianized—several times over."

The most detailed statistics come from Baseball Chapel, which is coordinated by a retired sportswriter, Watson Spoelstra of Detroit. Spoelstra puts out a biweekly newsletter that provides Chapel stats every bit as detailed as those in The Sporting News. Chapel attendance last season soared to 6,434, which averages out to 260 a Sunday—and this without any special Bible Day or Cross Day giveaways. There were exactly 146 individuals who spoke in Baseball Chapel last season.

Pro Athletes Outreach boasts that 250,000 heard its speakers during a five-city tour in 1975. The Sports Ambassadors played before 139,400 fans last year. Athletes In Action teams packed in 700,000 spectators, with 125,000 of them filling out inquiry cards. And, from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes monthly: "Of the 70 delegates during one week, 26 indicated they found Christ as Savior and Lord, 29 made recommitments of their lives, and 22 said they would like to become involved in fulltime Christian service."

While FCA rolls are expanding, especially as its roots spread—into junior high, even to girls—the group is returning more and more to its original homely precept of having young athletes support one another. The summer camps, featuring big-name players and coaches, have always provided a come-on, but the strength of the program lies in the local Huddles, where an older athlete meets with younger ones.

Ron Morris, a former SMU basketball star, is an ordained Methodist minister who has been with the I Fellowship since 1956. Now vice-president in charge of fund raising, his views are representative of the growing concern within the FCA about the organization's values. "I see a danger of our being overly evangelical," Morris says. "It's important for us to understand where we stand. We're not breaking new ground. We're not even reaching the uncommitted kid. The boy we get almost always has been raised in a church, his Mom and Dad are members. We provide a strengthening process, the identification of a peer group. We get these kids to camp, we get them to play together on a team, and their trust factors go up. Through this athletic camaraderie you have an affirming process and, unfortunately, in life we don't get affirmed too often, do we? We ought to understand that what the FCA does best is affirm, not evangelize."

These sentiments have not always been a factor in FCA policy. A pro star who once was active in the Fellowship explains why he eventually was driven from it. "First of all," he says, "you can't use my name. I'll be quoted on anything else. If I were into cannibalism or polygamy, I'd come out and say it, but if you use my name here I'm going to get a thousand letters from the South telling me I'm going to hell and offering to save me again, and I just don't need it. They don't let go. Those FCA guys get their teeth in you, and they never quit. Anyway, they never quit when you're on top. Have a bad season, and they lose a lot of interest in your soul.

"I remember one time when I was playing in college and on top, and I got a telephone call from FCA headquarters asking me to go speak at a conference in Florida a couple of days later. I had an exam or something, and they're asking me to fly 6,000 miles, back and forth across the country. They wanted to show me off. I said, 'Please, not this time, I'm busy.' They said, 'What's the matter, son, aren't you a Christian anymore?' I'm 20 years old, trying to get my head on straight, and those dudes were giving me this. I didn't get that much pressure from college recruiters, or when I was drafted by the pros. They're never satisfied. No matter how good a talk you gave, afterward somebody would come up and say you only used the word 'Jesus' six times or eight times or whatever. 'Don't be afraid to come to Christ, son.' Pretty soon I began to see who the real Christians were."

FCA officials admit that athletes were unfairly pressured in the past but maintain that such practices no longer are tolerated.

Nowadays, the huge FCA breakfasts, which are held in conjunction with college and high school conventions and at various bowl games, have much the same air as an ABC cocktail party or a presentation for Converse or Wilson Sporting Goods. Sport is a big, diversified corporation, and Jesus has become a healthy part of it—and His franchise produces a nice little profit.

But the FCA has begun to serve as succor and counsel, a corporate pastor, for its weary and heavy-laden, even its fallen angels. In the old days it had no truck with losers, but Fellowship personnel now spend a significant portion of their time bolstering members who are experiencing hard times—a coach under alumni pressure, an injured player, a guy in a slump, even a coach under NCAA investigation. A call was placed to Bobby Bonds, the baseball star, after a drunk-driving arrest, asking if help could be provided.

The Fellowship has gone through several stages of development and personality. In 1947 a young Oklahoma A&M student, Don McClanen, had the idea for such an organization. He got nowhere for several years. Finally he hocked his car and bought an airplane ticket to Pittsburgh, where he went to the Pirates' office to see Branch Rickey. The Mahatma was known as a Christian gentleman of the first water, a man who honored a promise to his dead mother that he would never never desecrate the Sabbath by attending a game.

McClanen was granted a two-minute session with Rickey, but he was so convincing that the interview stretched into five hours as McClanen shared with Rickey the idea of organized athletic evangelism. On each telling of this tale, McClanen is represented as sharing his idea. This is the code word in Sportianity. People don't preach or evangelize, sell or push. God forbid that they should ever hustle. What they do is share. In any event, Rickey immediately took to McClanen and his ideas and shared with him some sandwiches as they discussed plans for a new type of ministry.

McClanen was eased out once the Fellowship began to take off, and his replacement died soon after his appointment. The great growth of the Fellowship came in the '60s under the aegis of a controversial Texas salesman named James Jeffrey, who could reduce an audience to tears by sharing with it a soupy story about a young football substitute who has a blind father. The kid finally gets to play—and scores the winning TD—the day after his father dies. And here comes the tearjerk finale: "It was the first time my father ever saw me play." As a ballad on 45 LP, The Blind Man in the Bleachers surfaced this past autumn, sung by Kenny Starr, and became No. 2 on the Country and Western charts.

Despite his prairie eloquence, Jeffrey was a haphazard administrator, and he was succeeded three years ago by 48-year-old John Erickson who, religious intensity notwithstanding, does not believe so much in hellfire and brimstone as in the bottom line. A Republican stalwart from Wisconsin, he ran for the United States Senate in 1970 and was defeated by the incumbent, William Proxmire. Prior to that, Erickson had served as basketball coach at Wisconsin and then as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, presiding over the team at the time when Lew Alcindor announced his conversion to Islam. As befits the man who holds the most prominent position in Sportianity, Erickson is efficient and distinguished, and even more important for the Fellowship, which has a distinctly regional heritage and stamp, he is of sturdy Midwestern Lutheran stock.

The FCA preaches a conservative theology. Often, in fact, the movement is hung up on the petty conduct of individuals. All of Sportianity was thrown into a snit several years ago when it was revealed that Bill Bradley, an old pet, had taken to relaxing with a cold beer after a hard game. Joe Namath's love life keeps the entire movement in paroxysms of disgust. Yet Sportianity does not question the casual brutality—spearing, clothes-lining, gouging—that sends players like Namath to the hospital every year. It does not censure the intemperate behavior of coaches like Woody Hayes and Bobby Knight.

Twice, Pro Athletes Outreach has turned away a bachelor athlete who wished to check in at a conference and share hearing the Word with a girl friend. An official for Athletes In Action says that any married AIA player would be dismissed if he saw an X-rated movie, inasmuch as this would mean he had looked lustfully after a woman (albeit on celluloid) and thus, according to literal scripture, had committed adultery.

Arlis Priest of PAO is asked a hypothetical question: suppose the most exemplary man, the most Christlike man in the world, were a pro football player, but this paragon of virtue enjoyed an occasional draft beer and cigar and played some nickel-dime gin rummy with friends. Would PAO want him? Priest thinks some time before answering. "Well, I'm not saying that behavior is right or wrong, but it might offend others, so whereas we'd let him come to our meetings, he could never be a leader, he could never speak out to others." One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist minister who spearheaded the Great Awakening in 18th-century America. Like Arlis Priest, Edwards was inflexible, and demanded very persuasive evidence that a petitioner had received "God's saving grace" before he would permit him communion. Edwards was known, at least until now, as "the last medieval American."

The fear of taking a stand on moral issues is acute in Sportianity. In January 1972 the FCA monthly, The Christian Athlete, broke away from the mainstream and ran a cover article equating sport and war—and most graphically, football and war—and the repercussions are still being felt. The Christian Athlete, which is put together at FCA national headquarters in Kansas City, wallows in conversion pieces but, these repetitive commercials aside, it is well written and thoughtful.

The article in question, "Sports and War," appeared at a time when Vietnam was still a national issue, when the polls showed Richard Nixon vulnerable to Edmund Muskie—in large part because of the war. The adult FCA constituency, largely conservative, Nixonian and inculcated with what the article labeled the "sports mindset," had a fit, being especially infuriated by photographs vividly juxtaposing sport and war, e.g., injured player-wounded soldier. The editors well appreciated that the piece was provocative and depressing, but they felt that by examining sports morality under a harsh light, by refusing to approach athletics as "a not very subtle form of hero worship," sport could be put in better perspective—a Christian perspective. The FCA was so distressed with the article that censorship was thereafter imposed upon The Christian Athlete and, according to close sources, considerable thought was given to firing both the editors, two devout young Christians named Gary Warner and Skip Stogsdill. Four years later the FCA and the editors are still loth to discuss the matter.

But everyone in Sportianity is utterly candid in explaining—indeed, justifying—the concept of using athletes to preach the Gospel. John Erickson of FCA says, "If athletes can endorse products, why can't they endorse a way of life? Athletes and coaches, be it right or wrong, have a platform in this country. Athletes have power, a voice. So, simply, how can we best use this for something constructive in the faith life?"

Erickson and his colleagues take pains to emphasize that they do not believe that God thinks athletes are unique. "God is no respecter of persons, there are no stars for Him," says the Rev. Billy Zeoli, one of Sportianity's leading figures. "But the fact is that people view athletes and show-biz people as stars, and we can't change that. So we say: let's change the stars, teach them to be right and moral, and then take them to the people."

The acerbic Wittenburg Door took a far different view not long ago: "The word athlete is arrogant in a sense. It draws a line. It says here is a group of special people. [We] would like to question...the whole thing of the athlete. Just the word and the whole discipline involved reflects our society's values...the winning, the success, the achieving." At Explo '72, the evangelistic Woodstock that drew packed houses to the Cotton Bowl, the biggest hand went to Roger Staubach (whose message was that "God has given us good field position"; now we can understand why Landry sends in the plays).

Many churchmen outside the evangelical wing oppose superstar religion, in varying degrees. Malcolm Boyd, Episcopal priest and author, says, "The celebrity game is antithetical to the deepest meaning of religion. It's cynical and the misuse of a person. Sure, maybe Roger Staubach, or whoever, knows that he is being used and what for, but the practice is incorrect, the show-bizzing of religion. Religion is ego-tripping with sport.

"And don't let these guys tell me they're merely employing modern methods. Myself, I don't think it's very modern to be right back there with Herod. Some of these preachers with the hairspray are about as hip as Innocent III. Billy Graham said that we should be selling Christ like soap. I don't think so. I think we should be trying to act like Christ. He never was a celebrity. Jesus Christ was the exact opposite of a superstar."

John Erickson says, "We think we've harnessed hero worship," and he states that resolutely. It is unlikely that the Fellowship, at least under Erickson, will completely renounce its star cast. The movement away from heroes and into the hinterlands is led by an FCA vice-president, Julian Dyke, who is the single most impressive individual in Sportianity. Dyke was never a big star. He went to a small college, Western Maryland, and then toiled as a high school coach and athletic administrator in Baltimore. His interest in religion came late, and like the kids themselves he was positively starry-eyed at being in the presence of big names when he first attended an FCA summer camp.

People in religion full time tend to be of great faith. They have accepted one huge absolute, and so it is natural that they accept more prosaic things completely. Simple workaday procedures can become as inviolate as belief in the divinity of Jesus. Christ is right, Huddles are right. And so on. That's the way it is. This type of man is everywhere in Sportianity, so the exception is all the more interesting. In his normal conversation Julian Dyke never says anything stronger than "my goodness," but in FCA staff meetings he deliberately inserts an occasional "hell" or "damn" to shake up the Holy Joes and bring them in touch with reality. Dyke is as devout as the next fellow in Sportianity, but he possesses an awareness and a healthy skepticism lacking in his colleagues. He doesn't confuse Jesus with football. Sadly, a lot of the others do. They worship both, it seems, and, after a time, Jesus and football become indistinguishable.

Because religion does deal in absolutes, it is attractive to athletic personnel. Sport is the converse of religion: there is nothing less absolute. You do not know whether you are going to win, lose or get rained out. The men who stay in sport, coaches who make it their career, tend to be conservative and conformist. In their most indefinite world, they seem to seek assurance and comfort in routine and order, and in religion. Marshall McLuhan suggested not long ago that athletic competition is the ultimate conformity. A game is played in an artificial atmosphere in which rules have been made, goals established, and everybody does the same thing. In effect, you win by conforming better than anyone else. It is a fascinating thesis, and one is particularly struck by it upon considering the alliance of religion and sport. Coaches—not the star players—are obviously the people in athletics best suited to share religion. Indeed, the leaders of the various groups in athletic religion sound more like coaches than executives. One always feels that it is not a calendar year for these people, as it is for everyone else, but a season. There is a definite feeling of competition in the air. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition—and the ammunition is dressed in satin shorts or shoulder pads.

"For a young person," Julian Dyke says, "the star is a model who probably is irreplaceable." He pauses for emphasis, but then smiles to introduce a contradiction. "But it is the coach who has the most impact. The coach—more than the teacher, more than the pastor, even more than peers or parents. This is what we find. I'm afraid the negative power of a coach is incredible and too often is overlooked. All the tough-guy stuff, all the winning-is-everything, turns kids away. The toughest thing is to get the coach to tell a boy that he is important, that...I love you.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not so sure that what we do in the Fellowship has a great deal of depth. Instead, we work with what is already there, by osmosis, showing these kids a great deal of love and concern. Evangelism is often attacked, especially by those who feel that religion should be more involved with social activism. I think we're getting into a new type of evangelism here, though, one that succeeds through fellowship."


Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, Copyright © 1973. By Fleming H. Revell Co.


As athletes are used as ministers, so do others minister to athletes. While Sportianity can't make a dent in basketball, the Rev. Billy Zeoli leads a phalanx of clergymen into football and baseball locker rooms, where prayer is a function of "team unity" and the players and chaplains talk a great deal about the Seventh Commandment.