Les Steckel, a longtime NFL offensive assistant and the coach of the Vikings for one season, was a proponent of cut blocking, the dangerous tactic of aiming at an opponent's knees downfield. When his players balked at cut blocking, he told them to man up. "I'd say, 'Go cut 'em,'" Steckel recalls, "and they'd say, 'But they have a career like me.' And I'd say, 'Well, they're trying to take your career away from you.'"
Since 2005, Steckel has been president and CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the international sports ministry group that organizes Bible studies, "prayer huddles" and Christian summer camps for athletes. Given that role, you might wonder if Steckel has any regrets about the years he spent urging techniques that could maim opponents. He does not. "God loves us just the way we are," says Steckel, 66, "but at the same time He does require excellence. And in the NFL, performance is ultimate."
Steckel's interpretation of the Gospel will not surprise any fan of big-time football. Every weekend during the season thousands of football players on high school fields and in college and pro stadiums point to heaven after the big sack, cross themselves after a touchdown and give thanks to Jesus in the postgame interview. At the Super Bowl in New Orleans this Sunday, players on both teams will pray in small huddles on the sidelines, before every quarter. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis wears a black T-shirt under his uniform that says psalms 91. (You can look it up: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.") San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has the text of psalms and other religious references tattooed on his arms.
It's clear that for a substantial number of athletes and coaches, there is no tension between being a Christian and being an aggressive athlete. On the contrary, many of them argue that football builds character and thereby makes a man more of a Christian—a commingling of faith and football now accepted by fans.
But is that a mistake? Just 50 years ago such coziness between public Christianity and football would have seemed absurd. Athletes were nobody's idea of good ambassadors for religion; they were more likely to be seen as dissolute drinkers and womanizers—more the roguish Joe Namath than the devout Roger Staubach. The aggressive, violent play preached by coaches of an earlier generation was accepted as natural precisely because sport was pagan, not Christian. Christianity was peaceful, charitable and pious. Sport was bloody, ruthless, impious.
In the 1950s and '60s that antagonism began to soften. Campus ministries such as the one Steckel runs began reaching out to athletes to get Jesus into the locker room. The ministries found players to talk to the boys (and soon girls) on the teams. Such men could get a hearing from teenage football players, helping to close the breach between faith and football, and make sports more hospitable to Christianity.
But what if, instead of bringing a Christian culture to sports, these evangelists allowed the coarseness, idolatry and materialism of sports to infect players' faith? Church and pro football both revolve around Sunday, and 50 years into our national experiment of mixing the two, it is not clear that faith has won the day. In fact, some Christian athletes and coaches are starting to recognize that football, at least as it is currently played, may be bad for one's soul.
If all you did was watch football players expressing their faith on television, you might think they're spontaneous, these shout-outs to Jesus after touchdowns, after big sacks, after victories. The way Kaepernick, after a big play, kisses either his tattoo of the words TO GOD THE GLORY or the one that reads faith. And that's true, up to a point. No doubt some players are so overcome that they feel they simply must point up to Heaven or take a knee. But at a deeper level the Christian faith that infuses the NFL is often—like the players' diets, exercise regimens and practice schedules—part of a carefully calibrated routine.
Take the Giants. They meet after practices on Wednesdays for Bible study. The Protestant players gather for worship on Saturday evenings; the Catholics have a team Mass on Sunday. The team has a Protestant chaplain, whose salary is paid by the evangelical organization Athletes in Action, and a Catholic chaplain, both of whom travel with the team. The Giants pray at the end of every practice session and before every quarter of every game.
On a Thursday in December, three days before they were routed 34--0 by the Falcons, I saw small groups of players kneeling all over the practice field at the Meadowlands, beautiful little clutches of men at prayer, circular and evenly spaced, like raindrops on a pond. Close by me, at the field's edge, seven men knelt together, whispering their devotions. I looked at the numbers on their jerseys: 13, 15, 87, 82, 12, 88, 80. The wide receivers—football players praying by position.
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?
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.
John White, who teaches sports chaplaincy at Baylor, urges his students to think in radical terms about a truly Christian sports ethos. "In our class we talk about redemptive strategies, how to renew sports," says White, a former Athletes in Action chaplain who served at the Olympic Training Center in 1991 and '92. "Teaching the athletes to write notes" to players on the other teams, for example. "Social networking, where you start a friendship with people outside of the game, through the game, after the game." Or opposing teams sharing meals before and after the games. As White says, "Hospitality is very rich in Christian tradition."
A former athlete and chaplain who teaches at a nearby Division I school thinks White doesn't go far enough and calls for an even more radical transformation. "Football needs to go to flag football, where you don't hurt someone," says this man, who says he'd be finished on his football-mad campus if I used his name. "With helmets, you can't see [the opponents'] eyes; there's no soul-to-soul contact. So you keep them anonymous, and it helps inflict pain on people. Flag football would also mean you don't have 350-pound linemen, with the toll [tackle football] takes on their bodies afterward."
This devout Christian knows, as he speaks, that Alabama-Auburn is never going to be decided by flag football; he's being provocative. But people are asking questions about both traditional football and traditional Christianity that you didn't hear as much five years ago. Just as we're wondering how sacred injury-riddled tackle football has to be, we're also becoming a slightly less religious country. In a survey earlier this year, the Pew Forum found that among young Americans, evangelical Christianity is on the decline—a third of young adults said they were not affiliated with any church or religion.
This demographic group is also increasingly liberal on social issues. If Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had come out for same-sex marriage 10 years ago, as he did this year, he probably would have been pilloried by fans and sports-talk-radio gabbers. This year many fans rallied around Ayanbadejo and ridiculed a state legislator's suggestion that the Ravens try to silence him. Teammates Bernard Pollard and Matt Birk publicly took sides against same-sex-marriage, invoking the Bible and God's will, but Ayanbadejo, like Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, another same-sex marriage proponent, seemed to gain popularity by speaking out.
Ayanbadejo's and Kluwe's turns as gay-rights advocates serves as a reminder that the conservative Christian message has not taken hold everywhere in the NFL. Some teams are more Christian than others. Dee says his Colts teammates in the late '80s were mostly uninterested in praying with him, but when he got to the Seahawks he found a lot more locker room piety, thanks to a few key players. "In Seattle, there was Steve Largent," Dee says. "To see the influence that he and Jeff Kemp and a couple of other key guys had—most of the team went to chapel."
Nobody I spoke with wants football to go away. They want it to be redeemed, and they think a little more honesty would be a good place to start. That's what I got from running back Tim Hightower, who was cut by the Redskins over the summer. Like many in the NFL, Hightower is a Christian and a football player, but unlike many of his peers he doesn't pretend that's an easy combination. "There's a lot of energy on the football field," Hightower says. "If you mix that along with 'I'm supposed to love my neighbor'"—he pauses, searching for words to cut through the dilemma he's describing.
"A lot of the Christian thing," Hightower continues, "is putting the you before the I, and in football you're sometimes taught to be selfish, to do what you have to do to get ahead, by any means necessary. You have to stop and ask yourself: Am I a football player who is a Christian, or a Christian who is a football player?"
The faith that infuses the NFL is often part of a carefully calibrated routine.
Athletes don't pray for victory. Instead they pray for health, or just a good, fair game.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
PSALM SUNDAY One of many players who proudly express their religiosity, Kaepernick will enter the Superdome bedecked in Bible verses—Psalms 27:3 has pride of place on his left arm.
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES
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HOUSES OF THE HOLY Where once the church viewed sports as antithetical to its mission, now prayer circles like those in the Niners' and Ravens' locker rooms are standard practice throughout the NFL.
CARY EDMONDSON/US PRESSWIRE (HEYWARD-BEY)
ICONOGRAPHY In a familiar Sunday scene, images of violence and faith commingled as Raiders players took a knee after teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey (below) suffered a concussive hit in September.
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP (RAIDERS)
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