When I read Mark Oppenheimer's article "In The Fields Of The Lord" in the Feb. 4, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, I knew a response was needed. His article raised some interesting points but his thesis is incorrect. I am a good person to speak on matters of faith and football since I have a long history in both. I played football, both my sons played football and one of my sons may still pursue a professional football career. I have also been a pastor for many years, am an author and a Christian speaker.
I don't know Mark but I do know his background. He is a native New Englander like myself and he grew up in same city as my wife. He went to prep school at the rival school of where my sister went to school. He has an advanced degree from Yale, I have one from Duke. He writes on religion, I speak on Christianity. He has a fine education, writes well and knows religious history. But he is dead wrong about football and faith. His essential point is that for Christian players and coaches, football is bad for them. That it is likely football will corrupt their Christian values. He argues the violence, physicality and adulation in playing football is "deeply at odds with Jesus' message." This is simply not true.
A good beginning point is to talk about the message of Jesus. Oppenheimer says Jesus preferred the loser to the winner, the weak over the strong and the poor over the rich but this is not an indictment against football. In fact the essential message of these scriptures is that Jesus wants us to be servant oriented. This is exactly what football teaches players. A football team requires each player to put his personal agenda below the teams. He learns that unless each player fulfills his role on offense, defense and special teams the entire team will suffer. Self-centeredness must give way to serving the team. In my family we were all running backs and we knew that if the quarterback does not give us a clean handoff or throw us a catchable ball there is no success. If the offensive line does not follow their blocking assignments or the receivers do not block downfield the play will go nowhere. Both my sons are in public service. I would like to think they are following their father's example but I am sure that part of it is they learned service through playing football.
There is much in the bible that supports the qualities needed for playing football. Many stories in the Bible tell of battles, of perseverance and of commitment. Romans 8:29 tells us God wants our character to be formed like Jesus and football is a character building enterprise. Learning how to win and lose gracefully happens playing football. Working hard toward a worthy goal and paying the price of self-sacrifice is learned playing football. Getting along with people who are different from you and appreciating their differences is learned playing football. My book Comeback is all about how to overcome setbacks in your life. I share many stories from the Bible and football. Some of the lessons in the book come from playing football, having setbacks and making a comeback.
There is the concept of stewardship in the Bible. I Corinthians 4:2 says that we are stewards (managers) of all that God gives us and we are to be faithful. Football players are given special gifts of size, speed and strength. They are given a huge platform of the most popular sport in America. When they faithfully use their gifts and excel at their sport they are being good stewards of what God has given them. Oppenheimer says there is special temptations that football players face but they are not exclusive to football. The temptation of materialism (which only applies to the NFL not any other level of football) is simply a challenge many other Christ followers face. Business leaders, entertainers and other successful people have the same temptation to serve money instead of God it is not unique to NFL players and coaches. The massive list of men who have played the game and are faithful Christ followers is a testament to the fact that it can be done.
But what is the most disconcerting about Mark's article, what is the shadow truth behind his thesis is this: football playing Christians are not meek, nice and gentle. The problem is that for too long too many people are using Christianity to make men less manly. If you are a tough working guy, a high achieving alpha male or a fun-loving adventurer you can't be a real Christ follower according to some. They would never put it that way but the message is there. This is why Sports Illustrated has the Super Bowl cover article proclaim that football and Christianity just don't belong together. Moses, David, Daniel, Peter and Paul were all true leaders, tough guys who got things done for God. Jesus' bold leadership, blunt honesty and strong actions are what drew so many followers to Him. Jesus went into the temple and cleaned house that is no meek and mild man. How the Church and Christianity got to this place where people think this way is a long story. Suffice to say that this feminization has created a situation where aggression, which is so natural to a man, is viewed with disdain. Football appeals to many men because it is aggressive, tough and filled with risk. Christianity appeals to me for exactly the same reasons. I want to be in the battle between good and evil, I want to fight for what is right and I enjoy the challenge of doing it. Moving from football to ministry was the easiest move I ever made. The sport of football did not unmake me as a Christian it made me a better one as it has done for tens of thousands of other men.