Christian football

You know how team sports is the source of all virtue? Not so much.

Conor Friedersdorf talking to New York Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer

I was particularly intrigued by your article about Christians who play football–how they reconcile their faith, with its emphasis on humility and turning the other cheek, with their sport, where hitting opponents as hard as one can, to the point of trying to hurt them, is the norm. How was that article received in our football loving culture? Did any of the feedback help you to better understand the phenomenon?

That’s actually an article where my initial suspicions were only confirmed and amplified by my reporting. Football lovers like to think that team sports, and football in particular, promote virtue for those who play them. It’s clear the opposite is true. The research shows that participation in high-level athletics makes one less moral, more interested just in winning. And my interviews with Christian coaches were horrifying: they all justify to themselves all kinds of violence on the field, as well as dishonesty. Take an issue like lying to a referee: “Yes, I made that catch! I didn’t drop the ball!” Now, you’d think a “Christian” player would put some premium on telling the truth. But they all rationalize lying, in part because everyone does it. As if God’s rules can take a back seat to the custom of the sport.

Well, when it comes to football, of course they can. Football’s important. But when it comes to contraception, let alone abortion? Don’t be silly.

So what about that war on Christians?

Religious believers often feel that they’re treated unfairly by the media. Do they have a point? What aspects of religion do journalists regularly get wrong?

Most reporters have a superficial knowledge of whatever beat they’re on; that’s true of me every time I wander from the religion beat, where I actually have pretty deep knowledge. So reporters get religion wrong, but they get a lot of things wrong: labor relations, war, etc. I don’t think there is a special animus against religion. One could argue there is special gentle treatment for religion. Religious believers say things all the time for which there is no real evidence — that’s what “faith” is, by definition — and reporters don’t call them on it, unless the religion is new and thus seems weird, like Scientology. But if a religion is old and traditional, like Judaism and Christianity, its adherents get to go on about the Rapture, or the Resurrection, or whatever, and reporters never insert paragraphs like, “Asked for evidence that the Rapture would someday come, the minister could only point to the Book of Revelation.”



  1. tuibguy says

    I tnink that “turning the other cheel” and nom-violence are very polyannistic versons of Christianity. It is such a violent and opportunistic relglion, even as taught by Jesus in various parts of the gospel that people ignore the violent bits when they write articles about it. It is a religion of death and submisssion, of vengeance and dismissal to hell for the losers that i see no conflict between Christianity and football.

    It’s basic message is that we are created unworthy sinners and that we have to get on the right time to be considered for the winning side and eternal punishment for not, after all.

  2. says

    First of all I see no conflict with American Football and the Christian values. All someone has to do is believe in Jesus’s divinity and they’re in, what they do in this life is basically irrelevant. Because every Christian basically has their own set of laws they must follow and the rest well that’s metaphor or not relevant to them. Second I would like to point out that American Football comes from rugby. If you think the NFL is violent then you probably shouldn’t watch Ausi rules football. But even before these sports greco-roman wrestling in the olympics was quite violent. Violence and sports is nothing new and has no bearing on religion.

  3. The Great God Pan says

    “Now, you’d think a “Christian” player would put some premium on telling the truth.”

    I wouldn’t think that. As their bumper stickers tell us: “I”m not perfect. Just forgiven.” Jesus loves them and they can do what they want.

  4. John Morales says

    Wes Aaron @3,

    First of all I see no conflict with American Football and the Christian values.

    Because meekness and the willingness to turn the other cheek are the norm in American Football?

    All someone has to do is believe in Jesus’s divinity and they’re in, what they do in this life is basically irrelevant.

    And we’re told we’ll know they are Christians by their love, too.

    (They make lots of those ambit claims)

    Violence and sports is nothing new and has no bearing on religion.

    As an aside, I note example provided was of cheating rather than violence (and by coaches, not players); I think you miss that the wry observation relies on the reality that their putative Christian virtues are indeed not apparent though they should be were their pretensions true.

    (Or: the claim was not about whether sport bears on religion, but rather whether religion bears on sport)

  5. says

    Oddly enough, I’ve actually been an atheist all my life (raised this way), and I’ve always tried to play sports by the rules. When I played football (soccer), I regularly would tell referees if the ball went off me and out, meaning the re-start should be under the control of my opponent. Simple reasoning: the Laws of the Game don’t say “If the referee notices that the ball went out off you, then your opponent gets the ball”. In my morality, if I choose to play a game, I choose to play by the rules of the game. The Laws of football say “If the ball goes out off you, the other team gets it” (more or less, I’m paraphrasing obviously), so to my mind, it’s not optional or down to whether the ref ‘gets it right’. Ethically, it’s my duty to speak up and say the ball went off me. If the referee decides the other way anyway, well, fair enough, they’re allowed to get things wrong too, but the moral choice is quite clear to me.

    Nothing about the level of the competition changes my mind about that, and I’ve argued with teammates about it before. For me, to be a player with good sporting behaviour is to play within the rules to the best of my abilities, and when I contravene the rules, to accept the referee’s decision with a simple acknowledgement of responsibility. This is partly why i became a referee myself.

    But I guess I don’t have ‘ineffability’ to fall back on as a ‘get out of morality free’ card. Poor atheist, restricted from the basic gods-given (i.e., self-claimed and made from whole cloth) rights of the religious, stuck constructing my morality from silly things like ‘reasoning’ and ‘principled behaviour’, instead of just learning by rote what some Bronze Age douchebags thought was appropriate.

  6. says

    Somehow, all the performance reviews I’ve received that say ‘Not a team player’ suddenly bother me that much less.

    (Yeah, okay, never bothered me that much to begin with.)

  7. says

    To John Morales: I actually didn’t specify coach, player, or anything. My point was that with over 130,000 different Christian belief why would anyone say they’re not living up to their Christian values (sorry with that many there really can be no official right or wrong). Ya the infallible word of God, is very fallible.

    According to what was said by Jesus in the bible. “Not one jot nor tiddle of the old laws are to be changed.” This seems to be in almost all the versions I have come across. I don’t see Christians stoning raped women or unruly children, nor killing homosexuals on sight which are in the bible and explicitly referred to as the laws of god. There is roughly 600+ laws within the bible that are god’s law (well depends on the version of the bible what those 600+ are), but they pick and choose even when there is a contradiction. So if the believer doesn’t think it is against their religion even if their is a double standard, then I am inclined to accept that they are ignorant in their hypocrisy.

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