[The following is a guest post written by Jason Mankey. He is the writer and podcaster behind Patheos Pagan Channel’s blog Raise the Horns. Jason has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest, and can often be found presenting on the Pagan festival circuit. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two cats.]
For many Americans the Thanksgiving holiday is about food, friends and family, but for some of us there is a fourth “f” in there too: football. I know that football is not all that popular in Pagan circles, but it truly is America’s pastime. In 2012 over 216 million Americans tuned in to at least one college football game. The ratings for the National Football League (NFL) are even stronger, with this year’s Super Bowl attracting 111.5 million viewers for a single (noncompetitive) game. For many of us Thanksgiving is just as much about football as it is about turkey.My own football fandom both exhilarates and terrifies me. I enjoy the highs of seeing my team win and often slip into a funk when they lose. Away from the emotional roller coaster there are other, more serious problems, with football. It’s a violent game, and we are only now beginning to realize the true extent of how much it injures not just the body but the brain. Football players often engage in violent unspeakable acts, such as running back Ray Rice punching his girlfriend in the face early this year. Though it is important to point out that arrest rates for NFL players are actually lower than for the majority of men in their age group.
In addition to brain injuries and bad behavior, there’s another troubling aspect of football that bothers me as a Pagan. It’s an extremely conservative institution from a political standpoint. In the college ranks, football and Christianity mix freely. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a coach is a tactician of the game or a missionary, and some will proudly admit to being both.
Today’s Egg Bowl between Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) is a good example of this. At Ole Miss, football and Evangelical Christianity often walk hand in hand. Head coach Hugh Freeze wears his faith proudly on his sleeve. Players and coaches meet every Sunday for church services and Bible study. Attendance isn’t mandatory, but they are certainly made aware of it. In a recent Washington Post story the coach is quoted as saying: “I tell them, or our position coaches will: ‘We have worship on Sunday,’ ”
Freeze’s Twitter account feels more like that of a minister than a highly paid head football coach. On Nov. 9 Freeze tweeted:
I am really excited to listen to some of our players lead @ FCA service today. Come join us worship the only one Worthy of our praise. 11:00
— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) November 9, 2014
Not surprisingly many of his followers chimed in with comments like “So excited for what the Lord is doing there,” and “Thanks for leading well and pointing them to God.” Freeze isn’t alone in using Twitter as a missionary tool, Mississippi State’s coach Dan Mullen has been know to tweet out a little scripture too.
In some ways the Mississippi schools and their coaches are outliers, but only a little. In many parts of the country the walls between team, religion, and coach are much thicker, but those walls have all but crumbled in America’s South. Much of that can be laid at the feet of cultural shifts in the region. While Christianity is in decline in many parts of the country, the religion remains a dominant part of South Eastern U.S. culture. Couple that with the rise of “Tea Party” style politics and you’ve got a recipe for in-your-face Jesus testimony on the gridiron.
As a former Southerner, I can attest to the quasi-religious fervor many of us feel towards our football teams, but the insertion of actual religion into the game has been more noticeable in recent years. Much of that is likely due to the rise of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in college football. Over the last nine years, seven of college football’s “national champions” have come from the SEC, with the other two winners from states like Texas and Florida.
Even in the Midwest, aside from Notre Dame, coaches are sharing their Christian faith rather openly. A recent USA Today article profiling Michigan State University coach Mike Dantonio highlighted both the coach’s faith and that of his players:
“He puts God first,” MSU freshman running back Delton Williams said of Dantonio in the euphoric locker room after the win against Ohio State ‘And we put God first. Why do you think we’re doing this?’ . . . ‘You can talk about your faith or you can live your faith,’ he (Coach Dantonio) said. ‘You can talk about this program’s culture, or you can be in this culture, live this culture. There’s a difference there. Is it smoke or is it real?’”
Perhaps no college football coach has been more open about his faith than Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney. Two years ago Swinney stopped practice early so one of his players could be be baptized on the practice field. That story was included in an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education last November:
Last season, Dabo Swinney, the head football coach at Clemson University, gathered his team on the practice field one day for an important announcement. ‘Someone is about to turn their life over to Christ,’ he said …
DeAndre Hopkins, a star wide receiver, stepped forward. A livestock trough had been placed near the 50-yard line and filled with water. Mr. Hopkins, still wearing his uniform and pads, climbed in. As several dozen teammates and coaches looked on, he was baptized.
At Clemson, God is everywhere. The team’s chaplain leads a Bible study for coaches every Monday and Thursday. Another three times a week, the staff gathers for devotionals. Nearly every player shows up at a voluntary chapel service the night before each game.
If the baptism wasn’t enough to stop you in your tracks, “nearly every player” showing up for a “voluntary chapel service the night before each game” most likely did. Many coaches seem to lead religious services, though all of them go out of their way to share that attendance at such things is voluntary. I can’t help but wonder if “everyone showing up” for something keeps it truly voluntary. Peer pressure (and pressure from coaches) is most certainly going to influence young men.
Overt displays of religiosity are a bit more toned down in the professional game, but many NFL players are extremely open about their religious beliefs and often sound like missionaries. Most teams also have team chaplains, and you can bet all of those chaplains are Christian.
On the eve of this year’s Super Bowl, then Seattle Seahawk Chris Maragos credited Jesus for the team’s success. He said, “We understand that we can’t do any of this on our own. You look at what guys have been able to do and the strength that He gives us — that’s really where we draw everything that we have. That’s a cornerstone of what we rely on.” Comments, like Maragos’s, are rather commonplace in today’s NFL.Many team owners and players are also politically conservative. Though Peyton Manning doesn’t say much about politics or religion, he has given money to Republicans such as Richard Luger’s and Bob Corker’s Senate campaigns in 2012. Former Broncos quarterback and current General Manager John Elway is also a big Republicans supporter.
Coming into this piece I had assumed that most NFL owners donated overwhelmingly to Republicans, but that’s not always the case. Many do support Democrats. However, I have yet to find a player or owner interested in donating to the Green Party.
Just after World War II, sports leagues were ahead of much of the rest of country when it came to social issues. While Jackie Robinson is famous for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball back in 1947, that barrier was actually first broken by the NFL in 1946. However, since those days, football has been slow to embrace change. The NFL’s first African-American coach didn’t take the field until 1989, and hiring of minorities was so behind the times that the NFL was forced to institute the Rooney Rule in 2003 requiring teams to interview minority candidates.
This year saw the NFL almost take a major step forward with the drafting of an openly gay player – Michael Sam of the University of Missouri. Sadly Sam was cut before the start of the season, and then cut a second time after landing on the Dallas Cowboy’s practice squad.
Reaction to Sam was mixed, with former coach Tony Dungy saying that he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because he might have been a “distraction” to the team. Dungy, an outspoken Evangelical, went on to say that Sam deserved a chance to play in the league and that he would “not have a problem” with Sam on his team. Sam was a big half-step forward for the NFL and I hope that he ends up on an active roster next season.
Muslim players have been a part of the pro-game since 1972, but even those forty years were not enough to gift the NFL with an understanding of Islam. Just this season Kansas City player Husain Abdullah was penalized for going to the ground while praying after an interception returned for a touchdown on Tom Brady of the Patriots. Players aren’t allowed to “go to the ground” when celebrating a touchdown, but religious observances are supposed to be exempt from that rule.
After much public outcry, the NFL admitted that the official on the field had made the wrong call, and with good reason. Abdullah wasn’t just praying he was performing sujud. The position calls for toes, knees, hands, and forehead to all be touching the ground while facing towards Mecca. Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow is well known for taking a knee and praying after a touchdown, and his actions have never drawn a penalty. The NFL often looks a little lost when dealing with religious traditions outside of Christianity.
As a Pagan I often feel like an outsider while watching the NFL. The players, coaches, and many of the fans would probably find me hard to relate to. At this point I have yet to hear of a college Pagan player, let alone a Pagan NFL player. I’d like to think that I’m capable of retiring my football addiction but I realize it’s hopeless. I’m a sucker for the game and would much rather watch the Super Bowl then attend an Imbolc Ritual, and the two are often on the same day. Now if you’ll excuse I’ve got an Egg Bowl to go watch that will most likely end with one of the coach’s thanking Jesus. Pray for me.