Violent Christians

The current issue of Sports Illustrated has a most interesting article on the topic of Christianity in football, focusing on such groups as “Athletes In Action” and “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” The article nicely sums up the dilemma faced by players and coaches who profess adherence to a religious doctrine that preaches peace and brotherly love while at the same time their game measures success by wins and emphasizes violence on the playing field.

The article quotes Les Steckel whom Vikings fans remember as one of the worst coaches that team ever had and who is now President of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Steckel ran the Vikings training camp like it was a Marine Corps boot camp and used to teach his players to “cut-block” opponents — a ferocious block aimed at the knees of the opponent and one that could easily leave the opponent crippled. Steckel defends his tactics, even today, with the bromide “God loves us just the way we are.” Many readers will recognize this as a variation on the self-esteem mantra that drills into the heads of young children the conviction that they can do no wrong: it’s a sign of our cultural narcissism. I have expressed my disdain for this nonsense a number of times and will continue to cling to my conviction that we all show considerable room for improvement and self-esteem should come after accomplishments, not before. But I dare say, this would be lost on people like Les Steckel who are “true believers” if there ever were any.

And the world of professional footballers is filled with true believers as well — namely those players who are committed to playing a violent sport for millions of dollars while they thump their chests and point to the sky after a routine play and kneel every now and again to pay homage to a God who loves them “just the way they are” — and apparently wants them to win a game and buy jewelry, a large home, and a new Cadillac Escalade. Or two.

But what intrigued me most about the article was the way football, like our approach to business as usual, has co-opted Christianity, changing Christianity into a twisted version of the doctrine set forth in the New Testament in order to accommodate it to modern taste. Don McLanen, founder of FCA, was said to have “noticed in the newspaer that professional athletes were endorsing a product, and he felt if they endorse a product, why not a way of life?” The article then goes on to note that “Evangelicals gave up trying to transform the [football] culture and decided instead to use it.” Indeed. My guess is that this is the only way a religion like Christianity that demands sacrifice and stresses the need to love others can survive in a culture like ours that not only worships at the football stadium of a Sunday, but also embraces free-enterprise capitalism which rewards those who selfishly maximize profits at all cost. If Christianity is to survive, it must change — even if it becomes something quite different in the process from what its Founder envisaged.

The article concludes with a comment from Tim Hightower, a former professional football player, who notes that “A lot of the Christian thing 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?” I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of these men. The question is how on earth they reconcile two doctrines that are diametrically opposed to one another. I think it is done with mirrors.