How to get Mississippians to wear masks

If you can’t get people in to wear masks out of a sense of social responsibility, commitment to the public good, or appeals to citizenship, just tell them that they won’t be able to watch their favorite college football team.

Mississippi governor Tate Reeves recently tried this strategy:

It just might work.

Here is Yahoo Sports:

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a mask mandate for his state on Tuesday. And he cited his desire to watch college football in the fall as a reason why.

Reeves’ order is designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state. And with the SEC delaying the season until late September and going to a conference-only schedule in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Reeves made it clear that he wanted to watch games later this year.

Reeves is not the first politician or public figure to cite college football as a reason for wearing a mask. Alabama coach Nick Saban even filmed a public service announcement for the school to promote wearing a mask so that the football season could happen. Saban’s PSA came in May, over two months before Reeves’ declaration.

Read the rest here.

Go Rebels!

“Jerry Falwell’s dream of athletic domination is in peril” as Black athletes leave Liberty University

Liberty_University_Flames_stadium,_Lynchburg,_VA_IMG_4118

I was happy to help Joel Anderson with this piece at Slate.

Here is a taste:

Liberty’s football team has indeed come a long way since its inaugural season in 1973, when the Flames lost their first game to Massanutten Military Academy by 10 points. Liberty now plays in the top division of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, and earned its first bowl victory in December. But to get to where Falwell Jr. wants to be, the university needs the caliber of athletes—many of them Black, like Land and Clark—that he has increasingly alienated with his far-right activism. (Nearly half of Division I football players are Black, according to the NCAA’s demographics database.)

“In order for them to attract the kind of players they need to become a top Division I school, they need to go recruiting people, Black and white, who aren’t necessarily perfect fits for a place like Liberty,” said John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “They’ve gotta go beyond the megachurch youth group.”

In our conversation just before his announcement, Land made it clear that football was never a problem for him at Liberty. The training facilities at the school were top notch. He’d acquitted himself well as a freshman defensive back, playing in 11 of 13 games, including five starts, and finishing with 23 tackles. He was projected to start as a sophomore. It was everything he dealt with off the field, Land said, that made it hard for him to recommend the experience to anyone else.

Read the rest entire piece here.

ADDENDUM (August 2, 2020). After rereading this piece, I also realize Anderson quoted me on race:

This school was borne out of a culture that was systemically racist,” said Fea, the Messiah University professor who has written extensively about Liberty on his website. “And they won’t address that because they don’t even believe in it.

Faith, Football, and Forgiveness at Liberty University

Liberty Trump

Jordan Ritter Conn, a staff writer at The Ringertakes a deep dive into Liberty University and its football program.  (Hey Paul Putz–let me know if you want some space here to comment on this piece).

Here is a taste of “Ready, Set, Trump: Big-Money Faith, Football, and Forgiveness at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University“:

Hartsook says that after both the Politico piece and a Reuters piece that quoted emails in which Falwell called a student “retarded,” support for Falwell’s leadership has waned, even among more politically and religiously conservative students. “The rules we have to follow, he breaks them all the time,” says Hartsook. According to the school’s code of conduct, “The Liberty Way,” students can be fined for using “obscene, profane, or abusive language.” Says Hartsook: “It’s not enforced with him.”

When he ran the program, Gill seemed unbothered by Falwell’s political outspokenness. “It has never been an issue for our football team,” he said. “He’s speaking on behalf of himself, not on behalf of the university, and people can agree or disagree, and that’s OK.”

Administrators see the football program as a way to unite Liberty’s increasingly diverse student body, connecting students and alumni from across the country and even the world. They tell stories of students who never set foot on campus until arriving in Lynchburg to walk across the stage at graduation. “They’re just as much of a part of this school as the on-campus students,” says McCaw. “Athletics can give them a great way to connect to the university.”

Read the entire piece here.

Trump in Tuscaloosa

Trump blowup

After he was booed in Washington D.C. at the World Series and in New York at a UFC fight, Donald Trump appears to have found a generally friendly audience in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at a University of Alabama football game.  ESPN explains:

Trump, sitting one tier above the field, waved as fans turned around to look up at the president. He smiled, gave a thumbs-up a few times and threw a couple of fist bumps into the air as the Alabama fans waved red and white pompoms in response. First lady Melania Trump got an equally enthusiastic welcome.

While the president might have received a largely warm reception inside the stadium, there were also signs of protest in Tuscaloosa before the game.

An inflatable figure depicting a baby Donald Trump wearing a diaper, which has been seen at protests around the world, was set up in a park but was deflated after being attacked with a knife. Jim Girvan, the organizer of a group that “adopts” out the Baby Trump balloons for protests, said a man charged the 20-foot balloon and cut an 8-foot-long gash in the back. Girvan said the unidentified man was arrested, and videos on social media showed police detaining a man nearby. Tuscaloosa police did not immediately respond to a request for more details.

Robert Kennedy, a volunteer “babysitter” who brought the balloon to Tuscaloosa, said the balloon immediately began to sag after it was cut. The day had been going mostly smoothly, Kennedy said, with some people yelling, “Trump 2020” as they passed while others posed for selfies with the balloon.

Elsewhere, one protester carried a sign that said, “Roll Tide Impeach 45,” and a woman held a signing saying she had sold her game ticket and donated the money to the Alabama Democratic Party. But there were more pro-Trump signs. One woman wore an oversized red MAGA hat and carried a sign saying: “Make BAMA #1 Again.” There were flags emblazoned with “Trump 2020” and banners that read: “Keep America Great Trump 2020.”

There was also plenty of bipartisan grumbling about the long lines to get in to the game due to enhanced security.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is Another Piece on Today’s BYU-Liberty Football Game

Liberty Trump

Earlier this morning I wrote about the matchup between these two faith-based football programs.  Here is a much better piece than the one to which I linked.  Deseret News writer Ethan Bauer talked to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., controversial Liberty University athletic director Ian McGaw, Bentley University historian Clifford Putney, and Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz, among others.

Here is a taste:

…since Falwell Jr. became Liberty’s president in 2007 following his father’s death, he’s labored to elevate the program. Thanks to an influx of money from online adult education, he’s invested $1.6 billion in infrastructure projects, many related to athletics. They include a $32 million athletic administration building, new swimming and indoor track and field complexes, and a $29 million indoor football practice facility. Critics say Liberty is tilting too much toward athletics, but Falwell dismisses those comments.

It’s kind of comical to me when people say Liberty has left its original mission to go big-time in sports, because that was the original mission,” he said.

In 2017, when Liberty finally started moving to the FBS level, the top tier of college football, BYU was among the first calls athletic director Ian McCaw made.

Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Baylor are all religious schools that have thrived on the gridiron, but BYU — along with Notre Dame — was Liberty’s role model. In fact, Falwell Jr. said the “LU” that decorates Liberty Mountain in Lynchburg was inspired by a trip to Utah some 15 years ago, when he saw the Y.

“BYU is very much a program that we aspire towards as a faith-based school that’s had tremendous success,” McCaw said, “including winning the national championship.”

Saturday the Flames arrive with firepower. Liberty (6-3) ranks 19th in the nation in passing offense. Senior quarterback Stephen Calvert’s 293 yards passing per game rank 13th, and senior wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden ranks third among receivers in yards per game.

Nevertheless, Liberty’s weak schedule means it hasn’t been tested much, and BYU (4-4) is favored by 17 points. The significance of conquering those long odds can’t be overstated, and Falwell decided to attend the game this week on the off chance it happens (which would also make Liberty bowl eligible for the first time).

“It’d be more than just an upset,” he said. “It’d be the culmination of 48 years of planning and a 48-year vision for Liberty.”

Either way, Falwell has several things in common with the Cougar faithful, notably their belief in God and shared enthusiasm for what some may see as an unholy act: Men battering each other in secular cathedrals in pursuit of victory, trophies and SportsCenter highlights.

Read the entire piece here.

ADDENDUM: BYU 31 Liberty 24

Brigham Young University vs. Liberty University

 

BYU

It should be an interesting Saturday in the world of sports.

# 10 Hope College plays # 3 Calvin University in the championship game of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.  The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III national tournament, which starts next weekend.

#2 Louisiana State plays #3 Alabama in college football.  Donald Trump will be in Tuscaloosa for the game.

In the Big Ten, I am intrigued by the matchup between two undefeated teams as #4 Penn States goes to #17 Minnesota.  I want to see if Minnesota is for real.

Finally, it will be a very interesting match-up between two very religious Division I college football teams when Liberty heads to Provo to play BYU.  BYU is 4-4, but they are a dangerous and unpredictable team.   They lost to Toledo, but beat Southern California and Boise State.  Liberty has been beating-up on a lot of bad teams, but they lost to Charleston Southern, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisiana-Lafayette.

As we have noted here on several occasions, Liberty wants to be a school that takes its religious identity seriously and still maintains a strong football power.   They aspire to be the an evangelical BYU (Mormon) or Notre Dame (Catholic).

Over at the KSL Sports blog, Mitch Harper explores this game from a religious perspective.  Here is taste:

Saturday’s game in Provo might be one of the rare times BYU lines up against a program that has as strict of an honor code as the Cougars. Just a decade ago, Liberty required it’s students as part of their honor code to wear polos and slacks.

Students at both BYU and Liberty are prohibited from premarital sex, alcohol, and tobacco usage. So it makes for a unique matchup in terms of the backgrounds for both schools.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities. I know that they have an honor code as well. It’s going to be a fun game,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “I know they’re new to the Independent stage and this division. They’ve played some really tough teams. I think they played Syracuse and Rutgers right away … I think we’re going to have to be ready for this and our guys have to keep improving….”

“Not only does Liberty get a chance to expand its brand and put its name out there for Evangelical Christians but it also has an opportunity to become bowl eligible and get a chance to go to a bowl game for the first time in program history,” said Liberty beat writer Damien Sordelett of The News & Advance on KSL’s Cougar Tracks Podcast.

Read the entire piece here.

What Would Lincoln Say?

trump fast food

As Donald Trump served hamburgers and fries to the Clemson University football team, Abraham Lincoln sat and watched.  Here is a taste of Amy Wang’s piece at The Washington Post:

There he was, the legendary statesman who had guided the United States through the bloody Civil War, now peering at stacks of either 300 hamburgers or “over 1000 hamberders,” depending on whom or when you asked.

It didn’t help that Trump gleefully presided over the spectacle while standing directly beneath Honest Abe.

“I like it all. It’s all good stuff,” Trump declared as a White House staffer finished lighting two majestic candelabras flanking the spread. “Great American food!”

Above him, a great American hunched deep into his chair, chin in hand, pondering life, liberty and the rights of man. If paintings on walls could talk, what might Lincoln even say?

Read the entire piece here.

Par for the Course: Liberty University Hires Hugh Freeze

Freeze

Liberty University, the second largest Christian college in the world, just hired the former disgraced University of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze to run its football program.  Freeze coached at Ole Miss from 2011-2017.  During his tenure he posted a 39-25 record, beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and got his team to a few prominent bowl games.  The NCAA investigated Freeze and the program for recruiting violations, but from what I can tell the violations were not the primary reason Freeze left the program in July 2017.

Freeze left Ole Miss after the administration learned that he had made a dozen calls to escort services during recruiting trips and he did so from his university phone.  He resigned in disgrace.

Since his resignation, Freeze, a born-again Christian who attends Pine Lake Church, an evangelical megachurch in Oxford, Mississippi, has been trying to rehabilitate his reputation.

In January 2018, Freeze began what some have described as his “redemption tour” on the campus of Liberty.  You can watch his speech (and his wife’s speech) to the students here:

Freeze must have made an impression on Jerry Falwell Jr. that day.

It seems that Falwell Jr. has become the university president of forgiveness and second chances.   In November 2016 he hired Ian McGaw as the university’s athletic director.  Some of you may recall that McGaw lost his athletic director job at Baylor University when he failed to report a a gang rape by Baylor football players.

And let’s not forget that Jerry Falwell Jr is one of the strongest evangelical supporters of Donald Trump, a man who, unlike Freeze, will not ask for forgiveness for his moral indiscretion and infidelity.

Here is a taste of Jason Kirk’s piece at SBNation:

It remains to be seen how Freeze can recruit at Liberty with multiple, interweaving scandals in his background. Lots of coaches have a scandal or even two, but how many have scandals that directly contrast with the entire public image those coaches presented of themselves?

Then again, it’s Liberty, where the school president once said the ex-Baylor AD “fits perfectly.” I don’t think the image that the rest of us see from the outside matters at all, compared to the image the school chooses to see of itself.

Read the entire piece here.

Football and God

Stagg

The NFL season began last night.  That means it’s time for Christianity Today and other religious publications to start publishing pieces on Christianity and football.  This year is no exception.  Check out this piece by Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton, two emerging scholars of religion and sport.

Here is a taste of “God and the Gridiron Game“:

Some Protestants, especially “muscular Christians” like Yale graduate and University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, saw nothing wrong with the physicality of the sport. Indeed, football’s defenders often cited the prevalence of pious “praying” players as evidence of the game’s compatibility with Christian morality. But many Protestant leaders denounced football’s brutality. Charles Blanchard, president of Wheaton College from 1882 until 1925, took this view. He placed football in the same category as gambling and hard liquor, and viewed the sport not as a heroic, manly game, but a savage sport inhibiting students’ development into productive and civilized men.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, football’s leaders responded to critics like Blanchard by instituting a series of reforms (such as the legalization of the forward pass and the elimination of mass plays) to open up the game. Over time the rule changes helped to protect football from charges of brutality.

The passion that the game inspired in participants and spectators protected football as well. Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen was one of many to fall under its spell. “When I see a vacant field on one of these autumn days,” Machen wrote to a friend while in Europe in 1905, “my mind is filled with wonder at this benighted people which does not seem to hear the voice of nature when she commands every human being to play football or watch it being played.”

Read the entire piece here.  In their next piece, I would like to see Hampton and Putz historicize this story.  How much longer can Christian colleges continue to field football teams and keep their moral integrity?

Becoming the Evangelical Notre Dame Can Get Expensive

Liberty
Harry Minium of The Virginia Pilot reports that “Liberty will pay ODU a whopping $1.32 million to play in 2018 home opener football game.”

Here is a taste:

With millions of evangelical Christian adherents, 100,000 online students and an endowment of $1 billion, Liberty University has financial resources unavailable to most mid-major schools, and the Flames appear willing to open their checkbook for their football program.

Liberty will pay Old Dominion an eye-popping $1.32 million to play in the Flames’ 2018 home opener, according to records obtained from ODU under the Freedom of Information Act.

Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said the school could afford to pay that much only because it signed a guarantee game in 2018 with a Power 5 school “that is upwards of seven figures.” That guarantee essentially will be forwarded to ODU, he said.

McCaw would not identify the school, but Liberty also is playing at Auburn and Virginia in 2018.

Liberty received approval from the NCAA just three months ago to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“It was difficult to complete our schedule, and we appreciate that Old Dominion worked with us,” McCaw said.

It is unprecedented for a mid-major school to pay a guarantee of that size, one on par with payouts made by elite Power 5 schools for home games against mid-majors such as ODU.

It will be by far the most the Monarchs have been paid for a guarantee game, surpassing the $1 million in 2014 for traveling to Vanderbilt of the SEC.

ODU won’t be the only Norfolk school raking in cash from Liberty. Norfolk State will be paid $300,000 for playing at Liberty two weeks after the Monarchs, Spartans athletic director Marty Miller said by email.

The ODU guarantee ranks among the largest received by a Conference USA school. Western Kentucky got $1.3 million for its 2016 game at Alabama, the defending national champion at the time. That was thought to be the biggest payout in 2016 for any mid-major .

Charlotte, meanwhile, was paid $900,000 for playing at Kentucky in 2015, while ODU received $800,000 for playing at North Carolina State last season. Middle Tennessee is to receive $1.7 million for playing at Georgia in 2018.

Read the entire article here.

“Champions for Christ!”

Make Liberty University Football (and all other sports) Great Again in the #ageoftrump

mccaw

Decency, morality, truth, and ethics no longer matter in what I have been describing on Twitter as the #ageoftrump.  Perhaps the most conspicuous representatives of this new political and cultural era are American evangelicals.

It has now been well documented that many white evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump despite the deficiencies in his moral character.  (And this has nothing to do with the fact that he is unqualified to hold this office).  Christian political witness has now come down to whether or not a candidate will promise to support a certain kind of Supreme Court justice or whether or not a candidate is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

#theageoftrump also seems to be having an effect on Christian institutions of higher learning who want to have nationally-ranked sports programs.

As you may have seen in the news, Liberty University just hired former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. I don’t know much about McCaw’s politics or Christian commitments. I assume that he is conservative and he is an evangelical.

I do know that he strengthened Baylor’s athletic program during his tenure in Waco. I also know that he knew about a gang-rape by Baylor football players and did not report it to school officials.  (We in central Pennsylvania know a thing or two about football coaches sitting on this kind of information).

It does not surprise me in the #ageoftrump that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a strong Trump supporter who dismissed the POTUS-elect’s moral indiscretions, would hire McCaw as the university’s athletic director.  I am sure Falwell Jr. was grinning ear-to-ear when McCaw  announced that:

My vision for Liberty is to position it as a pre-eminent Christian athletic program in America and garner the same type of appeal among the Christian community as Notre Dame achieves among the Catholic community and BYU garners from the Mormons.

In fact, Falwell was so excited about McCaw that he turned to twitter:

Character and ethics no longer matter in the #ageoftrump.  What matters is making things great again.

Vernon L. Parrington and Oklahoma Football

Parrington in Office 1905

Parrington in his University of Oklahoma office, 1905

If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography.  Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought.  Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.

But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?

Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.

Read the entire post here.

Liberty University Has a Long Way to Go Before it Becomes the Evangelical Notre Dame

Check out this Washington Post article about Liberty University’s ambition to become a major football power.  According to the article, Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to move Liberty football into the upper echelons of NCAA Division I football and are ready to respond positively to an NCAA invitation to join the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) in 48 hours.  

Here is a taste of the article dealing with Liberty’s aspirations to be an evangelical Notre Dame:

Notre Dame’s reputation, of course, is driven by much more than football. Hesburgh spent much of his presidency building the university into an educational powerhouse. He also ensured that the Vatican did not meddle with Notre Dame’s academic freedom.
Liberty’s reputation still rests largely on the Falwell name and on the school’s prominence in the political world. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s founder, was a famous television preacher and a key figure in the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 90s. Now, Liberty is a frequent stop on the campaign trail for Republican politicians, and occasionally for Democrats. When Falwell Jr. spoke out this month about his desire for more Liberty students to carry concealed weapons on campus, as a safety measure to deter terrorists, his comments reinforced the sense that Lynchburg is a frequent dateline for political stories.
But Falwell said that he does not want to make news. He said his speech on Dec. 4 about guns was unplanned — an impromptu set of remarks after the Heritage Foundation’s president, Jim DeMint, finished a speech earlier than planned.
“We’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,” he said. “We’re a university.” 
I have visited and even spoke on the Liberty campus.  It is an impressive place.  If the facilities are any indication, Liberty has a lot of money.  With such resources they just might be able to become another Notre Dame.  But in order for that to happen, Liberty will need to do several things.
First, it will need to be a more open place.  Here is another quote from the Washington Post article:
Falwell said the university has no political or religious litmus tests. “I’d say Liberty is Christian with a capital c, conservative with a small c,” he said. Many of its students lean to the right, politically. “It’s not required. It’s not what we seek,” Falwell said. “It’s what we attract.”
It seems like Falwell Jr. is being a bit disingenuous here.  Liberty does have religious litmus tests for its faculty members.  I also wonder how an outspoken liberal Christian who affiliated with the Democratic Party would fare at Liberty?  Students enroll at Liberty because they believe it is a safe place where professors will not challenge their core conservative values.  It is hard to believe that Liberty does not “seek” these kind of students.
If Liberty wants to be a world-class university, it will need to be more open to Christian scholars who do not subscribe to the conservative brand of evangelical religion that Liberty currently peddles.  This would not only include moderate and liberal evangelicals, but mainline Protestants and Catholics.  I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Second, Liberty will need to hire research faculty and support them in their work.  Liberty does not have to give up its commitment to teaching in order to do this, but it will need to start funneling money into its academic programs.  It will need to provide some kind of tenure system for faculty, establish well-funded endowed chairs, and lighten the heavy teaching loads that faculty currently experience. This is a huge financial commitment. It also requires, as I noted above, loosening the doctrinal restrictions at the university so that they can attract this kind of quality faculty.
Third, Liberty will need to do something about what appears to be the autocratic hand of Jerry Falwell Jr.  When I was doing research for my recent post on Falwell and guns, I was amazed at how many Liberty faculty and students I contacted were unwilling to talk (even off the record) about their distaste for Falwell’s remarks on this issue.  I can’t say for sure why they were unwilling to talk. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to the institution.  Or maybe it was out of a fear of losing their jobs. Such a culture needs to change if Falwell is serious about Liberty becoming the evangelical Notre Dame.
My advice to Liberty University would be stop worrying about Division I football, lobbing grenades into the ongoing culture war, and monitoring the views of its faculty, and start shoring up the quality and diversity (within the limits at a Christian university) of its academic programs. When this happens I just might believe Falwell Jr. when he says that “we’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,..we’re a university.”