What do Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have in common? Besides being NFL quarterbacks, they’re both famous kneelers. Yet their actions have been interpreted by sports fans and American Christians in very different ways. In today’s episode, we explore the deep historical connections between sports and Christianity. Host John Fea looks into what colonial New England’s Puritans thought about sports. They are joined by Messiah College historian Paul Putz (@p_emory), who discusses his work on the unique melding of sports and religion, “sportianity.”
On the day that the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House, Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic writes about the first time a championship sports team visited the White House. It happened in the Johnson Administration–that’s Andrew Johnson.
Here is a taste of his piece:
Here’s the thing about the pilgrimages that championship sports teams make to the White House each year. It’s a tradition rooted in efforts to achieve national unity. Like the broader American project, at their best these visits promote an expansive vision of America, a diverse society finding commonality in shared symbols and common rituals.
But the first such visit was rooted in a very different vision of American society—uniting white Americans by excluding blacks from sports, from civic rituals, and from political equality. As President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House on Monday, he loudly insisted that he still wished “to honor our great country” and “celebrate America.” His statement did not specify, though, which version of America he intended to celebrate.
In 1865, the United States was engaged in the project of Reconstruction, building a new society in the wake of the Civil War. It was also engaged in playing ball. Union soldiers brought home with them a passion for the American game, and fans flocked to ballfields to enjoy the pleasures of peacetime.
Read the rest here.
But during the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl season, a narrative emerged that was strikingly different from the crudeness of the typical Philadelphia sports fan. The Eagles were a team loaded with evangelical Christians.
Head coach Doug Pederson was the head football coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Louisiana. Quarterback Carson Wentz owns a Bible app and runs an evangelical foundation that serves the poor around the world. Nick Foles, the hero of the Super Bowl, has appeared in Wentz’s devotional videos and is training to become a pastor. So has Trey Burton, Zach Ertz, and Chris Maragos. In October 2017, Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Paul Turner, and David Watford were baptized in a recovery pool in the Eagles practice facility. Tight end Trey Burton performed the baptism. Wide receiver Marcus Johnson was baptized in a hotel pool. Third string quarterback Chase Daniels leads a couples’ Bible study that draws 20-25 people. According to this piece at ESPN, during the season there is “Thursday night Bible study at the facility, scripture text chains, and late-night prayer sessions at the team hotel the night before each game.” Some members of the team–including Wentz and Foles–call themselves the “Philadelphia Gospel Group.”
So it is certainly interesting that only ten of the Eagles, and perhaps less, were going to show-up today at the White House, leading Trump to cancel the event. (Wentz and Foles said they would attend, but only if the Eagles voted to go as a team). Are the Eagles part of the 19%?
If you are a New York Mets fan, a general baseball fan, a poet (it’s National Poetry Month), or a student of the African-American experience you must read Gettysburg College historian Tim Shannon‘s recent Penn Live (Harrisburg Patriot-News) piece on Ed Charles. (I should also add that Shannon will be our guest on Episode 36 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. It drops tonight).
I was too young to see Ed Charles play third base for the Mets (1967-69), but I have fond memories watching him play in the “Miracle Mets” highlight footage that WWOR (Channel 9) used to show during Mets rain delays in the 1970s.
Tim Shannon is one of the few writers who can connect Ed Charles’s poetry to Phillis Wheatley and the Atlantic slave trade.
Here is a taste of his op-ed:
Ed Charles, the third baseman for the “Miracle Mets” team of 1969, died last month at the age of 84.
When the New York Times ran his obituary, it included several photos, including two shots of Charles on the field. One showed him diving for a ball with the agility that earned him his nickname, “The Glider.”
Another showed him leaping with joy along with pitcher Jerry Koosman and catcher Jerry Grote after the Mets recorded the final out of the ’69 World Series.
These two shots of Charles in action on the diamond were accompanied by a very different one of him taken in the Shea Stadium locker room in 1967, not long after he had been traded to the Mets by the Kansas City A’s.
Charles sits on stool by his locker, dressed in his uniform, with a pad of paper on his knee and a pen in his hand He looks away from the camera, his eyes raised above the horizon. The photographer, it would seem, has caught “The Glider” in a different kind of action.
Rather than being in mid-air, he is in mid-thought.
Charles was a locker room poet.
Read the entire piece here. Here is Charles the poet:
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling return to a beloved subject, sports culture. While they have previously discussed baseball, the Olympics, and soccer, in this episode they turn their attention to global hockey. John discusses his short history as an aspiring goalie. They are joined by Bruce Berglund, who offers a peek into his new project on the spread and evolution of global hockey cultures.
Here is a taste of “Hoosiers and Rudy”:
It’d be hard to decide which of those inspired-by-a-true-story underdog victories is more unlikely and more inspiring. The Hickory high school team in Hoosiers (based loosely on Milan High’s 1954 championship season) is coached by two men as collectively flawed as Buttermaker in Bad News Bears—Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale has been dismissed from his prior job for losing his temper and striking a student; Dennis Hopper’s Shooter Flatch is an alcoholic town outcast—and has barely enough players to field a team, yet goes on to win the state championship against a vastly more deep and talented South Bend team. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose life and events are portrayed relatively close to accurately by Sean Astin and company, is the undersized son of an Illinois factory worker who refuses to give up on his dream of playing football for Notre Dame, overcoming numerous challenges and obstacles and finally making his way onto the team and into the final game of the season, in which he sacks the quarterback on the final play and is carried off the field by his teammates. Having critiqued lovable loser films for their merely pyrrhic victories, it’d be hypocritical of me not to applaud films that depict underdog victories, and such stories are indeed undeniably appealing and affecting.
Yet in order to tell their stories in the way they want, these films also have to leave out a great deal, elisions that are exemplified by the way racial issues are not addressed in Hoosiers. For one thing, Hickory’s opponent in the championship game, South Bend, is intimidating in large part because it features a racially integrated team, which would have been a significant rarity in 1952 and which would seem to make them a team worth our support. And for another, as James Loewen has written in his groundbreaking book Sundown Towns (2005), southern Indiana in the early 1950s was a hotbed of overt and violent racism; to quote Loewen, “As one Indiana resident relates, ‘All southern Hoosiers laughed at the movie called Hoosiers because the movie depicts blacks playing basketball and sitting in the stands at games in Jasper. We all agreed no blacks were permitted until probably the ’60s and do not feel welcome today.’ A cheerleader for a predominantly white, but interracial Evansville high school, tells of having rocks thrown at their school bus as they sped out of Jasper after a basketball game in about 1975, more than 20 years after the events depicted so inaccurately in Hoosiers.” Such histories don’t necessarily contrast with those featured in these films—but it would be important to complement the films with fuller engagement with their perhaps less triumphant contexts.
If you are a sports fan or just enjoy sports movies, these posts are worth your time.
Rich Cohen, the author of Chicago Cubs: The Story of a Curse, makes his case at The New York Times:
I don’t know how closely Mr. Trump even follows baseball, but if he does, he’s probably a Yankees fan — because that franchise, with its pinstripes and nonstop talk of winning, is Donald Trump all over. It’s good for fans but bad for humans, as it teaches the wrong lessons. What we want for a president is a person who grew up in the bleachers of Wrigley Field, learning humility and loss, the fleeting nature of glory.
Though the Cubs have clinched the National League Central and are poised to make another playoff run, our character, that old Cubs thing, has not gone away. We are what happened to us, and what happened to us was decades of losing. The team won the World Series in 1908 and did not win it again until last fall. Generations came of age in the 107 years in between, grew up, grew old and were still waiting when they died. The dry spell was said to result from a curse placed on the team by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, and we did feel cursed, but blessed too.
The wilderness formed our character, turned us into the sort of fans who make the best of a bad afternoon. Even now, with the championship so close behind us, I find myself wondering just how the wheels will come off this time. A Cubs fan will always be a kind of Buddhist. She knows how to enjoy a typical August afternoon, as for her there is hardly ever such a thing as October — only here and now.
Read the entire piece here.
When I was a kid my favorite NBA player was Buck Williams. (I should qualify this by saying that I grew up following the ABA. My favorite player of all time was Julius Erving followed closely by Super John Williamson. Early in my short-lived basketball career I modeled my game after Nets center Billy Paultz).
So needless to say I was disappointed when New Arena listed the best possible starting 5 for every NBA franchise and picked Buck as the 6th man on the Brooklyn (New York, New Jersey) Nets all-time squad. How does one of the best re-bounders in NBA history not make the starting line-up?
It is rare when a white evangelical who is politically conservative calls someone a ‘racial demagogue,” but that is actually what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has called the President of the United States. Here is a taste of his piece on the NFL protests this weekend.
Here is a taste:
Stop and consider. This is a sobering historical moment. America has a racial demagogue as president. We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors. It is appropriate but increasingly difficult.
In this case, demagoguery is likely to be effective, in part because protesters have chosen their method poorly. The American flag is not the racist symbol of a racist country. It is the symbol of a country with ideals far superior to its practice. This is the banner under which the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the first African American regiment organized in the Civil War — fought the Confederacy. This is the flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on July 2, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. This is the flag that drapes the coffins of the honored dead on their final homeward trip, to a flawed nation still worthy of their sacrifice.
The extraordinary achievement of America’s founders was to elevate a set of ideals that judged (in many cases) their own hypocritical conduct. With the Declaration of Independence, they put a self-destruct mechanism in the edifice of slavery. They designed a system that eventually transcended their own failures of courage. At least in part. With more to go….
Read the rest here.
Maybe it is time to take a knee when Trump enters the room.
In his regular column at the University of Chicago Divinity School website, Martin Marty wonders how long we can in good conscience continue to celebrate football. He writes: “The question ‘What Would Jesus Think About Football?’ sounds silly and is inaptly posed. But, then again….”
Here is a taste of his piece: “Football Religion“:
…Regularly cited was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a study of the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players. Finding? “110 had the degenerative brain disease [CTE].” Let it be noted that the sports commentators who have been roused by this issue are not anti-sports (or anti-billion-dollar businesses). Most of them recognize the positive role that athletics can play in character formation and physical prowess, and many of those who now oppose the violent sport display signs of ambiguity and regret. Realists are aware of how hard it would be to introduce radical change to professional sports, given their market value.
Who stands apart from the debate, the questioning, the confusion? The author of this column still cherishes his own score chart of the 1941 Rose Bowl, when he was a 13-year-old in the midst of the Great Depression and then World War II, and our Nebraska Cornhuskers brought home name and fame, those things which were absent from our lives and newspapers each year until the time when we could turn our radio dials to college football. In high school the only letter available to little me was awarded for my announcing games on local radio. The memories are vivid; the agonies of conscience thus grow stronger
Read the entire piece here.
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?
So much for those carefully planned syllabi. Jerry Falwell Jr. just canceled classes Monday so students could celebrate Liberty University’s football victory over Baylor.
Here is Steven Ruiz’s story at USA Today:
The Howard Bison pulled off the biggest betting upset in college football history by beating 45-point favorite UNLV, but it wasn’t the most surprising result on Saturday. That was Liberty’s shocking win over Baylor.
Liberty students will have plenty of time to celebrate the 48-45 win over the Big XII school. School president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced after the game that classes on Monday would be cancelled.
Students were understandably excited when they heard the news…
We live in a very strange world. I am sure by now you have heard about ESPN football announcer Robert Lee. On Tuesday, ESPN decided to remove him from covering the season’s first University of Virginia football game because he shares a name with the Confederate general whose statue triggered racial violence in Charlottesville. According to this piece at The Atlantic, ESPN wanted to protect their Robert Lee from “memes and jokes.” I guess that didn’t work out very well.
So what about all the other people in the United States named Robert Lee? Julie Beck is asking the same question. Here is a taste:
Both Robert and Lee are extremely common names. According to the website HowManyofMe.com, which searches a database of U.S. Census data, there are 5,128,282 Roberts in the United States, 731,046 people with the last name Lee, and a whopping 11,518 Robert Lees…
Surely some of them were named explicitly for Robert E. Lee, but many—probably most—were not. Wattenberg says that there used to be many people named for General Lee, but nowadays, “homage names are just an endangered species.” If someone chooses to go by the full “Robert E. Lee,” you might reasonably presume that they are trying to play up the Confederate connection, Wattenberg says. But the sports broadcaster Robert Lee is Asian American, and “one knows that broadcaster is not from a family proud of its Confederate ancestry,” she says.
Lee is the 22nd most common last name in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the people who share it are a fairly diverse group. White people make up 40.1 percent of Lees, 37.8 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 17.4 percent are black, 1.3 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Native American.
One Robert Lee, who lives in San Francisco and works as a business analyst, didn’t fully understand the significance his name holds in the United States until he went to college. He lived in Hong Kong until he was 18, and then went to Brown University.
Read the entire piece here.
On Monday we called your attention to the Bible study taking place among members of Donald Trump’s cabinet. The study is led by former UCLA basketball player Ralph Drollinger. Read our take here.
Over at Sportianity, Paul Putz tells us a bit more about Drollinger and his ministry.
Here is a taste:
Drollinger has applied this sports ministry approach to politicians and government leaders since 1996, when he created Capitol Ministries. That said, it should be noted that sports ministry organizations did not create the methods of ministry that Drollinger uses. In my dissertation I discuss some of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century sources that inspired and shaped the FCA’s approach to sports-specific ministry. And historians such as Kevin Kruse have written about the ways in which ministers beginning in the 1930s targeted their efforts towards reaching and influencing businessmen and politicians. But in Drollinger’s mind and experience, at least, his ministry among government leaders is simply an extension of his work among athletes and coaches, a chance to apply those methods to a new field ripe for harvest.
“Whereas a sports ministry movement is certain to have a positive impact on many,” Drollinger writes in Rebuilding America, “helping to generate a movement for Christ amongst governing authorities holds promise to change the direction of a whole country!”
As for the direction in which Drollinger believes the country should change, one can get a good idea by reading the endorsements for his book, which include statements from Christian Right luminaries like David Barton and conservative politicians like Michelle Bachmann. I hope to say more about the connections between sports ministry organizations and the Christian Right in a future post, but a word of caution before one assumes that Drollinger speaks for all involved in Sportianity: according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s latest book, Drollinger’s old UCLA coach, John Wooden—prominently involved in evangelical sports ministries and prominently featured in Drollinger’s Rebuilding America book—voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Read the entire post here.
Chris Christie is being considered as a replacement for Mike Francesa on WFAN, the original (and best) sports talk radio show in the country. (Francesa is leaving the show soon. Let’s home he reconnects with his old partner Chris “Mad Dog” Russo).
In light of Christie’s recent visit to Island Beach State Park, one might argue that today may not have been the best time to make his sports radio debut. But that did not stop Christie. He showed up with a Dallas Cowboys hat and a Knicks sweatshirt and was ready to talk sports.
Then came Mike from Montclair. NJ.com reports:
Baylor University graduate student Paul Putz has started a blog on sports and American Christianity.
Here is how he describes “Sportianity“:
Let’s start with the name. “Sportianity” is a term coined by legendary sportswriter Frank Deford. He used it in a 1976 Sports Illustrated series on religion in sport (read more about that series here). Deford used it in a mostly negative sense, implying that Sportianity was a corruption of true Christianity; it was a religion “more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.”
I do not use it in the negative sense implied by Deford. Rather “Sportianity” is meant as a descriptive term for the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity. It is inhabited by institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and others. It is championed by media/publications like Sports Spectrum. And it is represented by celebrity athletes like Tim Tebow, Stephen Curry, and Maya Moore.
Over the coming months I will focus on two types of content. First, book reviews/summaries. There are hundreds of books that take up the topic of sports and Christianity. Some are written from a critical perspective, others are intended to inspire true believers. Still others are biographies or autobiographies that focus on the faith of famous athlete and coaches. I will use this space to discuss some of those books, both new and old.
Second, biographical vignettes. I’m currently finishing up a dissertation on the history of Sportianity. In my research I often come across the names of famous athletes from the past who were public about their faith. Many of those athletes will not make it into my dissertation, so I will post brief historical snippets about some of them here.
Good luck with the new blog, Paul! We will be reading.
For previous posts in this series click here.
We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline. We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.
Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success. I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour. Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.
Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio. The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course. (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University). He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club. He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm. In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American. Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:
Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional. Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first). Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.
Here are some more pics:
This commentary was released on May 3, 2017. Deford passed away on May 28, 2017.