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Religion in Sport
Frank Deford
April 19, 1976
Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series
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April 19, 1976

Religion In Sport

Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series

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Like Priest, virtually all the leaders in the Christian athletic movement are fundamentalist. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes In Action are studiously nondenominational, and even the individual stalwarts, ministers like Zeoli and Tom Skinner (who is associated with the Washington Redskins), avoid mentioning their particular church affiliation. Evangelistic Catholicism has been under steam for almost a decade, and this has helped bring Roman Catholic recruits from that wing of the church into Sportianity—Mike McCoy of the Green Bay Packers is one Catholic invariably cited. But the sense and thrust of the movement still comes from the Bible Belt.

The Bible is to be taken literally. The message is simple, all or nothing; there is no truck with intellectualizing, the appeal is gut. It does not seem surprising that football—authoritarian, even militaristic—is the sport at the heart of the movement. The pregame football chapel services are important not so much because they take place on the Sabbath, but because they take place on a game day, when the players are sky high and emotionally exposed. A pro star who once was active in Sportianity but left in disgust says, "Why do you think this simplistic type of religion appeals to athletes? Because you're talking to people who operate primarily with their bodies, not their minds."

Ray Hildebrand was a pop singer who had one big hit (Hey Paula) before he gave up show business to work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has had all the spotlights he ever wanted and so is not awed by hotshot athletes. As a matter of fact, the best way to preach to athletes, to hold their limited attention, is with show-biz flypaper. "The pros have got so much flash themselves," Hildebrand says, "that the only way you're going to impress them is to throw flash at them. You got to come on strong, joking, and then you give them what we call 'three points and a poem'—No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and a simple little rhyme to wrap it up for 'em." Hildebrand smiles and shakes his head at this foolishness. "Sometimes I'll even wear one of those silly shirts."

Being essentially fundamentalist, the movement draws its strength from the South and the rural areas of the nation where that type of theology has thrived. Despite its growth and clout, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has failed to make inroads into the more sophisticated areas of the nation. There are now 1,600 high school Huddles in the U.S., but only a dozen of these—.8% of the total—are located in the Northeast, where 15% of the population resides. The FCA is hardly more successful in California. The bulk of the Huddles are found in the South, Southwest and Midwest, and most of the stars who participate in the program were brought up in those areas, in white, middle-class environs.

The FCA has sought to broaden its reach but has failed, in large part because in the more urban (and allegedly liberal) sections of the nation, school officials often seem intimidated by laws concerned with the separation of church and state. Because it is a religious organization, the FCA has been denied access to some schools. Those in Sportianity consider this "discriminatory" and absurd—as preposterous as viewing registered Democrats and Republicans as agents of political prejudice. There have been instances when the PAO speaking caravan has been permitted into a school auditorium and allowed to address students, but only if the players promised not to use any names. Accordingly, they say things like: "My life was changed by"—and here they offer a longing look skyward—"by someone whose name I can't mention in school."

The fundamentalist sweep into sport is relatively new. Previously, only Roman Catholics exploited athletics, using football and basketball teams to attract students and funds and attention to parochial institutions that were broke and often academically inferior as well. The classic example is Notre Dame.

Father James Riehle, the chaplain of the Notre Dame athletic department, says, "Of course Catholic schools used athletics for prestige. Notre Dame would not be the great school it is today, the great academic institution, were it not for football. But the emphases have changed here. I think that now we realize the value of sport in more ways than just the financial, whereas I'm afraid once we didn't."

The famous upset of Army by Notre Dame in 1913, when Knute Rockne (a Protestant then, but who knew?) trundled out a secret weapon known as the forward pass, had broad religious implications. Football had been an upper-class WASP sport played by the moneyed few in the Northeast. They had adapted the game from English soccer. In contrast, baseball was an American original, and urban immigrants, who were predominantly Catholic, took to it precisely because it was all-American and was not at all British. Major league baseball was limited pretty much to those large cities with heavy Catholic populations, while college football thrived and became preeminent in the more homogeneous Protestant sections of the country, particularly the South and Southwest.

So the Irish of Notre Dame used football to move up in the academic community in the same way that the lace-curtain Irish used politics to ascend in society. The Notre Dame example was followed by other Catholic schools, but in 1976 only the Irish and Boston College remain in the football big time. Because Catholic colleges were chiefly located downtown, with limited physical and financial resources, they eventually were forced to drop football and concentrate on basketball.

The Catholic emphasis on this sport continues despite a more recent phenomenon—basketball's increasing domination by blacks. Since relatively few blacks are Roman Catholic, parochial schools have had to recruit outside the faith if they wished to remain competitive. Nowadays, at many schools the student body is 90% or more Catholic but the basketball squad is virtually non-Catholic. Catholic academicians do not see any hypocrisy in this policy, equating it with a state-supported school recruiting out-of-state players.

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