John White, who teaches sports chaplaincy at Baylor, urges his students to think in radical terms about a truly Christian sports ethos. "In our class we talk about redemptive strategies, how to renew sports," says White, a former Athletes in Action chaplain who served at the Olympic Training Center in 1991 and '92. "Teaching the athletes to write notes" to players on the other teams, for example. "Social networking, where you start a friendship with people outside of the game, through the game, after the game." Or opposing teams sharing meals before and after the games. As White says, "Hospitality is very rich in Christian tradition."
A former athlete and chaplain who teaches at a nearby Division I school thinks White doesn't go far enough and calls for an even more radical transformation. "Football needs to go to flag football, where you don't hurt someone," says this man, who says he'd be finished on his football-mad campus if I used his name. "With helmets, you can't see [the opponents'] eyes; there's no soul-to-soul contact. So you keep them anonymous, and it helps inflict pain on people. Flag football would also mean you don't have 350-pound linemen, with the toll [tackle football] takes on their bodies afterward."
This devout Christian knows, as he speaks, that Alabama-Auburn is never going to be decided by flag football; he's being provocative. But people are asking questions about both traditional football and traditional Christianity that you didn't hear as much five years ago. Just as we're wondering how sacred injury-riddled tackle football has to be, we're also becoming a slightly less religious country. In a survey earlier this year, the Pew Forum found that among young Americans, evangelical Christianity is on the decline—a third of young adults said they were not affiliated with any church or religion.
This demographic group is also increasingly liberal on social issues. If Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had come out for same-sex marriage 10 years ago, as he did this year, he probably would have been pilloried by fans and sports-talk-radio gabbers. This year many fans rallied around Ayanbadejo and ridiculed a state legislator's suggestion that the Ravens try to silence him. Teammates Bernard Pollard and Matt Birk publicly took sides against same-sex-marriage, invoking the Bible and God's will, but Ayanbadejo, like Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, another same-sex marriage proponent, seemed to gain popularity by speaking out.
Ayanbadejo's and Kluwe's turns as gay-rights advocates serves as a reminder that the conservative Christian message has not taken hold everywhere in the NFL. Some teams are more Christian than others. Dee says his Colts teammates in the late '80s were mostly uninterested in praying with him, but when he got to the Seahawks he found a lot more locker room piety, thanks to a few key players. "In Seattle, there was Steve Largent," Dee says. "To see the influence that he and Jeff Kemp and a couple of other key guys had—most of the team went to chapel."
Nobody I spoke with wants football to go away. They want it to be redeemed, and they think a little more honesty would be a good place to start. That's what I got from running back Tim Hightower, who was cut by the Redskins over the summer. Like many in the NFL, Hightower is a Christian and a football player, but unlike many of his peers he doesn't pretend that's an easy combination. "There's a lot of energy on the football field," Hightower says. "If you mix that along with 'I'm supposed to love my neighbor'"—he pauses, searching for words to cut through the dilemma he's describing.
"A lot of the Christian thing," Hightower continues, "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?"