What is impossible for us is possible for God. ~Luke 18:27
“Tell John Kasay that God doesn’t care about football. She’s a baseball fan.” This was the witty retort of a minister friend of mine back in the late 1990s when my husband, John, was coaching for the Carolina Panthers. We had lost a big game to Tampa Bay. Kicker John Kasay had missed a field goal that could have won the game in the last few seconds.
When asked about the missed kick in a post game press conference, Kasay suggested that the wind suddenly changed and that God must not have wanted the Panthers to win that day.
Tim Tebow is not the first NFL player to put God at the center of the way he understands and interprets football. Everyone knows that, right?
My husband, John, spent twelve years coaching in the NFL on four different teams. Every team had players who were committed to regular public pronouncements about their Christianity. We saw situations where team chemistry was strengthened by faith and we saw situations where team chemistry was fractured by faith.
In the places where it seemed to divide, faith fed an ethos of exclusion and judgment. With almost 100 players on a football team at different parts of the season, the law of averages tells us that there are people of diverse faiths on every team. But there is a chilling effect on people being “out” about their faith when one way of believing is held up as the only right way.
In the places where faith seemed to strengthen the team, it enhanced everyone’s ability to connect, to persevere, to put things in perspective, and to kindle generosity and compassion. Those were places where there was room for non-conformity to one way of believing.
With all this talk about Tebowing, I am wondering what offends so many about Tebow’s brand of Christianity? What could it be that hits a nerve for us when athletes bring God, or more particularly, Jesus, onto the playing field?
Does it boil down to simply a theological disagreement? When we assert that God has chosen one team over another, we are assuming the God uses God’s power in a particular kind of way. Perhaps it is the suggestion that God would use God’s power in this way that offends.
Because I am a pastor and theologian, people often ask me if it is ok to pray for wins. I say “sure as long as you’re praying for the same team I am.” All kidding aside, I confess, I do pray during football games. On my best days, I am praying for peace, for calm, for good things to unfold. I am praying for the players and the coaches. I am praying for everyone to enjoy, to do their best, and to be safe from injury.
In desperate times and in the heat of the moment, I’ve have prayed for things like touchdowns and wins. Who hasn’t uttered prayers that are theologically inconsistent when the going gets rough?Of course, we all know that God has more important business to attend to than who wins a football game. I don’t personally know Tim Tebow, but my guess is that he would agree. I would add, too, that if God worked in such a mechanistic, puppeteer-like way that God was engineering wins and losses then we would not have children with distended bellies in Africa or war or children who are abused by the adults who are supposed to take care of them.
At the same time, another version of the idea that wins and losses are beneath God that goes something like “I don’t think Jesus gives a crap about football” does not quite cut it either. Jesus’ ministry was much more skillful than that. He didn’t go around saying, “I care about this, but I don’t care about that.” He moved about in the world with an utter immediacy to who and what was in front of him.
I believe that if Jesus were here today in his ministry on this planet that he would make it his business to encounter something that holds our attention and elicits our passion that way football does. I have a feeling that Jesus would be able to inhabit football stadiums much like he would inhabit modern day churches—with compassion, with hard truth, with an offer of healing, and with some parabolic wisdom that would knock your socks off.
With all the ways NFL football players can be almost deified in our culture I would rather see a player who acknowledges that there is a higher power at work in his life than one who makes it all about him. That awareness about our own power and the limits therein can be life-giving.
The issue of power permeates the college game when it comes to how faith takes up space. In college these issues morph from how we feel when players express strong beliefs on a gigantic stage into the ethics of how faith is navigated in settings in which there are power differentials. As troubling as some of the expressions of faith we encountered in the NFL were (like when I got kicked out of the wives’ Bible study for expressing a different interpretation of scripture), the abuses of power that we’ve experienced in the college game are much more problematic.
In college football there are some prevalent streams of Christianity that course through most teams. These particular ways of interpreting and embodying the Christian faith are not problematic in and of themselves. They become problematic when people with more power than the players (e.g. coaches or other staff members in football programs and athletic departments) endorse that particular expression of Christianity and put pressure on the players to adopt it as their own.
When one has more power than someone else in a situation (like the power to effect one’s playing time, scholarship, status as a student), then one must be careful not to abuse that power. If a coach tells a player that he would be playing better if he would accept Jesus as his Savior, that is an abuse of power. If someone addresses the team at a mandatory meeting at a state university and tells them the team will win more games if they all follow Jesus, that is an abuse of power.
Such abuses of power are also an affront to the remarkable ways that God works in and through each of us. Faith is a journey unique to each person. Why does it seem sometimes like religious people have the most trouble trusting that God is at work that way? God doesn’t need us to force our religion on other people. God is working it the way God works. We may be a blessing along to way to someone, but you and I are not the reason someone changes his/her heart. God is.
There is too little tolerance in college football for differences in faith experiences. There is too much tolerance for the ways faith is used to chide players and is enlisted to manufacture team unity. Football teams aren’t that different than churches or any other system made up of people. Insistence on spiritual conformity is going to lead to alienation, hurt, and resentment for some people. There are ways to be faithful that let people have space for their own experience. God is that big!
God is calling audibles all the time—reading where we are and what defenses we have up. God knows how to see us and be responsive in just the ways we need in each of our lives. The audible in big time football could be to let faith be what it is—a powerful force of which humans are not in charge. If a player wants to score touchdowns for Jesus, that’s his call. If God has anything at all to do with football, then the end zone is big enough for all our religious differences, even the ones we don’t completely understand.