Saturday, February 4, 2017

Faith and Football

While sharing the single story of Delanie Walker, I found myself describing Super Bowl Sunday as an unofficial American holiday. Thinking of the origin of the word "holiday" Old English for holy day, I realized that my descriptor wasn't inaccurate. Originally, the word meant "a consecrated day or a religious festival," and if you pay attention to the rituals that accompany the Super Bowl in addition to the way we celebrate it—holy day and holiday remain connected.

Millions of Americans will attend religious services tomorrow, as Sunday is the Christian sabbath. But even more will turn on their television—to Fox Sports to watch the 51st football contest between the NFC and AFC Championship teams: the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. The game will be broadcast in seven foreign countries and in ten different languages. 

In light of this sports feast day, I created a new assignment for my students called "Faith and Football." The idea was born thanks to a co-worker who shared the article "Sacred Sport."  My colleagues's son (a former student) is enrolled in ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Not only do they offer a Bachelor of Arts in Sports Journalism, they have an on-line course, REL 394: Religion and Sport. Sun Devil Life reports:

As the debate continues to wage over the relationship between race and sports today, ASU graduate student Terry Shoemaker is asking students to consider another, just as socially significant relationship — that between sports and religion. 
“Contemporary trends place religion as declining in the United States, as well as in most developed countries,” said Shoemaker, instructor of the recently introduced online course REL 394: Religion and Sports. 
“Some scholars have argued that as religion declines, sport offers a space for replacing what is lost with vanishing religious commitments such as ritual, community, mystery, superstition, etc.” 
As an entry point to the discussion, Shoemaker created a Fantasy Football league for his students to play, of which he is also a participant. After drafting teams, students research five of their starters’ religious affiliations and how that has or has not affected the athletes’ lives and careers.
As much as I know many of my students would love to manage a fantasy football team for homework, the nature and timing of my course is a little different. The invitation to research the faith lives of the athletes however did intrigue me, so I created "Faith and Football" to research the following: 
In light of the ethical and cultural critiques of the NFL as well as the excess and cultural dysfunctions associated with football, what—if anything—is the religious and spiritual significance to the experience of playing football or being a fan?  Are the critiques of the NFL—perpetuated by the media—in vain?
For the purpose: to thoughtfully and critically examine this question… debate and discuss
As a starting point, they had to begin with those who make the game possible: the athletes. With Shoemaker's assignment in mind they had to 
  • Choose six players to profile.  What should we know about them beyond their position, height and weight? What is interesting about them as an athlete and a person? Maybe you have met him…have a personal anecdote about that experience.
  • For four of these players you are tasked with finding out more about their faith life.  They need to be religious (though not necessarily Christian). How do they practice their faith? How do they speak about it? What are their core values/beliefs? How is this evident in the game? to teammates? To the public? If you cannot find much about their religious faith, what can you discern about spirituality?
Today's blog posting will feature a little of what they found.

The New England Patriots

Matt Slater: Wide Receiver
  • Played at UCLA, never started a game during his college career
  • Taken in the 5th round of the 2008 Draft
  • He's a 6x Pro Bowler on special teams
  • Won the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award this season, an award that his father won years ago with the Rams

  • He describes the moment he was drafted as a miracle, and the moment he truly realized God was in his life
  • Leads his teammates in weekly Bible studies and discusses Christian perspectives on social issues with the team.
  • Slater explained how he expresses his faith through football, saying “I feel like if I don’t compete as hard as I can and play as fast and physical as I can, I’m doing a disservice to the Lord, who’s given me the opportunity and the talents to play this game.”
Malcolm Butler: Cornerback/Safety
  • 26 years old
  • Grew up in Mississippi and played football at the University of West Alabama
  • Undrafted and picked up as a free agent by New England
  • He is most well known for his interception in Super Bowl 49
  • His current annual salary is $510,000

  • “I believe in God and I'm truly blessed.”
  • Describing himself as “blessed” indicated that he is Christian
  • Butler “had a vision” that he was going to make a big play
  • Believing in a higher power, he is a spiritual person
Rob Gronkowski: Tight End
  • 27 years old
  • Born in Amherst, New York
  • Attended the University of Arizona
  • Accolades and records in college
  • Drafted by New England Patriots in 2010
  • Has not publicly stated his religious affiliation
  • Gronkowski’s faith does not play a major role in his day to day actions (as far as the public knows)
The Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan: Quarterback
  • Nickname: Matty Ice
  • 6’5”
  • 224 lbs
  • Right Handed
  • 31 years old

Fun Fact:
threw a touchdown for 1st professional football career pass

  • Boston College
  • Roman Catholic
  • Spoke at Fellowship for Christian Athletes fundraiser at a Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia
  • “You find a balance between preparing for football and finding time to rest and take care of the things you need to lead a normal life.’’

Mohamed Sanu: Wide Receiver

  • Age: 27
  • Height: 6’2”
  • Weight: 210
  • Hometown: Sayreville, NJ
  • College: Rutgers University
  • First freshman to start at wide receiver for Rutgers
  • new to the team -- played for Cincinnati Bengals from 2012-2015

  • born to a Muslim family
  • mother escaped to America from Sierra Leone
  • on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, he wore these shoes 
  • Instagram bio: "God, family, football"
  • Has a son: Mohamed Sanu Jr. and is engaged
Devonta Freeman: Running Back
  • 2x Pro Bowler
  • 5 ft 8 in
  • 206 lbs
  • 24 years old
  • 2,383 career rushing yards
  • 1,265 career receiving yards
  • 29 total touchdowns
  • From surviving the streets of Miami to ignoring skeptics who wondered if he was big enough to make it on the gridiron, Freeman has spent most of his 23 years overcoming the odds. Freeman says that his Christian faith is another factor towards being thankful for the blessings he’s had in life, as he’s tried to make it to the NFL. He’s felt like Atlanta has been home from the beginning. Now trying to make the Atlanta Falcons seems to be a lot easier than some of the other things he endured growing up in the Miami-area.
I hope that in learning a little more about the athletes who play on this American holiday—that my students and you may watch this great game a with a new perspective...a broadened vision, one that Sports and Spirituality embraces. Spirituality is, after all.... "about seeing. It's not about earning or achieving. It's about relationship rather than results or requirements. Once you see, the rest follows." —Richard Rohr, OFM


1 comment:

  1. Anne,

    The assignment sounds great! The spirituality/religion of football players is an immensely interesting topic.

    - Terry Shoemaker