God and the Gridiron Game

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Football is a national obsession. Football is also in a state of crisis.

The NFL remains far and away America’s most popular sports league, and nearly 43 percent of Americans’ identify either professional or college football as their favorite sport. Meanwhile, stories of concussions, domestic violence, sexual assault, and greed swirl around big-time college football and the NFL, leading to calls for reform or even abolishment of the sport all together. Football’s dual cultural status exists among Christians as well. Although there is a strong affinity for football, there is also plenty of concern over the ethical problems in the sport.

But football’s paradox—immense popularity combined with fierce criticism—is not unique to the present moment. In many ways it is a tradition that dates back to football’s founding in the late 19th century, with moments of heightened controversy emerging from time to time ever since. The 1920s witnessed one such moment of controversy. In that decade football emerged as a truly national spectacle. Sportswriter John Tunis declared in 1928 that football is “at present a religion—sometimes it seems to be almost our national religion.” In that decade, too, renewed efforts to reform football reached a fever pitch.

Although Christian leaders were not the most outspoken voices in the 1920s discussion about football’s place in American society, they were involved in the conversation. As another football season is set for kick off, it is worth looking at how Christian leaders nearly 100 years ago—in particular, white Protestant leaders—responded to the emergence of big-time football as America’s “national religion.”

Looking anew at the old debates can perhaps help us understand the ways in which football became so entrenched in American culture, and also the ways in which football continues to unite and divide American believers today.

Making Boys into Men
Before football became linked with the mass culture of the 1920s, it was a sport for elite white Protestant men. In the 1870s and 1880s men like Walter Camp, the “father” of American football, fashioned the new game from its rugby origins on the campuses of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Although there were always competing meanings associated with the sport, one in particular came to dominate: Football was a maker of men. More specifically in its early years, it molded middle- and upper-class college men from elite northeastern schools into hardened, well-rounded leaders needed in a strenuous age of American expansion.

Football’s status as a maker of men was built in part on its association with the amateur sports ideal. Because football players supposedly participated out of loyalty to their school and their teammates rather than for personal profit, they learned lessons of self-sacrifice, discipline, and service that professional sports, tainted by financial incentives, could not provide.

Violence was also deemed necessary to the game’s man-making mission. Only in a context of actual risk and physical danger could men be tried and tested. But this violence became football’s Achilles’ heel, particularly in the 1890s with the advent of “mass momentum” plays like the Flying Wedge. Newspaper reports of death and carnage on the gridiron proliferated in the 1890s and early 1900s, providing critics with fodder to ban or curtail the sport as it spread west and south from its northeastern hearth and deeper into the hearts of Princeton, Yale, and Harvard undergrads.

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.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton