NFL gets religion (maybe not)

About the time that I was finishing up my studies at Baylor University, a remarkable young football player arrived on the campus named Mike Singletary.

I met him a couple of times through a common friend and, of course, he went on to become one of the greatest college linebackers of all time and then his all-everything career (check this out at YouTube) with the Chicago Bears made him an automatic choice for the National Football Hall of Fame. Today he is the assistant head coach for defense with the San Francisco 49ers. He will soon be a head coach somewhere.

But Singletary is also controversial with many people, in large part because of his outspoken and very articulate views on issues related to faith and family. Along with the late Reggie White, Singletary was one of the players who began asking other Christians in the NFL to find ways to demonstrate that there were issues in life more important than who won and who lost. The symbol for this concern became the small huddles of players that would form in the center of the field after NFL games for prayer.

It’s hard to find pictures of these prayer circles because, quite frankly, the NFL brass still seem to be rather ashamed of them. I remember, back in Singletary’s career, when you would see them in the background of live shows from NFL games — then even that tacit admission of their existence vanished.

I bring all of this up for a reason, a reason other than my admiration for Singletary.

The NFL is being dogged by a bit of a character issue at the moment, and has decided to respond in the best corporate manner — with PR and advertising. Here is a piece of a New York Times report on that by Stuart Elliott:

In one spot, a father sits on the sofa with his young children, reading to them from a large book while a daughter nestles her head on his neck.

In another, a man talks on the telephone to his mother — telling her “I love you” — then tells the camera that she encouraged him to play football as a child to keep him out of trouble.

In a third, a man describes his goal of going to law school and talks about how hard he worked as a student at Notre Dame.

The latest Hallmark campaign? No, the National Football League.

Concerned by growing uneasiness among fans and marketers about athletes gone wild, the league is embarking on an effort to burnish its brand image by accentuating the positive aspects of the on- and off-field lives of its players.

In a television and online campaign … the league and its advertising agency, BBDO Worldwide, are borrowing the playbook, so to speak, of industries like Big Oil and the big drug companies, which have relied on the magic of Madison Avenue to redeem their public images. The N.F.L.’s idea is to counter the outcry over the criminal behavior of some players — not by apologizing for the misdeeds of a few, but by shining a spotlight on what is presented as the good behavior of the many.

NFLprayerWhat I found interesting is that there is no mention of religion or faith in this Times story, which I suspect — these days — says more about the NFL than the world’s most powerful newspaper. There is a ghost in there, somewhere.

It would have been rather easy to find outspoken religious figures in the NFL to put in the spotlight in one or two ads. I mean, flash back to the coaches in the last Super Bowl.

But there is also a sense in which the NFL has become a bit ashamed of this large Christian presence in its midst, in part because the old “muscular Christianity” image tends to be rather conservative — especially on lifestyle issues. Click here for a Slate report on some of this.

Is the NFL still afraid to show the prayer circles? Is faith a sign of bad character, or is Christian faith simply too hot to handle right now?

There is another possibility. Is there something in these ads that the Times missed? We’ll have to wait and see. Help me watch for that ghost.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • shocked

    I’m waiting for Christian professional chess players to come to the fore and discuss how their faith enables them to win gamrs.

  • Chris Duckworth

    Or is it altogether possible that cynical people – believers and non-believers, alike – are reluctant to give much air time to 50-yard line prayer circles attended by wealthy sports celebrities? Perhaps it is not the faith of NFL players that makes some uncomfortable, but the ways in which those players choose to display their faith in front of rolling cameras (“I’d like to thank Jesus Christ – and the offensive line – for making this touchdown possible.”). Perhaps there are lockers rooms available for prayer, far from the camera lenses . . . but I digress.

  • ursus

    As an intellectuality minded Christian, I find I am very uncomfortable with such piety. My own cynicism is never far from the surface, causing me to also question these sorts of faith choices.

    But I have a hard time saying grace in a crowded restaurant, so I am somewhat impressed that players would pray in front of thousands.

    Apart from their faith, it is hard to see the up side of such a public exhibit. When most of the press (!), the league management, team executives, and many of their fellow players are belittling the practice, I am inclined to applaud them.

    A different perspective might be to say that these men get to play a game for a living (most, I think, love the game. I think it only natural for a Christian so blessed to want deeply to thank and praise God.

    I will not be like Michal who despised David as he danced (publicly!) before the lord.

  • FrGregACCA

    Folks around my age (fifty this year) or older will probably remember that in the early seventies, large, usually yellow, signs proclaiming “John 3:16″ were often held aloft from the stadium seats behind the goalpost when a field goal or point after was being attempted. Over time, these signs disappeared from the cameras, although occasionally, one can still see fleeting shots of them, usually some place than behind the goalpost, apparently indicating that while people are still bringing these signs to NFL games, there has been something of an effort to keep them off-camera.

    Tmatt asks:

    …is Christian faith simply too hot to handle right now?

    Given the hornets’ nest that the late Reggie White (memory eternal!) stirred up a few years ago with his remarks concerning homosexuality, I suspect that this indeed might be the case; there certainly seemed to be quite a bit of media personnel discomfort whenever the Christianity of Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith came up around the last Super Bowl; the exceptions, as I recall, were often-repeated generic references to Tony Dungy’s “faith” as being a source of comfort and strength to him in dealing with his son’s suicide. However, the nature and locus of that faith was seldom explicitly identified.

  • Jerry

    It’s from the misty and distant pass (2000), but I thought the Slate article was a good one since it explored various sides of how athletes view faith from the “God wanted ME to win” to the I think more theologically accurate

    most evangelicals see the player as the instrument: The player glorifies God by playing his best.

    I also suspect some who are uncomfortable about public prayer feel that way because of Matthew 6:5-7′s message about public versus private prayer.

  • ursus

    Indeed, if the players are engaging in public prayer “for show,” then “they have their reward.”

    If, however it flows from better motives, and they persist in “praying at open windows,” then they had better be prepared to face the (not Detroit) lions.

  • Stephen A.

    Jerry (5 above) wroe what I was thinking:

    “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Matt. 6:5-7.

    This is RED LETTER stuff. Don’t Christians even bother reading what their savior says, let alone FOLLOW it?

    Having said that, the NFL can certainly use a better image, and focusing on how religion keeps players Whole, and perhaps even Holy, on occasion, can’t hurt its image.

    As a PR guy, I’d caution the NFL flacks to be wary of sending out faked-up photo-ops and calling it “reality.” People are very savvy, especially people of Faith.

  • Will Harrington

    Stephen, sure we read it, but read all of it and keep things in context. The apostles were not constantly running to look for rooms with lockable doors in order to pray, so obviously this is about motive rather than literal action. If you are going through the act of prayer simply to impress people, then that is not prayer. When reading that, keep it balanced with the admonition about judging and realize this is an instruction for our personal benefit, not one that gives us license to go around making decisions about the sincerity of other peoples prayer lives. Personally, I think if piety were more common in society this wouldn’t even be an issue.

  • tmatt


    You will hardly EVER hear a serious Christian believer say that God helped him or her WIN a game. What you hear people say is that they prayed to do their best and to play without injury.

    The post-game prayers are also a chance for the players who are believers to show some kind of unity, saying that faith is a bigger bond than competition. In other words, it’s just a game. Some people want to turn these games into wars of some kind, even wars with God on their side. That’s the opposite of the message of the prayer huddles.

    The other goal is to pray WITH THE MEMBERS of the other team . They can do that after the game and not before, due to team rules, etc.

  • danr

    I caught the tail end of a preseason game a few weeks ago, and the image of such a prayer circle appeared front and center (not peripheral/accidental). It lasted perhaps 1.5 seconds, suggesting either that camera operator said “oops, bad shot” and switched it, or else the video manager overseeing it said “hey, bad shot” and had it switched to something more “benign” like a scantily-clad cheerleader or something.

    Despite what some (like “shocked” above) sarcastically suggest, PDRs (public displays of religion) are not always about athletes inappropriately attributing a victory to God’s divine intervention, as if God is a fan of any given player or team. These prayer circles are quite intentionally players from BOTH teams, suggesting that their unity in Christ transcends their worldly rivalry. For the Christian players, the image of such unity outweighs the negative of publicly praying outside of “locked rooms”. For the image-battered NFL, they’d do well to show even a glimpse of that more positive side of player’s lives. If such a display is too much “piety” for one to handle, one can simply look away (as I have to during a mid-torso shot of a low-cut cheerleader). :)

  • danr

    Sorry tmatt – funny we were on the same wavelength apparently, I was unknowingly typing your exact sentiment just as you were posting. Maybe God really wants to get through to shocked. (I think God also wants to get through to Jeremy Shockey, but that’s another story…)

  • Deborah

    Having worked in marketing and promotions before I think its BBDO Worldwide who impressed upon the NFL not to show those images of players expressing their faith – eye candy, absolutley; pull the heart strings, in a New York minute; but its all about image and drawing more eyeballs to the game (and therefore the advertisements) sadly sincerity is sorely lacking on Madison Avenue.

  • tmatt

    Ah, Deborah, but there is the rub.

    The prayer circles are at the END of the game. You don’t need to pull eyeballs as you are signing off or even cutting to another game. It’s a farewell shot anyway.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    is Christian faith simply too hot to handle right now?

    Given how common and acceptable it is for sports players to invoke Christian discourse for spectacular performances, and also taking into account the demographics of the American football audience, somehow I don’t think generic displays of Christianity is going to be a cultural lightning rod here. Call me cynical..but that’s not it.

  • shocked

    Europe Echecs has a lovely picture of the 3rd M-Tel of Sofia Grandmaster Tournament winner, Veselin Topalov, ( the second most powerful player in the world and a sports idol in Bulgaria), posing with a very large icon of St George and three other knight saints on horses triumphing over their adversaries.

  • shocked

    Here’s the You Tube session showing Topalov receiving the icon as a prize;

  • Stephen A.

    Will wrote:

    Stephen, sure we read it, but read all of it and keep things in context. The apostles were not constantly running to look for rooms with lockable doors in order to pray, so obviously this is about motive rather than literal action. If you are going through the act of prayer simply to impress people, then that is not prayer. When reading that, keep it balanced with the admonition about judging and realize this is an instruction for our personal benefit, not one that gives us license to go around making decisions about the sincerity of other peoples prayer lives. Personally, I think if piety were more common in society this wouldn’t even be an issue.

    Will, first of all, we live in a society in which “judging” is a bad thing. Frankly, a whole generation of whiny brat children have learned that to “judge” (or have moral judgement) is evil. So a bit of antidote to that is in order, I think, especially when overpaid celebrities are concerned. (And yes, “overpaid” is a judgement of mine, too.)

    My comment wasn’t a call to Biblical literalism. And yet, a call to not be doing things “just to be seen by men” is not an out-of-line admonition, considering it’s from the Book these folks claim to be using as a guidebook. Frankly, putting on a show for the public to indicate that you are prayerful kind of crosses a line.

    I’d ask for a bit of analysis as to where Christ asks for PUBLIC displays of “unity.” I believe he called for personal sacrifice, personal devotion and picking up a cross of some sort. I think those who believe the call to public performance is calling for a post-AD325 Christianity that is part of the State Ritual, rather than an AD33 Faith. In short, why does public ritual and state approval -or the approval of OTHERS – of one’s Faith matter? But this is a larger issue, and I digress.

    I’m sure not saying that these players don’t need to seek God and put something other than themSELVES in the forefront of their lives, for a change. And the NFL certainly needs men of Faith rather than self-centered thugs. God bless them for seeking faith over self, and I hope it’s actually for real.

    But I’m just wary of public spectacles, be they in stadiums or MegaChurches, and I think Christians need to read their own Book once in a while and discern what the text really means. These players probably don’t have a problem with the “Prosperity Gospel” passages, for instance, but have probably never heard the admonition to practice one’s prayer in a non-boastful, non-public way.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Is the NFL still afraid to show the prayer circles?”

    Yes. The NFL is reluctant to show anything that may be deemed controversial, and the networks comply because of the $$$.

    The gathering of players on-field to pray after the Virginia Tech game yesterday got plenty of coverage. That’s because ESPN and others could “put it in context”.

  • danr

    Stephen said, “I’d ask for a bit of analysis as to where Christ asks for PUBLIC displays of ‘unity.’”
    I’m no trained theologian, but…
    John 13:35 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
    Acts 2:46-47 “Every day [the first church] continued to meet together in the [highly visible] temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”

    No intent by the early church to make a “public spectacle” of themselves, but also no fear of being perceived as such. They could’ve met in an out-of the way place, but rightly or wrongly chose not to. Obviously these principles are to be balanced with the equally-scriptural principle of having proper motives in your religious activity, i.e. please God with sincere hearts, not put on a show for others. But again, sincerity and visibility aren’t always necessarily at odds.

    Midfield post-game just so happens to provide a very convenient opportunity to do what would be logistically difficult otherwise. In this case, it might well be possible that the motives of at least some are genuinely to “love one another” and “meet together” to give glory to God together, mutually encourage in prayer, and (yes) let others see the overriding spiritual unity of “opposing” players.

    You’re right that we’re to have moral judgment, without self-righteously passing judgment on an individual. But ultimately only God knows their individual hearts, which is why it’s dangerously presumptuous to suggest that these players “boastfully” gathered in prayer circles subscribe to prosperity gospel etc.

    Of course Christians are not called to public performance for performance sake… but we’re also not called to obey the increasing sentiment in this society that one should be careful to keep one’s religious expression solely confined to “private places”.

  • Stephen A.

    The second verse is more convincing than the first, but even there, they went back home – an out of the way place – to do their breaking of bread after “meeting” together (the meaning of which no one probably knows.) Not to say they didn’t pray openly and publicly there in the temple, but note that people meet up with others in public places all the time and then go elsewhere to have dinner, go to meetings, etc.

    My point is that it should not matter what Caesar.. sorry, secularist society, says about anyone’s religion. Even if it became illegal to pray or proselytize in public, Christians would likely do what they did for the first 300 years or so – practice in private. The fact that was actually an admonition of their Lord kind of makes it a good idea anyway. I fear Christians have become too enamored with being “Caesar’s Religion” that they have forgotten these minor admonitions.

    But don’t worry, few Christians FAST, either, and that was a direct admonition, too. Mt 6:16-18