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.
What 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.
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.