Ready, set, barf: An evangelical football feature

Grab your air-sickness bag and let’s dive right into this New York Times sports feature.

The italicized phrases below are courtesy of me, not the Times:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Football is not just a sport at Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell, it is a mission.

At Liberty, once a tiny Bible college but now a budding giant, the plan is for college football — big-time, always-on-television college football — to do for evangelical Christians in the 21st century what Notre Dame football did for Roman Catholics in the 20th.

Hey, homogenized evangelicals all over America, are you ready for some football!? Finally, we have a place for all the future Tim Tebows to chase their dreams!

Liberty is already packing the house for its campus games, but Jerry Falwell Jr., the businesslike son of the founder and the current university chancellor, gazes from his office in the western hills of Virginia and sees a worldwide congregation united in faith and in football. 

Hallelujah, praise the official Evangelical football team!

Other football teams run a spread offense. Liberty’s team will spread the word.

“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”

Pssssssst, Alabama, Georgia  and Oklahoma. Enjoy elite football while you can because all the Bible Belt fans are fixing to jump ship. Go, Liberty!

The university has a motto for the cause: “Champions for Christ.”

“And yes, there are parallels to Notre Dame,” Falwell continued. “There might even be a little rivalry there — the Catholics against the Protestants.”

Given all the mentions of Notre Dame in this story, it’s amazing that the Times did not seek comment from the Fighting Irish. Apparently, the following call never occurred:

Notre Dame: “This is sports media relations.”

Reporter: “Yes, I’m calling from The New York Times. I was hoping that someone could comment on how soon Notre Dame might be able to add Liberty University to its football schedule.”

In case my subtlety has confused you, this was not my favorite story. On the bright side, I now have a solid example next time I need to define nauseating. 

Here’s my major problem with this piece: It overshoots in a big-time way, with little or no evidence to back up the breathless pronouncements about the program’s powerful potential. And the Times never bothers to talk to anyone outside of Liberty.

To read this 2,500-word account, it’s as if an evangelical university never has attempted to excel in the world of big-time college football. (On a probably totally unrelated note, does anybody remember where last year’s Heisman Trophy winner played? I seem to have forgotten.)

I could go on. But I’m starting to feel rather queasy.

What’d I do with that Pepto-Bismol?

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Darren Blair

    Makes you wonder what would happen if Notre Dame or BYU ever plowed the field with them.
    Would they regard it as a sign from God if their team lost to a group of “Catholics” or “Mormons”?
    Or would they see it as Satan’s efforts to stop the good work?

  • Silvie

    Its the NYT, I think the point is that we are supposed to be afraid of the ‘scary’ evangelicals and their coming football dyansty. Because if Christians are good at anything, more people might want to be Christian (i.e. the Times downright nasty treatment of Tebow) which means fewer people to support the Times.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I searched Bill Pennington’s articles for the word “Christian”. The Liberty article was his first in 2012 and only his fourth since early 2006 to include the term. Then I searched for Pennington articles on football. Other than one on Paterno in July, he’s done none since some features on the Manning brothers for the last Super Bowl.

    Way to bring in the subject-matter expert, NYTimes. Maybe Pennington should stick to golf.

  • Julia

    How stupid! Notre Dame represents all Catholics? I’ve met a few people who believe that and they were all ND grads or brothers of ND grads. This writer is trying way too hard to be cute – totally unaware that there are lots and lots of Catholic universities other than Notre Dame. It’s had a great football team at times and a movie about the team that is iconic, but I understand how Baylor must feel. I still don’t get this religion and sports thing. Does the winner get the souls of the losing team or something?

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Surely none of those other Catholic universities play football!?

  • Julia

    “the plan is for college football — big-time, always-on-television college football — to do for evangelical Christians in the 21st century what Notre Dame football did for Roman Catholics in the 20th.”

    What exactly is it that Notre Dame football did for “Roman” Catholics? There is no support for this statement. As a 68 yr old life-long Catholic, I never noticed any benefit outside recruitment for the school itself. ND successes probably increased the usual harassment from neighborhood public school kids back in my day.

  • ceemac

    Go find the 60 Minutes story on Falwell Sr and Liberty from circa 1978. Falwell Sr was talking about playing Notre Dame back then.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, ceemac.

      I did find this in a 1994 New York Times story:

      HE always dreamed big. Back when he was organizing the Moral Majority and was playing national politics in the 1980′s, Jerry Falwell used to envision a certain football game in his lifetime:

      Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish, the most famous Roman Catholic university in his country, would be playing the Flames of Liberty Baptist College, the evangelical Christian school he was building in Virginia.


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