I have a confession to make: I don’t know a whole lot about football. Once, to my brother’s great chagrin, I referred to the halftime of a Kansas City Chief* football game as “intermission.” Another time, after seeing “SD Chargers” scroll across a TV screen during a game, I literally said — out loud — “I didn’t know South Dakota had a ballteam.”
So you won’t be surprised to hear that I didn’t come by this very cool ESPN story all my own, or in any timely fashion. But I’m sure glad I did.
The story, written by journalist Tim Keown and titled The Confession of Arian Foster, recounts the NFL player’s “coming out” as a nonbeliever — an unusual occurrence within the overwhelmingly Christian community that is American football.
Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.
“Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith,” he says. “That’s my whole thing: Faith isn’t enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”
Foster, who has a COEXIST tattoo across his forearm and greets “I’ll pray for you” messages with “I’ll think for you” counter-messages, was raised by freethinking parents of both Muslim and Catholic heritage. Todd Stiefel, chair of the organization Openly Secular, told ESPN: “He is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”
Fosters’ brother, Abdul, speaking tongue-in-cheek, calls Arian “the anti-Tebow.”
In a video that accompanies the story, Keown told an ESPN newscaster that Foster’s decision to talk openly about his lack of faith came alongside a “new tolerance.” In the past, Foster had openly challenged people about their religious beliefs; not so anymore.
He feels that he needs to be more tolerant of people with different beliefs, and he also feels that Christians and other religious people need to be more tolerant of secular beliefs. So that ‘s why he decided to to open up and to talk about this — with the hope that it will bring people together a little bit more.
His 6-year-old daughter, Zeniah, knocks and enters. Dinner is finished, and she wants to know if it’s OK for her to eat the ice cream her grandmother has promised. As she skips away, free to indulge, Foster mentions — his voice betraying an I know, I know tone — that Zeniah just finished kindergarten at a Catholic elementary school.
“Every once in a while she’ll mention Jesus or God,” he says. “One time she likened God and Jesus to Zeus and Hercules. She did it on her own. She said something along the lines of, ‘They’re the same. They’re both stories.’ I thought it was brilliant on her part to be able to distinguish it.”
Arguably the most interesting bit, though, is when Foster addresses all the faith-talk in football, represented in human form by Tim Tebow, an outspoken evangelical Christian whose penchant for kneeling in prayer during games gave rise to the term “Tebowing.” Here’s Keown:
So what does football look and sound like to the nonbeliever? Foster sits at his locker before every game, facing the wall, the music in his headphones internalizing his preparation. At some point before the Texans come together to take the field, he can feel the men behind him congregating to form a circle. There is no tap on the shoulder or invitation to join. Through the headphones he can hear the low murmur of a teammate asking Jesus to keep them safe from harm, and afterward the collective hum of the group reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Before the game, he nods along to the ubiquitous God-bless-yous that register as white noise to everyone but him, and afterward he hears the postgame shoutouts to God, a standard reflex in most interviews with the triumphant.
But if God is helping you win, Foster wonders, isn’t he by definition ensuring that the other guy loses? As is the case with Foster’s street, the water must choose a side. “If there is a God and he’s watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing,” he says. “There are hungry children and diseases and famine and so much important stuff going on in the world, and he’s really blessed your team? It’s just weird to me.”
* The original post said it was a Nebraska Cornhuskers game. It wasn’t. It was the Kansas City Chiefs. When I go to games, I don’t even know what state I’m in, much less what team is playing.