theology of football

Knute Rockne

“College football would be much more interesting if the faculty played instead of the students, and even more interesting if the trustees played. There would be a great increase in broken arms, legs and necks, and simultaneously an appreciable diminution in the loss to humanity.” — H.L. Mencken, 1922

We will confound the Fighting Irish during the second half,” said the Yeshiva coach. Notre Dame was beating Yeshiva at halftime, 50-0, and drastic measures were called for. “We will call our signals in Yiddish, and confound their defense.” Yeshiva got the ball first, and began barking out signals. A large Notre Dame defensive lineman looked up, smiling, showing the gap where his front teeth should have been, and said, “Ha! No matter vat ju do, nothing vill help! -From a widely circulated joke in the 1950s

One of the problems with the game of American football is that it contains certain unpleasant features. The Mencken quip above gives us a small indication. Here is a poem, written by James Wright, called “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

You would think that the brooding song Mr. Wright sings might be translated into a rich literary achievement. A game that emerged from elite colleges in the East, that so inspired the middle class masses that they built gladiatorial arenas such as the world had never before seen, and dominated by the ethics of the “muscular Christianity” of its early legendary coaches like Amos Alonzo Stagg, doggedly American in every way–must it not produce its Homer, or its Vergil? It was a game of vigor and violence reflecting the fading frontier, requiring the organization of the new industrial age, able to absorb both the hopes of the immigrant ethnics and the Catholic masses, and the violent passions of the Celtic South. Do its own internal contradictions explain why football has produced endless folklore but no great literature?

Mencken was responding to the first theology of football, which was Protestant and slightly progressive, and therefore anathema to the sage of Baltimore. But not to Teddy Roosevelt, who as our own John Miller quotes, said, “Of all these sports there is no better sport than football.” [Miller’s book, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, is one of the half dozen best books ever written about football.] The President, in coaxing the elite colleges to discipline themselves and thus the game, meant what early coaches and writers portrayed, a game that built character, honor, courage, toughness, team and community spirit; and was a reflection of how a muscular God would want His covenanted people to raise their children in godly families, to be upright citizens, and to charge the hills in Cuba as the future President’s Rough Riders.

Despite that more academic progressives were against football than for it, it is true that most political progressives were pro-football (as were the working masses, who still are) and that the debate over football theology was mostly a protestant/progressive debate. It was a debate of words, reasoned out in faculty meetings, the new mass media of the newspaper, and in politics all the way up to the White House. Was there excessive violence in football? Then it was a problem to be solved, in good fundamentalist, scientific, and political fashion. Did football seem not always to complement college academic life quite well enough? Then enlist the rich alums to build huge arenas and bring in huge amounts of money to spend on libraries and ever-expanding academic programs designed to hasten Progress. And since most good progressive protestants really believed that football imparted the virtues that led to national greatness, the sport grew, and grew.

The problem with basing a moral theology of football on a protestant vision, however, was that a curious combination of moral and scientific criticism kept breaking through. Football was inherently violent, and had to be controlled. Football was too lucrative, which led to corruption. Football, eventually, appealed too much to sweaty immigrants and hillbilly southerners and negroes. Moral crises, not unlike those that produced Prohibition, were almost inevitable. “Deemphasis” and reform always followed, and lasted only as long as it took for hungry fans and enthusiastic alums to get around the reforms and the pathetic governing body (the NCAA) the reforms had produced. Still, and this is one of the truly interesting features of American football, most of the young men who played the game, most of the adults who coached it and watched it, continued to believe in the basic moral theology: the game helped boys to become men, better citizens and fathers, and disciplined businessmen and soldiers and public servants. The game reflected and developed character, and selflessness. The fictional Frank Merriwell and his real life counterpart, Hobey Baker of Princeton, were simply better people; better custodians of God’s covenant. Amos Alonzo Stagg set a standard of honor that would last more than the hundred years of his life.

Stagg’s sense of honor was in large part based on an Old Testament Christian’s view of the world [The term is Robert Frost’s description of himself.]: Play by the rules and you shall be rewarded! Justice and mercy cometh to the dutiful man! His New England sense of order was not offended by large crowds and great ceremony (his University of Chicago teams in the 1920s played before 110,000 in Soldier Field), but it was indeed irritated by the grit and lack of decorum of the southern teams that started to push their way into prominence when the University of Alabama beat mighty Penn in 1922, and by the beast “professional,” turned loose by Red Grange’s barnstorming tour of 1926. Violence, in the New England soul, had to be contained in the rules of the game and the noble goals of gentlemen.

But just as what we might call “Stagg Theology” was about to undergo a great decline in the 1930s, a “Rockne Theology” emerged. Although the “Fighting Irish” rarely fought and were rarely Irish, and not by any means always Catholic (see the Jewish joke above), they introduced mystery into college football: The forward pass, the Notre Dame Box, the Hail Mary pass! Protestants still don’t know what they are saying when they call for a Hail Mary. Catholic coaches stretched the rules; they obeyed them only in spirit.

This mysterious aspect of football (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) came to life on December 23, 1972. The Pittsburgh team ( the “Picksburgh Stillers”) was hosting the Oakland Raiders for the right to play the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. [Why didn’t they call it the “Imperial Bowl?” After all, we already had the “World Series.”] The Stillers, with 22 seconds left, were down 7-6 on fourth down and 10, 60 yards from the goal line. Their great owner, Art Rooney, had already left his box and was on his way down to congratulate his opponents. Terry Bradshaw, trying to get enough yardage to attempt a field goal, passed to Frenchy Fuqua at the 35 yard line. The ball arrived at the same time as Jack Tatum, the meanest of all the Raiders. To this day nobody really knows what happened next. The ball hit one or both of the players and rebounded. Franco Harris, the Picksburgh fullback, had followed the play (at Penn State, he had heard Joe Paterno scream “Go to the ball!” about ten thousand times) and the ball landed in his hands about an inch off the ground. He made it to the end zone with less than five seconds to play.

Bedlam ensued. The word bedlam comes from the mental hospital, St. Mary’s of Bethlehem in London, and aptly describes the scene. Mr. Rooney arrived at field level to find that his team had won. It took the referees several minutes to make the ruling that Bradshaw’s ball had hit Tatum first, and not Fuqua, and the play stood as a touchdown. Had they ruled otherwise, they probably would have been found in pieces in the Ohio River. NFL Films has named this the greatest play in the history of football. According to Myron Cope, the Stillers’ announcer, who first used the term on the air, a woman named Sharon Levosky (a true Picksburgh name!) called him that night and told him that her friend Michael Ord had coined the only possible name for the play: The Immaculate Reception.

Most Catholics, not to mention almost all Protestants, are a little hazy about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was announced officially to the Church on December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX, in Ineffabilis Deus, which says in part that “from the first moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin.” [An aside here–or a confession. In what I have come to think of as the years of Great Schism in my own life, I often thought that Pius IX’s elevation of Mary’s sinlessness into dogma was a prudential error that introduced greater division into Catholic Christianity. Our Blessed Mother has since cured me of that heretical notion, and one of the minor side effects of that cure is a new appreciation for the sacramental aspect of sport.]

If the Immaculate Conception was indeed a miracle explainable only by singular grace, then only Catholics could have named a football play the “Immaculate Reception.” The only name San Francisco could think of to give their epic game-winner over Dallas in 1982 was “The Catch.” But that’s San Francisco for you. What if the Immaculate Reception had happened in Dallas, in a game against, say, the Minnesota Vikings and their “Purple People Eater” defense? Would the Dallas Baptists come up with a name that still resounds? Somehow I don’t think that “Predestined Pass” would quite cut it. In fact, on December 28, 1975, Roger Staubach of the Cowboys did throw a game winning pass to Drew Pearson against the Vikings. Roger, a Catholic, told reporters after the game that he closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary. Singular grace. The interesting thing is that Staubach, widely praised for his character, could perhaps , if he were Protestant, be held up as a man who exhibited the muscular Christianity that would almost inevitably produce such a play.

Ah, and then there is Touchdown Jesus. Since 1964, a granite mosaic on one side of the Hesburgh Library, 134 feet high and 68 feet wide, has presided over touchdowns in the Notre Dame football stadium. It depicts Jesus the Teacher, and is entitled “The Word of Life.” Jesus’s arms are extended in what the Church calls the “orans” (prayer) position, looking very much like the referee’s signal for a touchdown. The symbolism was never lost on the dullest Notre Dame fan, of course, but Fr. Hesburgh, the legendary president of Notre Dame, and his sidekick, Fr. Joyce, ruler of all things football at Notre Dame from 1954 (when the two got rid of the recalcitrant fighting Irishman, Frank Leahy) until Fr. Joyce’s retirement in 1987, claimed until their dying days that the sacramental bond on this GPS had ever occurred to them. I believe them. I believe it was singular grace.

[Another aside: I will never forget how devastated Gerhart Niemeyer was, after a lifetime of teaching at Notre Dame, and commited to Fr. Joyce, and full belief that Notre Dame did not accept football players under any other standard than that applied to every other student, when it became apparent that several of Notre Dame’s recruits the first year of Proposition 48, had to sit out their first year because of academic deficiencies that would have kept them from admission even to Notre Dame’s most unworthy opponents.]

Notre Dame’s struggles to reconcile faith and football are admirably portrayed in Scott Eden’s book, Touchdown Jesus (2005), the story of the football season that cost Tyrone Willingham (ND’s first black coach) his job. The valiant attempt to balance quality football with elite academics and traditional Catholicism, mixed here with race, the ultimate ethnic secular struggle, might also be considered in the light of the Blessed John Paul II’s death in the same year the book came out. The Holy Father had often been called “God’s Athlete.” In addition to his profound faith, John Paul II was given the gifts of philosophy, the arts, and a body that could meet the challenges of sport. He was apparently a bit of a daredevil as a skier, a very competitive soccer goalie, and one who would push fellow hikers over the roughest terrain (when he wasn’t dropping back for a couple of hours of prayer). His “Theology of the Body” may turn out to be one of his most important contributions to Catholic theology, and although it is about more than sports, it places great emphasis upon them. He even created the “department of sport” in the Vatican in 2004. His homily, “Jubilee of Sports People,” given on October 29, 2000, may be the definitive framework for Catholics to understand that “how we play is how we pray.”

It is good, he says, “to give thanks to God for the gift of sport, in which the human person exercises his body, intellect and will, recognizing these abilities as so many gifts of his Creator.” Like so many before him, the Holy Father felt that sports can “encourage young people to develop important values such as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity.” But one must always remember that “He, in fact, is God’s true athlete”–Christ, who defeated Satan, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus inaugurating the kingdom of God.” As in everything else, our bodies must be dedicated to “understanding the deep meaning of life.” Even the greatest champion is “defenceless before the fundamental questions of life.” Just as perseverance in sport, even suffering and pain, give us hope against the “darkness of evil and death,” he prays that:

Lord Jesus, help these athletes to be your friends and witnesses to your love. Help them to put the same effort into personal asceticism that they do into sports; help them to achieve a harmonious and cohesive unity of body and soul.

Sports can degrade and betray; turn exclusively to profit and individual achievement, encourage hedonism and idolatry, and in general hasten the spiritual decline that affects so much of contemporary society. Sports are so widespread, he points out, so important to cultures internally and across borders, that the Church which has always tried to help order all aspects of human interaction must make them a field of evangelization. Above all, he says, we must make sports “a gymnasium of the spirit, a means to exercise moral education,” careful to avoid as far as possible “all unnecessary risks on the part of the athlete, and disordered emotions on the part of fans that may occur in competition.”

I admit to some confusion and trepidation when it comes to applying Blessed John Paul’s great hope and dire warning to the sport of American football. When the University of Miami football team got off the plane wearing camouflage fatigues, coming to play Notre Dame some years ago, they were greeted by students wearing t-shirts that said, among other things, “Notre Dame has Class– Notre Dame has Classes,” and “The Catholics vs. The Convicts.” There seem to be felons without end on college and professional football teams. Scandals involving recruiting, grades, payoffs, cheating, gambling and a score of other offenses pop up like dandelions. Some professional teams apparently have paid bonuses for their players to injure opponents.

There is now emerging a new movement, led by what we might call “post- Protestant” moral theology, to ban or significantly reform football. It is based on a combination of ideology and scary medical evidence. The ideological argument is that 1) football does not indeed foster the virtues so often claimed for it (based largely on the Penn State narrative), and 2) there is fundamental injustice in (mostly black) players not getting their due cut of gigantic football profits. The medical argument is based on the growing body of evidence that whacks to the head shorten our lives. The latter has gotten some attention from Catholic groups, the former mostly from what my football friends would call “anti-football nonathletic dweebs.” I suspect that John Paul II would not be too concerned about a few knocked heads or broken bones, or even the sons who “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” And rather than tilt against a sport that will not go away, at least for another couple of centuries, I suspect that he would rather see poets spring up among us who can show us how to understand the fathers who “are ashamed to go home,” and the mothers who are “dying for love.” Sports are, after all, sacramental; and therefore we can only grasp them through metaphor, as nobody did better than St. Paul. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor. 9:24) “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Cr. 9:25)

And the psalmist says, “Those that sow in tears shall weep rejoicing.” (Ps. 125:5) I once found myself preaching to a class about what I had reaped from several decades of playing violent sports. “How many times can your nose be broken, your sternum smashed, your knees abused by hits and pounding, your body bruised, your spine compressed, before you can count on living in pain pretty much the second half of your life?” One of my students said, “Yeah, Doc, would you do it all again?” Damn right. It’s sacramental, you know.

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