Pro sports and the religious right–a symbiotic relationship

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Salon has an interesting feature on the relationship between pro football and the religious right. More and more pro athletes thank God for their victories these days, and Salon writer Tom Krattenmaker says that is because the players are “coached” by members of the evangelical wing of the Christian right. Krattenmaker claims that these religious coaches are embedded inside each of the teams in the Big Three–baseball, football, and basketball. That, he says, is why so many players make speeches with religious content and make “seemingly nonstop religious gestures on and off the field.”

The players are coached in Christian evangelism by the Fellowship of Christian AthletesAthletes in Action, a group that is closely related to James Dobson’s Focus on the Familiy and to Campus Crusade for Christ. Focus on the Family is virulently anti-gay and anti-feminist, and Dobson has bragged about beating both his children and his dog for “disobeying.” Campus Crusade for Christ is based on Christian fundamentalism.

The chaplains offer prayer services and religious counseling to athletes who are unable to attend church; between 20 and 40% (not a very accurate statistic) of athletes attend prayer services and Bible studies. Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, an atheist, says he does not object at all to religious services and counseling being made available to players, but he does object to certain religious groups selling their religion “with high-profile athletes.”

Shirl Hoffman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, says that the sports leagues do not interfere with these evangelical goings-on because the teams have a symbiotic relationship with the religious sects: The ministries capitalize on the popularity of pro sports, and the teams, which are increasingly embroiled in scandal, like to be identified with religion.

FCA employs 650 people and is active in team summer camps, as well as in 800 “huddles” that meet regularly in high schools and colleges. In 2003, FCA gave its Tom Landry Award to James Dobson. Many members of the sports ministries and their athlete followers are politically active for very conservative causes.

One of the things Krattenmaker brings up in his article is that stadiums are often wholly or partially financed by tax dollars, yet only the religious right is represented at the prayer groups, Bible studies and huddles. Former NFL player Anthony Prior characterizes the evangelical movement in pro sports as Christianity “packaged in a way to basically make players submissive.” Prior also says–no surprise–that there is a wedge between the pro athlete Christian evangelicals and other members of the teams.

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