Onward Christian Athletes: The Salvation of Sports


In concluding his book, Tom Kattenmaker, argues that the technique and methods in which sport and religion interact must be rethought, reexamined, and reimplemented. He parallels it to Reggie White’s story, the outspoken All-Pro D-linemen for the Eagles and Packers during the 90’s. He spoke for God then and preaches for God now. He has not been light about the regrets he had during his playing days, even when he was supposed to be “playing for God”. He regrets the times he attributed words to God during his days on the field and he wishes for some comments to be removed. His retrospect has caused him to call into the question his methods of evangelism, of talking with people about Jesus, his representation of Christianity, and his way of engaging culture. This reticence was enough for Kattenmaker to pounce on the idea and call for cessation.

Even the spokesman for Athletes in Action agreed with White’s testimony. He argued that the culture of today, as compared with the culture that gave root to the 3 aforementioned ministries, is a less confrontational and more conversational in accepting the religion. The “are you going to hell?” approach that built the ministry, needed to be altered. AIA has since backed off a more hard line directive of preaching, towards a relationship building ministry. To this end I can agree. Today’s consumer of information is bombarded by shocking statements everyday. To “scare” people into heaven, or to proclaim the outrageous is ineffective based on the sheer amount of information hitting people at all times. Preaching at people is ineffective because this generation does not revel in the pomp that mind did, but in authenticity and genuiness.

But to return to Kattenmaker’s original issues: 1) Christianity’s exclusivity; 2) Christianity’s popularity; 3) Christianity’s ineffectiveness.

As for number 1, the claims of Jesus are exclusive, but it’s community is not. He claims that locker rooms are divided based on the ideas of religion. The world has been divided throughout its history by the name it calls God. However, as this ESPN piece on Arian Foster shows, the differences in religious belief doesn’t have to ostracize or divide people…especially those in a work place where all other differences are supposed to be set aside as well. Granted, there are Christians that will ruin this…I cringed throughout the book as I read some of the names he brought forth. Still, the community of Christ is one of healing and restoration, and there could be no more inclusiveness as shown in that.

Secondly, in a country that is increasingly becoming more secular and with Islam on the rise, the Judeo-Christian worldview is still more prevalent. Amongst the Black Community, church attendance is still a major fixture in the culture therefore the centrality of chapel in the NFL and NBA. Baseball as a hold out in America, is a rural sport made up of kids from mid to smaller towns where Church still plays a major role. That’s the big three. Christianity is popular because, get this…its what most of the men grew up with deal with it. Also, its not as if Christianity won the popular vote of what religion to advocate in the locker room. Should an Imam or a Rabbi offer to do a study of the Koran or Mishna respectively, I’m not sure the solidity of the ground the NFL, NBA, or MLB would stand on both politically and in societal perception.

Finally, as for Christianity not changing the culture of Black America, Sports Culture, or Chauvinism. The role of Christianity in the locker room has been “hostile” and “a tool” used to exploit the community. He references what has now become the classic work on the topic, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, written by William C. Rhoden, which came out around the same time. The concept of a few privileged, predominantly white owners/ownership groups making gobs of money at the expense of predominantly black athletes, for Rhoden and Kattenmaker equates to a 1:1 comparison. Countless NFL and NBA players have made the same connection. This is not the time nor the place to unpack that idea, however, I would point out that in his unloading upon Christianity he neglected to see how sports has elevated Black communities and given opportunities to Black, Latino, and other minorities in this country. Now I’m not saying that athletes are not exploited, nor are they compensated well enough for their sacrifice, for NCAA and pro sports have been built upon their broken backs. But like I said, this is not the time or the place. But I do wish, Mr. Kattenmaker, that you had mentioned the quiet and sincere faith that gave Mr. Jackie Robinson the strength to integrate, and thereby give athletic opportunity to others. Or Joe Louis, who’s faith earned him the moniker “the Black Moses”. Or “Deacon” Dan Towler, who led his Rams teammates in prayer in the huddle or Wilma Turner, the cherished Olympian who relied on her Baptist faith. These are just a few Chrsitian Black athletes that changed society and changed religion in America. Their methodologies should be examined and studied more by the author, but these examples were completely rejected by Kattenmaker.


Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Stadiums in Churches and Players into Preachers


Pulpits take on all forms and shapes. Jesus preached from a boat, standing in a field, sitting on a hill, and hanging from a cross. Tom Krattenmaker wasn’t around then to critique his message, method, or delivery, but would have taken exception to all three. Krattenmaker’s book, Onward Christian Athletes, is an indictment of the current role that Christianity, (and by that he means Evangelical Christianity, one-truth gospel Christianity) plays in modern day professional athletics. It is not a positive review.

The genesis of the debate, as he tells it, goes back to a fateful day in Philadelphia in the late-70’s when a touchdown scamper by Herbert Lusk was followed by him taking a knee in prayer in the endzone. Since then sports, especially professional sports where the cameras are bigger, the attention garnered, and the talk radio waves need to be filled, have taken a larger and more central role in the club house. The problem this book addresses specifically is found on page 16 where he writes:

“The Christian vanguard in sports isn’t bringing religion to clubhouses so much as a potentially divisive brand of evangelical Christianity…and often attached to it…a conservative worldview that is frequently indifferent if not outright hostile to the plights of racial, religious, and sexual minorities and committed to a high debatable vision for America.” (16, emphasis his)

His thesis and beef is essentially that Evangelical Christianity makes those around it uncomfortable because of its exclusive claims, the popularity of it (more on this later), and why it doesn’t change things.

The first few chapters of the book set the stage for the point that he really wants to get across in the final 2. The first part of the book is a prosecuting attorney setting the failures of the defendant before the jury. The first case is the FCA (the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) where the aforementioned Lusk was a main guest speaker. His problem with FCA stems not from a sports issue, but an issue he has with their politics. Krattenmaker has a problem with the right leaning network of Christianity of which FCA is a part. So his issue is not, “why are sports stars leaning conservative?” but instead “why is Christianity leaning conservative?” He transitions into the athletes who make up the organization. Profiling the likes of Dwight Howard, Curt Schilling, and others, he continues to build a case for the divisive nature of Christianity as it divides locker-rooms and fan bases. And chapter 3 returns to the FCA which: “…like the other athletic ministries, unabashedly aligns itself with the nation’s pro-business, pro-Republican, pro-Christian Right power establishment.”(57)

In Chapter 4 his attention turns to Athletes in Action, a daughter ministry for Campus Crusade for Christ, which kept track of their ministry “key measurements like the back of a baseball card: “evangelism” (10.468,760); “disciples” (3,111); and “recruiting challenged” (8,829). Their main method of ministry was barnstorming/globetrotting teams that challenged minor league/college teams to exhibition games and would share the gospel afterward. But as Krattenmaker pointed out, winners messages carry more weight than losing. His study of Jon Kitna and the God-blessed red-hot Detroit Lions of 2007 paired with his no-longer-blessed Detroit Lions of the second half of 2007, raise the question of the role of faith in winning, losing, and how we respond.

The next target of his cross-hairs is the Baseball Chapel, which like AIA and FCA, provide chaplains to MLB teams across the league.

“Nondenomenationl but distinctly evangelical in tone and philosophy, Baseball Chapel has a credo that succinctly captures the essence of today’s sports flavored Christianity—and that exposes the incompleteness of its claim (one similar to other pro sports ministries’) that it exists merely to provide religious service to pro players…” (91)

Krattenmaker’s issue with BC is the hard-line statement of belief that Jesus is the only way to God. When asked about Jewish teammates going to hell, a chaplain’s response found them in hot water with the media. By 2008, according to his words, 15% of America was unreligious. When Tony Dungy, on the Super bowl podium, gives God glory, Krattenmaker takes offense the same way he does with an athlete attaching his name to a religious movement.

He doesn’t limit his critiques to organizations. Chapter 6 is an essay against Faith & Family Days. He takes issue with those that speak and perform at them: “why is center stage of sports world religion never occupied by a liberal?” (110) He takes issue with those affiliated with the days: Focus on the Family and Chick-fil-a, both conservative Christian organizations. He takes issue with what’s being preached: a lack of pluralism. He’s not high on Moses’ Bobbleheads.

The next two chapters are less arguments against organizations or methodology, but complaints about results and outcomes. He observes that most professional athletes and by proxy the fans tend to be conservatives so he vehemently bemoans political endorsing, promoting life, or denouncing of homosexuality by athletes. “Why does stepping up for Jesus in the world of pro sports so often mean taking a stand for the Republican party and/or conservative politics?” (139) Chapter 8 runs along the same lines, but under the auspice of race in America. The charge he brings is that Christianity has been used to quell the African American community from speaking up and out on social justice issues. It is a plight that was not helped by Tony Dungy and his Right Wing Christian ideals.

The final two chapters were seen coming from miles away. “A match made in hell” shows how diametrically opposed the values of sport and Christianity are. Paul would probably argue otherwise based on his use of the athletics metaphor throughout his writings but I digress. Sport is violence; Christianity, peace/forgiveness. Sport is cheating; Christianity, integrity. Sport is full of beer ads and boobs; Christianity is morality. He tells the story of Bill McCartney, founder of Promise Keepers and his 5th down victory over Mizzou. They scored after being given an extra down but refused to forfeit the win. So to recap, he is upset that Christians aren’t controlling the Ad money that comes into billion dollar businesses, the steroid epidemics, or sports gambling, or the fact that players are in prison.
I saved the third part for the final chapter review.

Onward Christian Athletes

8E163419-8759-44AC-B931-FBD2310B5429Throughout history, the line between the realms of the influence of sport and Religion are indistinguishable. Take for example the team names. There are the Anaheim Angels and the San Diego Padres; the New Orleans Saints and the New Jersey Devils. There are Crusaders and Demons, different kinds of Devils (blue, red, delta, sea, sun). Teams are named for offices and roles like: the Preachers, Ambassadors, Friars, Bishops and Parsons. There are some head scratchers like: the Meridith College Avenging Angels, the Elon Fighting Christians, or the Fighting Saints of Carroll College. Then there are some that reference individuals like the Ichabods of Washburn (whose name means “one who laughs at God”); the Johnnies of St. Johns (named after the exiled Apostle John); or the Gogebic Community College Samson’s (who was the tragic character in the book of Judges). It makes you wonder if they read the stories about these characters.

Then there are the mascots. Like the aforementioned schools that seemed to have missed the tragedy involved with their team nicknames, the Sacramento Kings mascot, Slamson the Lion, brings the same question up. Dont forget the Swinging Padre, who patrols the outfield of Pet Co. Stadium in San Diego Baseball games. He is portly, short, bald, and the verdict is out if he can throw, but he does have a very small strike zone. Dom the Friar is less cartoon and more creepy. The Providence Friar mascot was ranked the 5th creepiest mascot by the ForTheWin.com website蜉 narrowly beating out Sparky the Sun Devil of Arizona State.
The lines are blurred in the terminology. One of the most famous plays in the history of the game of college football is Doug Flutie’s “Hail Flutie” in the Orange Bowl. It received its name from the type of pass that it was, “a Hail Mary” pass that allegedly got its name from the implementation of it during a Notre Dame game in the 20’s which coincidentally sported the great Notre Dame backfield known as the “Four Horsemen”, Grantland Rice’s nod to Revelation. The greatest hockey game ever played was the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in the 1980 Olympics; a win over the superior Soviet team by an outmatched and outside US team. The great Steelers reception by Frank Harris was not the ‘Immaculate Conception’ but the ‘Immaculate Reception’. In 2010, Mega-church pastor, Rick Warren, literally took the mound at Angel’s stadium to preach an Easter Service to the 50,000 in attendance. He titled “the Sermon on the Mound” in an obvious reference to Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5-7.

The lines are hazy when it comes to the buildings and stadiums. Old Texas stadium had an incomplete roof. The Cowboys would tell their visitors that the roof was left undone so that God could watch his favorite team play. Yankee Stadium, the 1923 edition that held up until 2008, was known as the “Cathedral of Baseball”. Cathedral, being latin for “seat” was where the Bishops sat at leaders of the Church, and the Old Yankee Stadium performed well up to that designation. There is the large mural, ‘Touchdown Jesus’ that graces the end zone at Notre Dame Stadium. If really pushed to the brink, the Atlanta Falcon’s opened up a new stadium in 2017 called Mercedes Benz field at the frugal price of $1.6 billion. But one of their main sponsors, Chick-fil-a, wont be open for any of their main tenants games. The Falcons play on Sunday and Chick-fil-a, due to religious reasons, are closed on Sunday. Money can buy the best and most technologically advanced stadium ever built, but not a chicken sandwich on game day.

The lines are fuzzy in what takes place at the events. At any church on Sunday morning there will be a few things that take place no matter what church is attended. Prayer has always been a pivotal part of the Sunday morning experience. As long as there are 120 lb men who decide the outcome of Sunday afternoon games by kicking a ball through goal posts, prayer will always be part of the NFL. There are fewer problems with it during the game, than there is afterward. Rick Reilly penned a piece for the back page of Sports Illustrated, which argued: “I don’t think when he fills his thermos and pays $10 to park, he’s looking to get proselytized.”蜉 He was arguing against the on field prayer circles organized by the players after games. If it’s a problem after the games, there are no shortages of issues that have been argued about starting a game with prayer. On top of the issue of prayer, there is a question of expression and the firestorm that was Tim Tebow. With scripture written in his eye black, prayer in the end zone, and his outspoken faith.

Sports in America was a $63.9 billion industry in 2015 and is expected to top $75.7 billion by 2020.

Sports aren’t going anywhere in society; but they are causing dilemmas for Christians. Growing up, I was told by a Sr. Minister: “Any sport that takes place on Sunday is sinful.” A youth minister once told me that hockey was unchristian because of the fighting involved in the game. I was chastised as a youth minister for watching the UFC with students. I was asked why, as a youth pastor, I didn’t challenge students to forgo travel teams and come to youth group instead. These are just a few of the challenges that face Sports and Faith, or for the purpose of this study, Christ and Culture. And there are so many more challenges that could be argued: public prayer, competition on Sunday, self expression and evangelization, and gamesmanship. That is just sports. What if the topic was work? What about entertainment in music, movies, TV? What about education, in public, private, or homeschool? What about politics, be it left, right, or middle? There isn’t enough pages to hold all the questions and answers about how Christ and Culture interact, but the discussion needs to take place. This study seeks to answer the question: how do I retain my faith in an ever increasingly antagonistic society. I recently read a book that dives into the question: what place should Christianity take place in the life of the modern athlete?  The review will follow here…