On Sunday night, the Super Bowl ended and — for about 20 minutes — a late-night church service began. From coaches to players, the Philadelphia Eagles thanked Jesus, professed their love for Jesus, and expressed how Christ had provided strength through adversity. In other words (and ironically, given their fans’ rather cruel public image), it was a normal Eagles kind of day.
The sports world is more publicly religious than the rest of pop culture. Football is more publicly religious than the rest of sports, and the Philadelphia Eagles are more publicly religious than most football teams. Writing on Super Bowl Sunday, the Washington Post’s Bob Smietana chronicled the team’s faith commitment:
The team produced a video — separate from the one being shown on Super Bowl Sunday — highlighting faith as a binding force in the team locker room.
Eagles players even held baptisms in the team’s cold tub and at a hotel pool. About 30,000 people have viewed a Bible study that features the Eagles and other NFL players. Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, spent time in the ministry after his NFL career was over — serving as a pastor and seminary professor before becoming a coach.
Quarterbacks Nick Foles and Carson Wentz are outspoken about their faith. Coach Doug Pederson coached at a Christian high school. The list goes on.
The Eagles are so Christian, in fact, that as the Super Bowl ended, I braced for a backlash. After all, before America fought over patriotism and football, it battled over God and football. A quick Google search reveals an avalanche of commentary stretching back for years. Would the football holy war begin anew?
Thankfully, the answer was largely no. Yes, Twitter flared with vitriol, but that’s Twitter being Twitter. There was worse anger over the Solo teaser trailer. Perhaps event militant atheists were grateful to see the Patriots lose. Perhaps partisans were too distracted by “the memo” and the host of other controversies that rip apart our civil society. Whatever the reason, peace largely prevailed.
But still, I saw the question raised time and again, “Does God care about football?”
It’s a question worth answering in large part because it goes to the heart of our conception of God’s nature, his character, and his relationship with man. There are those who look at Christian athletes and say that their expressions of faith diminish God. They take the God of the universe and relegate him to the status of a divine football commissioner, dispensing gridiron glory for the sake of rewarding the “hard work” or “grit” of his favorite children. When the world groans under the weight of the Fall — divided by war, battered by hurricanes, afflicted with disease — the notion that God cares in the slightest about which millionaire athlete wins which sporting contest can strike a person as slightly obscene.
But it’s obscene only if one thinks of God as a limited being, with a finite amount of attention. As if he’s distracted from the crisis in Syria to make sure that a pro quarterback can offer a social-media lesson in how to triumph over adversity. He can’t sustain the suffering people of Puerto Rico because he’s micro-managing a free safety’s tackle on a game-saving play.
In reality, the notion that God is intimately involved in the lives of his children magnifies his glory. The God who created the universe has the capacity of infinite attention and care, including attention and care for the lowliest of his creatures. In Matthew, Christ talks about how God “clothes the grass of the field” and “feeds” the “birds of the air” — and we are of far more value than animals and plants.
The scriptures go on and on. “All things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All means all. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.” Every means every. Even our own plans are meaningless compared with God’s will. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” There’s even a strong biblical example that should deter any believer from accepting praise without thanking God — just ask the worm-eaten King Herod who basked in the praise of men without giving God the glory.
Moreover, there’s something specific about football — distinct from other sports — that can concentrate a person’s faith. Yes, football is more religious in part because of its southern strongholds (the South is more religious). Yes, football is more religious in part because it’s disproportionately black (African Americans are more religious). But I’d also posit that something else is in play: keen awareness of human fragility.
While athletes can suffer gruesome injuries in virtually any sport — just ask Paul George or Gordon Hayward — few athletes risk what football players risk when they take the field. An athlete can condition himself perfectly, train his body to achieve its greatest possible strength, and one wayward hit can end a career. So the athletes who are most self-aware can also be among the humblest people alive. They recognize their lack of control over their own destiny.
For the vast majority of athletes, that declaration of thanks to God isn’t a declaration that God is an Eagle or a Patriot but that God loves them and has given them every good thing in their lives.
Football requires physical courage. For many of us, physical courage flows from faith. The capriciousness of the game should dictate a measure of humility. For many of us, humility flows from faith. For the vast majority of athletes, that declaration of thanks to God isn’t a declaration that God is an Eagle or a Patriot but that God loves them and has given them every good thing in their lives.
So, yes, God cares about football because he cares about football players. He orders their steps. He grants them good and perfect gifts. He teaches them amid the pain of loss and adversity. I’d even go so far as to say that God cares about football because he cares about football fans. Shared joy is a powerful bonding force, as is shared pain. I love sports not just because of the thrill of competition but also because sports bond a community and even a family through the power of shared experience.
Yes, that can manifest itself in deeply unhealthy ways (just look at the reputation of Philly fans), but there are few spaces left in American life where Americans of every race, creed, and color can experience a sense of true fellowship. Is that not a “good” gift?
I know that bad theology abounds. I know that some people view victory as a formula that can be achieved through the right degree of faith. But good theology tells us that the same God who spoke the universe into existence doesn’t just love the individual people he created, he became part of his own creation, experienced our pains and temptations, and took on our suffering and sin. God doesn’t just understand or author our joy at the small things of life. He experienced it.
When Nick Foles and Doug Pederson gave glory to God after the Super Bowl, they were doing exactly what God’s people should do: Praise him as the source of their immense blessing. And for players on the other side? Their adversity serves its own purpose. In the face of triumph, humility dictates that we credit the source of our strength. In the face of loss, faith encourages us that adversity will work together for good. There is much worth seeing that reality play out on the larger public stage — even if that stage is “only” a football game.