Football season officially began this week. The most popular sport in America will once again headline sports pages, influence workplace conversations and impact family life.
Many Americans love their football and many love their faith.
For some, football is a religion, but for many more, football and their faith are perfect partners.
Some of the most famous and successful NFL players are men of strong Christian faith. Players like Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffith III, Adrian Peterson, Drew Brees, and of course, Tim Tebow, are all very devote Christians.
Are these two loves at odds?
In the February 4, 2013 Sports Illustrated Super Bowl issue, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an article entitled, “In The Fields Of The Lord.”
His essential thesis was that for Christian players and coaches, football is bad.
Oppenheimer claims football will likely corrupt their Christian values, and thus all who love and follow football are corrupted as well. He argues the violence, physicality and adulation in playing football is “deeply at odds with Jesus’ message.”
But this is simply not true.
First we must examine the message of Jesus. Oppenheimer says Jesus preferred the loser to the winner, the weak over the strong and the poor over the rich, but this is not an indictment against football.
In fact, the essential message of these scriptures is that Jesus wants us to be servant oriented. This is exactly what football teaches players. A football team requires every player to put his personal agenda below the teams. He learns that unless each player fulfills his role on offense, defense and special teams, the entire team will suffer. Self-centeredness must give way to serving the team.
There is much in the Bible that supports the qualities needed for playing football. Many stories in the Bible tell of battles, of perseverance and of commitment.
Romans 8:29 tells us God wants our character to be formed like Jesus, and football is a character building enterprise.
Learning how to win and lose gracefully happens by playing football.
Working hard toward a worthy goal and paying the price of self-sacrifice is learned playing football.
Getting along with people who are different from you and appreciating their differences is learned playing football.
The concept of stewardship is paramount in the Bible. I Corinthians 4:2 tells us that we are stewards (managers) of all that God gives us, and we are to be faithful.
Football players are given special gifts of size, speed and strength.
They are given a huge platform of the most popular sport in America.
When they faithfully use their gifts and excel at their sport, they are being good stewards of what God has given them.
Oppenheimer says there are special temptations that football players face, but they are not exclusive to football.
The temptation of materialism is simply a challenge many other Christ followers face. Business leaders, entertainers and other successful people have the same temptation to serve money instead of God, and it is not unique to NFL players and coaches.
The massive list of men who have played the game and are faithful Christ followers is a testament to the fact that it can be done.
What is most disconcerting about Oppenheimer’s article is the shadow truth behind his thesis: Christian football players are not meek, nice and gentle.
The problem is that for too long, many people have used Christianity to make men less manly.
If you are a tough working guy, a high-achieving Alpha male or a fun-loving adventurer, you can’t be a real Christ follower according to some.
This is why Sports Illustrated had the Super Bowl cover article proclaim that football and Christianity just don’t belong together.
Moses, David, Daniel, Peter and Paul were all true leaders, and tough guys who got things done for God. Jesus’ bold leadership, blunt honesty and strong actions are what drew so many followers to Him. Jesus went into the temple and cleaned house, and that is no meek and mild man.
How the Church and Christianity got to this place is a story too long to detail here. Suffice to say that this has created a situation where aggression, which is so natural to a man, is viewed with disdain.
Football appeals to many men because it is aggressive, tough and filled with risk.
Christianity appeals to me for exactly the same reasons.
I want to be in the battle between good and evil; I want to fight for what is right, and I enjoy the challenge of doing it.
The sport of football did not unmake me as a Christian; it made me a better one as it has done for hundreds of thousands of other men.
Pastor Rick McDaniel is the author of "Comeback: Overcoming The Setbacks In Your Life."