But Jocks for Jesus is booming. It is almost as if a new denomination had been created: Sportianity. While Christian churches struggle with problems of declining attendance, falling contributions and now even reduction in membership, Sportianity appears to be taking off.” (Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated, April 19, 1976)
When Hall of Fame sportswriter Frank Deford died on May 28, he was perhaps currently best known as a 37-year mainstay on NPR’s Morning Edition, offering sophisticated but accessible sports commentary for almost four decades.
“Sophisticated but accessible sports commentary” might seem like an oxymoron to many who believe sports are nothing but an entertainment diversion for those who’d rather not think about the deeper matters in culture—especially those who frequent NPR for their listening consumption.
But even in his heyday as a decorated Sports Illustrated journalist—he began writing for SI in 1962 and was a contributing editor until his death—Deford knew otherwise about sports.
He took sports seriously because he perceived their deeper cultural implications. He understood American sports at the end of the twentieth and first part of the twenty-first centuries as a cauldron of social, cultural, and political dramas.
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Beneath the surface where games were visibly contested lie multilayered battles involving politics, race, education, finance, and gender, skirmishes whose winners and losers had far reaching consequences for broader society—whether one cared for sports or not.
Taking On Sport Ministry
Several months before Newsweek declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” Deford was one of the first social commentators to take laser notice of a trending movement: the rise of evangelical Christian sports ministries.
In April-May 1976, he published a three-part series in Sports Illustrated called “Religion in Sport.” It doesn’t take long to conclude Deford was no fan of the movement, but his scathing critique is nevertheless useful even forty years later as a harsh self examination tool for sport ministries and sport ministers.
His characterizations are hardly charitable, rarely contextually fair, and full of overstatement to make his prejudiced points. However, across the decades every one of his caricatures have been manifested at one time or another in folks who wear the gear of Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Professional Athletes Outreach, and other organizations he calls out for attempting to minister directly to athletes, coaches, and front offices.
Instead of defensively dismissing him as a cultured despiser of all things Christian, what can we learn from his warnings?
Here are 10 of the most provocative quotes from the series:
#1 Jesus the Winner
“Athletes in Action stands for God and country alike, and its founder, Dave Hannah, not only desires that the players represent a God-fearing America but that they become the finest amateur (basketball) team upon the earth. It is Hannah’s view, and the prevailing one in these Christian precincts, that infidels will not listen to losers.”
#2 No Room for Thinking?
“The Bible is to be taken literally. The message is simple, all or nothing; there is no truck with intellectualizing, the appeal is gut. It does not seem surprising that football—authoritarian, even militaristic—is the sport at the heart of the movement….A pro star who once was active in Sportianity but left in disgust says, ‘Why do you think this simplistic type of religion appeals to athletes? Because you're talking to people who operate primarily with their bodies, not their minds.’"
#3 Jesus=Richard Simmons?
“Sportians are out to save sport by saving athletes. Once they are converted, they are cast as neo-crusaders. The field is to be an altar, the game a sacrifice….Jesus has been transformed, emerging anew as a holler guy, a hustler, a give-it-100-percenter.”
#4 God is On Our Side!
“Most viewers believe that teams assembling for a televised prayer after a victory are Pharisees, thanking God, paying Him off for getting them another big one in the W column. A poll of young Christian athletes, teen-agers who have been specifically instructed by the movement, asked, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian athlete?’ The response most often received was, ‘To have God on my side.’ Jesus, it seems, is coming across as the next best thing to a home-court advantage.”
#5 The Minister as Groupie
“An active churchman, who has long been involved in pro sport, says, ‘The trouble with these people (sport ministers) is that they worship sport as much as they do Jesus. They are so thrilled to be working with hotshot stars that they can see nothing wrong with athletics. They don't want to. I'm afraid that it is not religion that has come into sport, but athletic groupies.’”
#6 Failure to Challenge Sport Culture
“Sadly, lost in the shuffle, in the competition for dotted-line converts (sign here, raise your hand, send for literature), is sport itself. In the process of dozens of interviews with people in Sportianity, not one even remotely suggested any direct effort was being considered to improve the morality of athletics...Sportianity casts stones at players like Joe Namath for personal behavior...But no one in the movement—much less any organization—speaks out against the cheating in sport, against dirty play; no one attacks the evils of recruiting, racism or any of the many other well-known excesses and abuses. Sport owns Sunday now, and religion is content to lease a few minutes before the big games. Religion seems to have become a support force for athletics, like broadcasters, trainers, cheerleaders and ticket-sellers. John Morley, a British statesman, wrote, ‘Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat.’ As long as it can work the territory, Sportianity seems prepared to accept athletics as is, more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.”
#7 Pitchmen for Jesus
“To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.”
#8 The Minister as Celebrity
“The preachers to the pros, like the Rev. Billy Zeoli, often are modish and flamboyant, but the slick sermons they deliver in locker rooms before games psych up the players...One of the reasons that ‘Z’—as many players call him—gets along so well with the athletes is that he has many of the same ego problems they do. He is a celebrity at the height of his powers, and, like a ballplayer on top, is threatened by hotshot kids on the way up.”
#9 Phony Game-day Piety
“More and more lay people are agreeing with priests like Malcolm Boyd that game-day religion has become a hypocritical farce. Even at Notre Dame, where the spiritual function is well established, the use of pregame prayer is admittedly distorted and has lost its original purpose...Team chaplains often become talismans, good-luck charms...Game-day religion has become a sort of security blanket, something on the order of superstitions like not stepping on the foul lines or wearing the same tie when you are on a winning streak.”
#10 The Gospel Bowing to Sport?
“In the final analysis, sport has had a greater impact upon religion than the other way around. While athletics does not appear to have been improved by the religious blitzkrieg, the religious people who work that side of the street seem to have been colored by some of the worst attitudes found in sport. The temper of athletic religion is competitive, full of coaches and cheerleaders, with an overriding sense of wins and losses, stars and recruiting, game plans and dugout chatter. ‘Remember that religion can gain the whole world and lose its soul, just like a person,’ says Malcolm Boyd.”
Part I April 19, 1976 Religion in Sport
Part II April 26, 1976 The Word According to Tom
Part III May 3, 1976 Reaching for the Stars