Onward Christian Athletes? Faith in the Game

Photo by zz77 (Creative Commons-licensed on Flickr.com)

Photo credit: zz77 on Flickr

Does God care about soccer?  There are certainly a good number of players, fans, and teams who think it likely.  Take Diego Maradona bringing “his Argentina squad to mass to pray for a World Cup miracle.”  Or take Fred earning a yellow card for celebrating a DC United goal with the message “Jesus Loves You.”  Or, more recently, take claims that a Nigerian televangelist influenced the penalty kicks allowing Ghana to beat Brazil for the U-20 World Cup (a situation all the more interesting because Ghana’s players were a mix of Christians and Muslims).  At the very least it seems that in the soccer world, God appears in curious ways.

My own curiosity about the relationship between religion and soccer has been provoked by a new book Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks Into Pulpits and Players into Preachers written by Tom Krattenmaker.  Krattenmaker is a friend, fellow Portlander, and a writer on religion and public life who contributes regularly to USA Today and The Oregonian.  And although his book is focused on the “big three” American sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball), I’ve had the pleasure of attending a few Portland Timbers games with Tom and know him to be an enthusiastic soccer fan.

So I thought it would be worth sitting down with Onward Christian Athletes and trying to apply its insights to the global game.  What to make of Kaká’s predilection to trumpet his evangelical neo-Pentecostal faith when representing Brazil—a nation that is home to the world’s largest Catholic population?  How does hosting Christian themed “faith and family night” events at MLS games fit with other promotions, and how does it fit with the notion of religious pluralism in American public life?  Are international “sports missionaries” using soccer for good or for ill?  What exactly does religion have to do with soccer?

Evangelizing Sports

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Discussions of religion and public life, like discussions of soccer teams, do not often lend themselves to even-handedness.  Fortunately, however, Krattenmaker’s broad discussion of religion and sports in Onward Christian Athletes is remarkably even-handed.  On the good side he affirms the importance of free religious expression and emphasizes the positive functions of religion in public life.  As one example, he emphasizes that for millionaire athletes confronting much temptation religion can be a grounding moral force.  On the not so good side Krattenmaker raises concerns about exclusive theologies that impose particular political agendas.  Athletes are often used to evangelize for conservative causes that may not fairly represent their communities.

Between these poles, however, lies most of the messy business of modern sports.  Onward Christian Athletes offers both a broad overview and specific examples of religion in that messy business, in all cases well-researched and enlivened by extensive interviews.  And while Krattenmaker focuses on American football, baseball, and basketball, the issues he describes should be remarkably familiar to soccer fans around the world.

One theme of Onward Christian Athletes, for example, is the entrepreneurial way evangelical Christian groups have become disproportionately prominent in the sports world.  In American sports this is evident in the relatively recent phenomena of end-zone prayers and witnessing for Jesus in post-game interviews.  Krattenmaker actually tracks the end-zone prayer to 1977 and former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Herb Lusk—who is now the minister of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and closely associated with American conservative politics.  And whatever one might think of those politics, the entrepreneurial spirit Lusk first demonstrated on the football field has allowed him to use sports as part of a broader agenda.

In the soccer world such entrepreneurial spirit seems most analogous to Kaká’s now famous use of t-shirt displays to promote Jesus at major competitions.  While I don’t know much about Kaká’s politics, and while he seems like an earnest and socially conscious guy, the fact is that the Brazilian church he associates with (and where he planned to display his 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Award) is led by a controversial couple the New York Times describe as “the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of Brazil.”

Mixing religion, sport, and politics?

Mixing religion, sport, and politics?

Further, as the Denmark Football Federation Secretary-General pointed out after last summer’s Confederations Cup, Kaká’s t-shirts are technically against FIFA by-laws: “Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements” (FIFA Law 4, Decision 1).  And the simple fact that Kaká’s shirts proclaim his faith in English, which is not his primary language nor the language of his teams, suggest that advertising is exactly what he is doing.  But it would appear a bit cruel and unusual for FIFA to sanction Kaka for trying to promote his faith when much of what is around him is saturated with corporate branding promoting everything from sportswear to beer.

Another relevant theme of Onward Christian Athletes, however, is that well-intentioned promoting of religion in sports settings can quickly become something more complicated.  It turns out, for example, that most American sports franchises (including MLS teams) have team chaplains, most often provided by evangelical Christian organizations such as “Baseball Chapel” and “Athletes in Action.”  These chaplains likely provide some valuable pastoral counseling, and their broad attention is to attend to any religious needs or concerns (Christian groups even had some hope that the LA Galaxy chaplain might be able to make inroads with the temptation that is Beckham).  And chaplains from diverse faith traditions serve valuable roles in other contexts such as the military, hospitals, universities, etc..

But in practice Krattenmaker notes that the chaplains with most access to American sports teams are almost always from organizations driven by an evangelical Christianity that is not necessarily representative of players, supporters, or communities (more recently, sports chaplaincy also seems to be making inroads in the UK, though I’m unsure the particular religious orientation of the chaplains there—one source claims that 70% of English league clubs have a chaplain).  From Major League Baseball Krattenmaker cites the example of a DC Nationals player who, out of concern for a Jewish ex-girlfriend, was led by his team chaplain to believe that Jews were “doomed” because of their faith.  The problem is that Jews are Nationals fans too, and were none too happy with what appeared to be team endorsed damnation.

Another related trend in American sports, and another example from Onward Christian Athletes, is to host “faith nights” which serve as a sort of promotional night at the ballpark oriented to religious groups and offering opportunities to players, fans, and Christian musicians to profess a specific version of faith.  While such events may be more frequent in other American sports, MLS teams have periodically hosted “faith nights” or “faith and family nights” which seem to mostly have been quiet affairs (as part of his MLS W.O.R.K.S. player of the month award Shea Salinas was cited for speaking at a San Jose Earthquakes faith night “to over 40 fans and a few people from KFAX, a Christian Radio Station, about his faith”—maybe if the Quakes were any good a few more might have stuck around).

These events have, however, generated some interesting discussions among American soccer fans, whose perspective seems to echo that of Krattenmaker: “faith” has as much a claim to stadium celebration as other events (one example cited is “Hispanic Heritage Night”—in one of the more bizarre examples, in 2006 the LA Galaxy actually hosted a “Budweiser Hispanic Heritage Night featuring Lucha Libre”), but only if it truly includes all types of faith.  In most cases, however, as one fan noted on a Big Soccer discussion board “this shouldn’t be named “Faith Night”, it should be named “Christian Night”. Unless you plan on opening up the after-game events to the local synagogues and mosques.”

Religion and the Global Game
While there are similarities between the phenomena Krattenmaker describes in Onward Christian Athletes as part of American football, baseball, and basketball and phenomena in the soccer world, there also seem to be some interesting differences.  Most obviously, soccer has a much more global reach than conventional “American” sports.  That means soccer generally has to negotiate a broader diversity of religious orientations with a broad variety of manifestations (for an interesting analysis addressing Islamic perspectives, among others, see this 2007 post from the “Culture of Soccer” blog).  It also means that entrepreneurial evangelicals have been quick to recognize the potential of soccer as a tool for missionary outreach.

One interesting example here comes from the USL, where the Charlotte Eagles and the Cleveland City Stars are among several teams deriving from “Missionary Athletes International, an organization dedicated to using sport to spread their vision of faith.”  In most promotional material these teams seem to particularly emphasize a broad humanitarian mission—the Cleveland team’s motto is “serving the city, changing the world.”  And they do seem to do much good work, including clinics and outreach in “Inner City” Cleveland.

The Cleveland City Stars also have a partnership with the Nairobi City Stars in Kenya—the Nairobi club is operated by “Ambassadors in Sport” which is an affiliate of “Missionary Athletes International.”  The Nairobi City Stars even have an American player, formerly of the Cleveland City Stars, serving as a sports missionary by both playing and working doing community outreach and helping with a youth academy in the Nairobi “slum” the team calls home (using “soccer as a platform to outreach and spread the gospel”).  This type of “sports ministry” and related international missionary work seems to be increasingly prominent—and the global popularity of soccer makes it an obvious vehicle.

While there was a time in my own experience when I would have automatically associated such international “missionary” activities with problematic versions of neo-colonialism, working at a Catholic university and having a chance to actually learn about the diverse range of missionary work has changed my mind.  Missionary work, like secular development work and like the soccer business, comes in many forms—some of which may be problematic, but many of which offer genuine and enduring chances to do important work.

photo by jamesgrayking on Flickr

Photo by jamesgrayking on Flickr

From what I have read about teams such as the Cleveland City Stars and the Charlotte Eagles, they seem genuine in their efforts to use faith and soccer towards the greater good (though the Cleveland City Stars also seem to be struggling with the harsh business realities of American soccer).  That may occasionally mean being exclusive in the types of players they sign or the ways they go about their work, but as private entities with the right to religious freedom that is their prerogative.

This does get more complicated when teams are not representing private entities or individuals, but instead representing the public—I’m not sure what to think, for example, about having Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplains affiliated with (and thus tacitly endorsed by) US Soccer.  But Krattenmaker ultimately agrees that there is much potential for good in the relationship between religion and sports.  As he notes in the conclusion of his book: “this book is not against religion in sports.  If anything, it is a call for more religion in professional sports—if by “more” we mean religious practice that is more inclusive of Americans of faiths other than evangelical Christianity (or of none), more devoted to prophetic witness against the abuses and excesses of sports, and more committed to fulfilling the potential of sports to serve as a positive force for human beings and communities.”

So the conclusion of Onward Christian Athletes is not a call for alarm about religion and sport, but instead a call for “a more thoughtful, more constructive engagement between faith and pro sports.”  In his work Krattenmaker was also heartened by meeting a generation of evangelical Christians, and people of other faiths, interested in thinking about ways sport can be used not just to proselytize but to serve the greater good.  This generation is moving beyond superficial thanks to Jesus for scoring a touchdown or scoring a goal to thinking about ways that faith and sports can motivate people to live ethical lives and engage with broader issues of social justice.

Overall, from a soccer perspective, my read is that while God may or may not care about soccer, religion is—for better or worse—inextricably linked to the global game.  And whether or not we ourselves are religious, we have some role in ensuring that link is for the better.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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