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The Philadelphia Eagles Get the ‘God Squad’ Treatment

Over at Christianity Today I reviewed a new book that examines the Christian faith of the 2017-18 Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles. The intro is below. You can read the rest of my review here. The annals of football are filled with “God squads,” teams with widely publicized reputations for Christian faith. As far back as the 1890s, Yale football enthusiasts attributed the team’s success to the number of “praying men” on the squad. The undefeated 1954 UCLA team, with over half the starting lineup involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, was nicknamed the “Eleven from Heaven.” And professional football has had plenty of teams with strong Christian contingents, too: the Baltimore Colts of the late 1960s, the Miami Dolphins of the early 1970s, the Washington Redskins of the 1980s and early 1990s, the St. Louis Rams circa 1999, and the Seattle Seahawks circa 2013, to name just a few. It would probably be more newsworthy if a successful football team did not have a handful of out…

The Fundamentalist Frank Merriwell

"Of all the bold Americans who have appeared on the sporting scene," Robert Boyle wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1962, "none ever aroused the admiration or left so enduring an impression as one who never really existed: Frank Merriwell of Fardale Academy, Yale College and the world at large."

Frank Merriwell is not a household name today, but for much of the twentieth century he was. The hero of a dime novel series for boys that ran in Tip Top Weekly from 1896 to 1912 (and in other media endeavors into the 1930s), Merriwell became the prototype for the All-American schoolboy athlete. In the eyes of white middle-class Americans, Merriwell represented the best possible version of a young man. As scholar Ryan Anderson put it: "He was handsome but not vain; an Ivy Leaguer with a common touch; an individual but not self-interested; a physical specimen with a sound mind; a talented youth with a solid work ethic; desirable to girls and relatively chaste...He always …

Historical Reflections on Brian Smith's "The Assist"

Last weekend while visiting my home state of Nebraska, I ran into my old high school basketball coach. He was the leader of my school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle group, and is still involved in FCA. Although it's been fifteen years since I played for him, we still keep in touch. In fact, I have it on good authority that he reads this website from time to time (what's up, coach?).

I bring up my former coach because when I read books geared towards sports and Christian living, I often think of him. These books are not written primarily for me, a historian who is not actively engaged in organized athletic competition or sports ministry. They are written for my high school basketball coach and the Christian athletes who play for him.

But even if I am not necessarily the primary intended audience for books in the sports-and-Christian-living genre, I like to read them and consider how they fit within the broad historical context of American Christian engageme…

The Role of Sports Ministries in the NFL Protests

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Over at Religion & Politics, I wrote about the connection between Christian sports ministry organizations and the NFL players protesting racial injustice. You can read the piece here:

How Billy Graham Made Peace With Sunday Sports

Early in his evangelistic career, Billy Graham had a sermon in his repertoire based on Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.” Delivered in the 1940s and 1950s, it was geared towards a Cold War age of atomic anxiety. The threat of nuclear warfare loomed; God’s judgment was at hand; America was like mighty Casey with two strikes against her.
 "Some of us have struck once, some twice. But you'll all, every last one of you, strike out when the Great Umpire of the Ages calls the balls and strikes," Graham warned his listeners. "The count is three and two, the next pitch is the last one. Decide now, before it's too late."
By the 1960s, Graham seems to have retired his “Casey at the Bat” sermon. Yet his take on Thayer’s poem nevertheless fits with two themes that remained consistent throughout Graham’s long ministry: his focus on a moment of spiritual decision, and his interest in sports. Indeed, Graham’s ministry provides a useful lens i…

The "High Visibility" Mormon in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes

Vernon Law was one of the reasons I began to take a deeper interest in the history of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

It was not Law's athletic exploits that interested me, although he did have a distinguished sixteen-year career pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, it was his religion. Law was a Mormon. And he was involved with the FCA, a pioneering sports organization founded in 1954, supposedly formed from the same 1940s/1950s neo-evangelical/"re-engaged fundamentalist" soil as parachurch organizations like Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the like.

I knew that neo-evangelicals generally did not think that Mormons were true Christians, so Law's involvement with the FCA intrigued me, and suggested that perhaps there was something different about the FCA compared to other evangelical parachurch organizations. Although I have since expanded beyond a sole focus on the FCA, that organization remains central to my di…

Christians and Football, the Early Years

Last week Christianity Today published an essay on football that I co-authored with Hunter Hampton. The piece looks at how Christians (particularly white Protestants) responded to football when the sport first became a national obsession in the 1920s. If you are at all interested in the cultural history of football, then you should check it out. We bring in a wide array of voices and institutions: J. Gresham Machen, Aimee Semple McPherson, TheChristian Century, Charles Sheldon, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Wheaton College, Sinclair Lewis, the YMCA, and more. 
Here is a snippet of the introduction:
...[F]ootball’s paradox—immense popularity combined with fierce criticism—is not unique to the present moment. In many ways it is a tradition that dates back to football’s founding in the late 19th century, with moments of heightened controversy emerging from time to time ever since. The 1920s witnessed one such moment of controversy. In that decade football emerged as a truly national spectacle. Spo…

Football, Religion, and Image in Cold War Oklahoma (Guest Post)

This guest post comes from Andrew McGregor, who recently received his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University. McGregor's research focuses on the intersection of sports and politics, and he is the founder of the Sport in American History blog. You can follow him on twitter (I recommend it).

During the 1940s and 1950s, Oklahoma City referred to itself as the “Capital of the Bible Belt.” As its civic leaders hoped to brand the city a “businessman’s town,” as Milton MacKaye wrote in the Saturday Evening Post, they remained grounded in their plainspoken, folksy, religious outlook. This was one component of a larger effort to rebrand both the city and state while also rebuilding its economy during the postwar era. Oklahoma, more than most states, suffered a significant population decline during the Dust Bowl and was further defamed by the derogatory images of the state projected by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

My research explores the central role of college football in the pr…

Standing for Sunday Football, Kneeling for Racial Justice

The latest version of the national anthem protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick came from the Cleveland Browns. Before a preseason game against the New York Giants on Monday night, twelve Browns players knelt together and prayed during the national anthem. The prayers, Jabrill Peppers explained, were for people affected by "racial and social injustices" and for "the world in general."

The Browns players' decision to pray during the national anthem is another example of the ways in which the Christian faith of some black football players has intersected with their engagement in the struggle for racial justice. When Christian Kirksey led the Browns in prayer, he joined Malcolm Jenkins and Brandon Marshall as African Americans who have been both outspoken about their Christian faith and on the frontlines of the national anthem protests.

The prayers also reminded me of a football-related "letter to the editor" from 1925 that I recently came across. Back t…

The Women Who Were Christian Athletes Before Title IX

Featured in the picture above is Jill Upton, representing Team USA as they battle the Soviet Union in 1962. The picture comes from an article written by Upton for The Baptist Student, a Southern Baptist publication. Like the magazines' articles featuring male athletes, Upton's Baptist Student piece draws on her sports success to promote Southern Baptist pride and proclaim a gospel message. Importantly, it was published ten years before Title IX and nine years before the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) began sponsoring national championship tournaments, both of which greatly expanded opportunities for women to compete in high-level intercollegiate athletic competition.

One of the surprising things I've found as I've conducted research on sports and Christianity is the way in which rural white southern Protestants tended to be more supportive of competitive women's athletics before Title IX than their more progressive northern counterparts…

NFL Players and Coaches in the 1970s Talk Racial Prejudice

In the early 1970s (probably 1970 or 1971), a handful of professional football players and coaches connected in some way to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were asked these two questions: "What do you think about racial prejudice? Is there prejudice on your team or former team?"

Their responses, recorded on a set of index cards, are among the many primary sources I am working through as I prepare for my next dissertation chapter, which looks at how evangelical sports ministry organizations interacted with the social revolutions of the 1960s.

One conspicuous detail that stood out as I went through these: only one African American responded to the questions. In 1970 African Americans comprised about 30 percent of NFL rosters, so the apparent dearth of black players connected to the FCA is telling. The absence of black coaches, however, does not tell us as much about the FCA. In 1989 Art Shell became the first black head coach in the NFL since the 1920s, and racial diversi…