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Showing posts from 2017

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…

The Sports Ministry Roots of Ralph Drollinger's DC Bible Study

Earlier this weekCBN reported on a Washington, DC, Bible study attended by members of Donald Trump's Cabinet, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. CBN had previously reported on the Bible study, led by Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries. But this time it quickly caught the attention of the religion news beat, with reports and/or commentary from the likes of Religion News Serviceand John Fea's The Way Of Improvement Leads Home.

Seeing Drollinger's name immediately caught my attention. In the 1970s the 7'2" Drollinger patrolled the paint for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before eschewing the NBA to join the Athletes in Action (AIA) basketball team, one of the leading organizations within the world of Sportianity. Intrigued, I decided to look into what the old Sportian was up to these days. But as I looked into his latest endeavor, I discovered that Drollinger's sports ministry past is no…

Last Chance U: About Those Praying Football Teams From The South

On July 21 Netflix released Season 2 of Last Chance U, which documents the 2016 football season at East Mississippi Community College. Since you clicked on this post, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with Last Chance U's basic storyline--if not, this piece provides a nice introduction to the series.



On Season 1 of Last Chance U, it quickly became apparent that the Lord's Prayer was routine and familiar for members of the East Mississippi Community College football team. "Everybody touch somebody," head coach Buddy Stephens would say. Then, players' heads bowed, the words came tumbling out: "Our father who art in heaven...."

Apparently the efforts of the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not halt the prayers at East Mississippi, because Season 2 shows that rapid-fire recitations of the Lord's Prayer are alive and well in Scooba, Mississippi. Although team prayer is a common occurrence on college football teams across the nation, it is…

The Pioneering Felipe Alou (Latino Christian Athlete Edition)

The Fellowship of Christians Athletes, founded in 1954, was the single most important organization driving the blending of sports and Christianity in the years after World War II. From its beginning, the FCA was integrated—no small matter, considering that in its founding year, Brown v. Board of Education had just been decided. But for most of its first few decades, white athletes and coaches were the FCA's most prominent faces.

Still, the FCA was more than willing (eager, in fact) to showcase non-white athletes. Thus Felipe Alou was splashed on the cover of the August 1962 issue of the FCA's magazine, The Christian Athlete. 

Felipe Alou was not the first Latino athlete associated with the FCA. That honor goes to Primo Villanueva, a Mexican American and a UCLA football star who briefly connected with the organization in 1955. Alou, however, was the first to receive extensive publicity.

Alou played his first Major League Baseball game for the San Francisco Giants on June 8, 19…

Frank Deford Goes One-On-One With A Sportian

Legendary sportswriter Frank Deford passed away earlier this year. Since he coined the very word that I use for the title of this site, it seems only fitting that my first new post should feature Deford.

Deford, of course, hardly counts as a Sportian. His 1976 three-part Sports Illustrated series that explained and described the phenomenon of Sportianity was heavily critical of the movement. Sportians, Deford wrote, were "humorless and persevering," afraid to take a stand on moral issues, and far more "devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it." So sharp were Deford's barbs that evangelist Bill Glass, a former NFL star, called Deford's series "the biggest pile of garbage that has ever been perpetrated on the American public."

But there was a little-known epilogue to the "shot heard round the sports/faith world," as one leading Sportian called it. A year after his Sports Illustrated series was published, Deford went into the belly o…

The True Origins of John Wooden's Seven Point Creed

If there is one person above reproach, one saint whose reputation remains unspoiled in American sports, it might be John Wooden. Indeed, earlier this year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--not one to dole out unearned praise--penned a book about his friendship with the Wizard of Westwood.

When I pitched Slate the idea of running a story that challenged a piece of the John Wooden mythology, I felt a sense of trepidation. When they agreed to run it, I felt it even more. I still remember the day the piece was published. I'm not usually one for superstition, but I seriously considered skipping my noon basketball game, sure that a twisted ankle (or worse) might await me on the court for daring to transgress the great Wooden.

In truth, though, my article was not so much a shot at Wooden (a man for whom I still have a great deal of respect and admiration), but rather a bit of historical detective and contextualizing work. The piece did not quite match up with the tone of the headline (chosen by Slat…