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Showing posts from July, 2017

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…

The Complicated Legacy Of Pioneering Football Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg

Amos Alonzo Stagg was easily one of the most famous Christian athlete/coaches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, he is a prominent figure in my dissertation. During my research I came across source material that revealed Stagg's involvement in a campaign to support Japanese Americans who were trying to return home from internment camps at the end of World War II. One of my favorite radio programs, NPR's Only A Game, featured my research in a segment for their February 17, 2017 show. You can read the transcript and listen to the segment here. 

Sportianity at Forty: Rereading Frank Deford's Series on Religion in Sport

NOTE: I originally published this piece at the Religion in American History blog. You can read the intro below. Click the link to read the rest. 

In 1976 Frank Deford wrote a three-part series for Sports Illustrated on "Religion in Sport." Deford focused special attention on what he called "Sportianity." This world of sports-specific evangelical ministries included the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes In Action, Baseball Chapel, and Pro Athletes Outreach, and was represented in Deford's piece by coaches and athletes (Roger Staubach, Alvin Dark, Tom Landry), sports chaplains (Billy Zeoli, Tom Skinner), and organizational leaders (Arlis Priest, Dave Hannah).

Although Deford also discussed Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, his digressions into non-evangelical groups were usually meant to serve as a contrast to the deficiencies of the Sportianity style. In Deford's view, the leaders of Sportianity were so obsessed with the "competition for dotted-lin…

The Humble Coach Behind Celebrity Christianity: Remembering Don McClanen

Note: Don McClanen, founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, passed away in 2016. I wrote this piece for Christianity Today a few days after he died. The intro is posted below.

On Tuesday this week I spent the day hunched over a desk, reading letters that Don McClanen had written 60 years ago as he agonized over whether or not he should leave the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization he had founded in 1954.

On Thursday I saw the news on my Twitter timeline that McClanen had died.

A historian is supposed to keep a critical distance from his or her subjects of study, and I like to think that I follow that standard. Yet when I saw the news, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss for a man I never met, a man I know only through dusty letters written long ago.

When I first began my research on the early history of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I had no affinity for McClanen—I barely knew who he was. At first he seemed too earnest, too persistent. In his letters…

Review of William Baker's "Of Gods and Games"

NOTE: This review was originally posted at the Religion in American History blog (May 13, 2017)

There is only one rule when reviewing sport history books in a forum that is not focused primarily on sports: you must use a sports metaphor or allusion at some point. Allow me to check that box right off the bat (and no, that last phrase doesn't count): William J. Baker'sOf Gods And Games: Religious Faith and Modern Sports (University of Georgia Press, 2017) is kind of like an end-of-the-season sports highlight show. Clocking in at about seventy-five pages, it provides a primer on a few of the key themes that scholars of sports and religion have explored, while at the same time offering a couple intriguing hints at what might be on the horizon next season.

There. The painful part is done. No more forced sports comparisons, I promise.

For historians doing the sport and religion thing, Baker is impossible to ignore. His 2007 book Playing With God: Religion and Modern Sport (Harvard U…

Review of Bob Gaines' "Christy Mathewson, The Christian Gentleman"

NOTE: This review was originally published at the Sport in American History blog.

Renowned for his pinpoint accuracy and his “fadeaway” pitch, Christy Mathewson’s baseball exploits are well known. He ended his seventeen-year career in 1916 with a sparkling 2.13 ERA and 373 wins (the latter stands as the third-highest total all-time), and in 1936 joined four other players selected in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. His off-the-field reputation is not exactly a secret, either. A bright student and three-sport star at Bucknell University from 1898 to 1900, Mathewson seemed to be the embodiment of the All-American athlete. Like the fictional character of Frank Merriwell, a popular Progressive Era dime novel hero, Mathewson was handsome, polite, God-fearing, and clean-living. In the rough-and-rowdy world of professional baseball, Mathewson seemed to be the ultimate Christian gentleman.

Mathewson’s faith-based public image has been noted to varying degrees by all of his previou…

The Untold Story of Olympic Champion Eric Liddell: Review of Duncan Hamilton's "For the Glory"

NOTE: The intro to this review is posted below. It was originally posted at The Gospel Coalition

For nearly a century Eric Liddell has been one of the English-speaking world’s most well-known Christian athletes. The Scottish sprinter’s fame spread worldwide in 1924 when he followed his Sabbatarian beliefs, skipping the Olympic 100-meter event (which he was favored to win) since it was scheduled for a Sunday. Liddell received criticism from high places in Britain for his lack of “sportsmanship” and “patriotism,” but he stood fast—and ran fast, too. He added the 400-meter race to his repertoire, which he proceeded to win despite barely training for it.

Liddell’s religious convictions and Olympic gold made him a hero for Christian athletes over the next few decades, although the memory of his accomplishments faded over time. That trend was reversed in 1981 with the release of Chariots of Fire, an Oscar-winning film that told the story of Liddell’s Olympic victory. For Christian moviego…

Evangelical Women and Sports Ministry: Review of Annie Blazer's "Playing for God"

NOTE: This review originally ran at the Religion in American History blog(July 20, 2015)

Annie Blazer's Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry (New York University Press, 2015) is a much-needed book that I hope will be widely read. Expanding on a dissertation she completed in 2008, Blazer, a professor of religious studies at William & Mary, brings the world of evangelical sports ministry to life with an insightful historical and ethnographic study that focuses on sports ministry's largest demographic: women.

Blazer frames her book as "a case study of how evangelical engagement with popular culture created the possibility for reevaluating orthodoxy from inside the tradition." Along with her ethnographic work, she makes a change-over-time argument by contrasting the original aims of the founders who launched the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA) in the 1950s and 1960s with the current …

Looking for Religion in Jonathan Abrams' "Boys Among Men"

NOTE: This was originally posted at the Religion in American History blog (June 19, 2016)

Over the past few months I've settled into that ABD mode where nearly everything I read is filtered through a dissertation-colored lens. Since my dissertation is focused on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the cultural history of the "Christian athlete," this has done a number on the excessive amount of sports journalism that I consume. Not even Jonathan Abrams's new book could save me.

Abrams has worked for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but it was with ESPN's Grantland (RIP) that he became the writer whose pieces were heralded on twitter with their own hashtag (#AbramsAlert). His oral histories became particularly important sports internet events, especially after his piece detailing the "Malice at the Palace" – the 2004 brawl involving the Indiana Pacers, the Detroit Pistons, and more than a few fans. With a reputation for snagging insight…

Faith and Football in the Cornhusker State

I was born and raised in Nebraska. Although I now live in Texas, I still root hard for the Cornhuskers, especially the football team (and I teach my daughters to do the same). This article for Religion and Politics takes a look at the ways in which football and religion are intertwined in my home state. You can read the intro below. Click here if you want to read the rest.

My childhood was oriented around Nebraska Cornhusker football. A pastor’s kid growing up in McCook, a town of 8,000 in southwest Nebraska, I came of age during the Cornhuskers’ string of championship runs in the 1990s. I was more likely to skip church on Sunday than miss the Saturday radio or television broadcast of the Cornhusker game. Occasionally I scored tickets to see the action in person. I have vivid memories of the four-hour pilgrimage east to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, where I joined fellow Huskers as we sang hymns like “Dear Old Nebraska U,” chanted “Husker Power!” and participated in the call-and-respo…

The Long History of Famous American Athletes Going Public with their Faith

I wrote this piece for Christianity Today with Art Remillard. Art is a professor of religious studies at St. Francis University, and he is currently working on a book tentatively titled Bodies in Motion: A Religious History of Sports in America. Our article features brief vignettes of famous Christian athletes who starred in their sports long before Tim Tebow became the most prominent symbol of the Christian athlete. We've got Billy Sunday, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Christy Mathewson, Joe Louis, Dan Towler, Gil Dodds, Bob Feller, Wilma Rudolph, and more. Click here to check it out.

Finally, Jackie Robinson’s Faith Is Getting the Attention It Deserves

Over at Christianity Today I reviewed two new books that analyze Jackie Robinson's faith. You can read the intro below, and, if so inclined, check out the rest of my review here.
There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of 42, the 2013 film that depicts the inspiring story of Jackie Robinson. Observers noticed it at the time, pointing out that the film mostly ignored the role that faith played in Robinson’s life and in Branch Rickey’s decision to sign him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. And the film is not the only account of Robinson’s life that downplays religion. While Rickey’s stalwart Methodist convictions have been widely recognized, most biographies of Robinson provide limited attention to his own faith.   Not so in Michael G. Long’s and Chris Lamb’s Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Westminster John Knox Press) and Ed Henry’s 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story (Thomas Nelson). Published earlier this year, both books claim to offer a thorough look at the…

About This Blog

Let's start with the name. "Sportianity" is a term coined by legendary sportswriter Frank Deford. He used it in a 1976 Sports Illustrated series on religion in sport (read more about that series here). Deford used it in a mostly negative sense, implying that Sportianity was a corruption of true Christianity; it was a religion "more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it."

I do not use it in the negative sense implied by Deford. Rather "Sportianity" is meant as a descriptive term for the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity. It is inhabited by institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and others. It is championed by media/publications like Sports Spectrum. And it is represented by celebrity athletes like Tim Tebow, Stephen Curry, and Maya Moore. 
Over the coming months I will focus on two types of content. First, book reviews/summaries.…