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As popular Sunday customs, watching the National Football League and attending church seem to go together. Players who thank Jesus for victory have almost become a cliché. At the Super Bowl last February, coaches Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears—the first African American head coaches in the big game—talked freely about their faith.

"I think it's great that we're able to show the world not only that African American coaches can do it, but Christian coaches can do it in a way that we still can win," Dungy said at the time. Added Smith: "God is the center of my life. I hope I don't have to spend my time telling my players I'm a Christian. I hope they see it in my life every day."

With Christian players and coaches in the spotlight, some have wondered whether the NFL welcomes the image they project. Indeed, the league has made some decisions that could indicate otherwise:

  • In February, the NFL sent a cease-and-desist order to an Indianapolis church that had planned a Super Bowl party.
  • In the early 1990s, the league tried to discourage midfield prayer huddles after games.
  • When journeyman quarterback Jon Kitna wore a cap displaying a cross after a 2004 game, the league fined him $5,000 for violating the rule that only NFL apparel can be worn during postgame interviews.

Kitna appealed, and—after public outcry—the fine was rescinded. The NFL also backed away from banning prayer huddles when popular opinion went against it—and when players essentially said, "Go ahead and fine us; we're going to do it anyway." And after the Indianapolis church canceled its event—followed by more public outrage—the NFL hustled to clarify its rules on Super Bowl parties.

When ...

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In the Magazine

September 2007

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