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 Bearsthe first African American head coaches in the big gametalked 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Kitna appealed, andafter public outcrythe fine was rescinded. The NFL also backed away from banning prayer huddles when popular opinion went against itand when players essentially said, "Go ahead and fine us; we're going to do it anyway." And after the Indianapolis church canceled its eventfollowed by more public outragethe NFL hustled to clarify its rules on Super Bowl parties.
When its public image is threatened, the NFL is quick to do damage control. Still, are these just isolated incidents? Or does the league have a begrudging acceptance of Christiansand Christianity?
The NFL is a corporate giant, a $7 billion-a-year industry embraced by millions of fans. But a corporate giant is only as successful as its product, and for the NFL, the product is the playersnot just their athletic prowess on the field, but also the way they carry themselves off it. The league hates headlines about Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick (indicted over the summer on federal charges related to dogfighting), former Chicago Bear Tank Johnson (cut from the team after a run-in with the police shortly after a jail term in the wake of a weapons charge), and Tennessee's Pacman Jones (suspended for the 2007 season for his off-field misbehavior, including six arrests in three years).
The NFL announced a new get-tough conduct policy in April, mandating stiffer penalties for players (including bigger fines and longer suspensions) and their teams (including the possible loss of draft picks).
Christian coaches and players told CT they welcome the new policy. They said Christian players help the league's imagewhether they're vocal about their faith or not. Simply conducting themselves as men of integrityin addition to staying off the police blottergoes a long way.
"The conduct policy allows our players to understand that they are role models, that kids are looking up to them," said Charles Way, a former running back for the New York Giants who's now the team's director of player development.
Christian players in particular get that. "As players, we just need to be good citizens," said Colts punter Hunter Smith. "For those of us who are Christians, that means we need to love God with our lives."