Football is a national obsession. Football is also in a state of crisis.

The NFL remains far and away America’s most popular sports league, and nearly 43 percent of Americans’ identify either professional or college football as their favorite sport. Meanwhile, stories of concussions, domestic violence, sexual assault, and greed swirl around big-time college football and the NFL, leading to calls for reform or even abolishment of the sport all together. Football’s dual cultural status exists among Christians as well. Although there is a strong affinity for football, there is also plenty of concern over the ethical problems in the sport.

But football’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. Sportswriter John Tunis declared in 1928 that football is “at present a religion—sometimes it seems to be almost our national religion.” In that decade, too, renewed efforts to reform football reached a fever pitch.

Although Christian leaders were not the most outspoken voices in the 1920s discussion about football’s place in American society, they were involved in the conversation. As another football season is set for kick off, it is worth looking at how Christian leaders nearly 100 years ago—in particular, white Protestant leaders—responded to the emergence of big-time football as America’s “national religion.” ...

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