God and the Gridiron Game
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.”
Looking anew at the old debates can perhaps help us understand the ways in which football became so entrenched in American culture, and also the ways in which football continues to unite and divide American believers today.
Making Boys into Men
Before football became linked with the mass culture of the 1920s, it was a sport for elite white Protestant men. In the 1870s and 1880s men like Walter Camp, the “father” of American football, fashioned the new game from its rugby origins on the campuses of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Although there were always competing meanings associated with the sport, one in particular came to dominate: Football was a maker of men. More specifically in its early years, it molded middle- and upper-class college men from elite northeastern schools into hardened, well-rounded leaders needed in a strenuous age of American expansion.
Football’s status as a maker of men was built in part on its association with the amateur sports ideal. Because football players supposedly participated out of loyalty to their school and their teammates rather than for personal profit, they learned lessons of self-sacrifice, discipline, and service that professional sports, tainted by financial incentives, could not provide.
Violence was also deemed necessary to the game’s man-making mission. Only in a context of actual risk and physical danger could men be tried and tested. But this violence became football’s Achilles’ heel, particularly in the 1890s with the advent of “mass momentum” plays like the Flying Wedge. Newspaper reports of death and carnage on the gridiron proliferated in the 1890s and early 1900s, providing critics with fodder to ban or curtail the sport as it spread west and south from its northeastern hearth and deeper into the hearts of Princeton, Yale, and Harvard undergrads.
Some Protestants, especially “muscular Christians” like Yale graduate and University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, saw nothing wrong with the physicality of the sport. Indeed, football’s defenders often cited the prevalence of pious “praying” players as evidence of the game’s compatibility with Christian morality. But many Protestant leaders denounced football’s brutality. Charles Blanchard, president of Wheaton College from 1882 until 1925, took this view. He placed football in the same category as gambling and hard liquor, and viewed the sport not as a heroic, manly game, but a savage sport inhibiting students’ development into productive and civilized men.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, football’s leaders responded to critics like Blanchard by instituting a series of reforms (such as the legalization of the forward pass and the elimination of mass plays) to open up the game. Over time the rule changes helped to protect football from charges of brutality.
The passion that the game inspired in participants and spectators protected football as well. Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen was one of many to fall under its spell. "When I see a vacant field on one of these autumn days," Machen wrote to a friend while in Europe in 1905, “my mind is filled with wonder at this benighted people which does not seem to hear the voice of nature when she commands every human being to play football or watch it being played."
Although football expanded its reach in the early 1900s, enrapturing Midwestern farm boys and city-dwelling immigrants along with erudite scholars like Machen, it did not become a truly national spectacle until the 1920s. By then the rule changes fostering a more open style quieted concerns over brutality.
More importantly, the bloody destruction of World War I made the violence on the gridiron seem relatively benign—perhaps even useful. Football’s apologists alternated between claims that football channeled young men’s natural aggression away from war and into sport and that football served a national security purpose by turning “soft” American boys into loyal, battle-ready young men should the call to arms come again.
With the sport’s most vociferous critics temporarily sidelined and with an influx of leisure time and spending money, annual attendance at college football games boomed during the 1920s, growing by 119 percent. In 1929, 10 million Americans attended college football games—one million more than Major League Baseball. Newspaper coverage of college football ballooned as well, while radio and newsreels allowed Americans to see and hear the exploits of their favorite teams and players.
Football’s surge in popularity was reflected in the sport’s changing fortunes at previously hostile Christian colleges. In the South, schools like Wake Forest and Duke (then named Trinity College) had banned football in the 1890s, in large part because of ministerial opposition. By 1920 they reinstated the sport as resistance to the “Yankee” game withered away among Protestants in the region.
Wheaton College, too, reversed its opposition. The school’s president, Charles Blanchard, had denounced and banned football in the 1890s, but beginning in 1914 he finally allowed Wheaton to field a team. And while Blanchard only reluctantly supported the game, his successor as president, J. Oliver Buswell, enthusiastically boosted the sport.
Buswell was a fixture at Wheaton football games in the 1920s, leading cheers in his army uniform and encouraging students to rally behind their team. Meanwhile, Wheaton professors like Carl Garlough adopted the arguments of football’s proponents, praising the character-building potential of the game and its usefulness in teaching lessons of “co-operation, endurance, self-control, courage” that would be needed “in the battle of life.”
Professionalization and Commercialization
While Wheaton College’s newfound affirmation of the sport signified college football’s growing cultural power in the 1920s, another Wheaton, Illinois, product came to signify a coming storm.
Immediately after his last college game in 1925, the Wheaton-born Red Grange, star halfback for the University of Illinois, signed a contract to play professional football. For three years Grange’s dazzling feats had been exalted in the press, so much so that the “Galloping Ghost” practically embodied the cultural myths of amateur college football. By joining the ranks of the paid professionals—and doing it brazenly, without a hint of remorse—Grange posed a direct challenge to the very symbol of the amateur athlete.
Among Protestants, the most extreme responses came from the older generation of muscular Christians who held the amateur ideal sacred. A. J. “Dad” Elliott, a former college football player who worked as a YMCA secretary, believed so strongly in the sanctity of amateur athletics that he declared Grange had committed “no less contemptible [an] act than the act of a boy killing his mother.”
But despite Grange’s best efforts, it would not be until the post–World War II rise of television that the professional game outpaced college football in fan interest. The key point in the hoopla around Grange, then, was not so much how Protestant leaders reacted to the controversy, but rather how Grange laid bare the commercialization that swirled around the sport.
To be sure, college football had long been a commercial enterprise. But its association with higher education and amateur athletics provided an aura of respectability that popular sports like prizefighting and professional baseball did not possess. In the 1920s, however, college football’s commercialization became especially glaring. By deciding to capitalize on his football success, Grange brought into open discussion what historian of football Michael Oriard calls “the contradiction at the heart of big-time college football. … [C]ollege football players were student amateurs, despite their participation in a multimillion-dollar business."
In the years after 1925 this contradiction came under greater scrutiny, culminating with the 1929 publication of the Carnegie Report, a comprehensive investigation of big-time college athletics. The report showed that college football’s claim to be an amateur, educational sport was mostly a farce, as colleges hired and fired coaches based on their winning percentages and had systems in place to recruit and subsidize football players. But although the report sparked a flurry of comment, it had little effect on football’s popularity or on the practices of most major college football programs.
Protestant religion came under intense scrutiny after 1925 as well. The embarrassment of the Scopes Trial, the divisiveness of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, and declining numbers of church members and missionaries caused anxiety among Protestant leaders, who feared they might be losing their privileged place in American society.
It did not help matters that this decline in Protestant influence occurred within an American public that seemed to have an insatiable appetite for sports. Congregationalist minister Charles Sheldon, best known as the author of In His Steps (1896), made the comparison between religion and sports explicit after attending a game in 1929. "I couldn't help wondering, while looking at the crowd” he wrote, “how many church members would be in the fifty different churches at a prayer meeting ... and paying a dollar apiece for the privilege of going."
Christian Criticism of Football
Protestant leaders like Sheldon may have recognized their waning influence, but they still saw themselves as the nation’s moral compass. Thus, as criticism over football’s excesses and hypocrisy became a matter of widespread public debate, they chimed in. Among prominent Protestant critics there were three basic camps.
First were traditional moralists and conservative Protestants. This group rejected modernism but tended towards a scholarly disposition; it included both long-time critics of football like Warren Candler, a Southern Methodist bishop, and those with newfound concern. Conservative Presbyterian Samuel G. Craig—an ally of Machen—fit into the latter category. Craig had played football at Princeton University in the 1890s. But in 1926, Craig warned that the old days of “wholesome recreation” had passed. Americans’ demand for commercialized sports had exceeded the bounds of sanity; the nation veered towards a "barbaric age, when soldiers and arms were the measure of a nation’s manhood.”
William Courtland Robinson, also a theologically conservative Presbyterian pastor (albeit one who clashed with Machen), had similar concerns. For Robinson, football had succumbed to an “excessively commercialized spirit.” The once-respectable sport for elite college men was now a popular spectacle associated with gambling and drinking (not to mention Catholics, thanks to Notre Dame’s dominance). While Robinson believed that football had the potential to be morally beneficial, by the end of the 1920s he concluded that in its present form, with subsidized players and high salaries for coaches, the game was a menace to American society.
"Sport, sport, sport,” Robinson sighed, “not innocent games for good exercise, but games at great expense, with tremendous salaries." Echoing a common refrain among conservative critics, Robinson compared America’s obsession with football to ancient Rome’s love of amusements right before its fall. "Until we can reduce the sport idea, we will be in moral peril."
A second group of critics attacked football from a different angle. For left-wing Protestants, the sport was too closely aligned with the harmful competitive values of capitalism. Football, according to this view, cultivated in young Americans a "morbid appetite for prestige, dominance and superiority" that was essentially unchristian and damaging to American society.
This type of critic tended to be associated with the college YMCA, somewhat ironic since the college YMCA had been one of football’s boosters at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry made the football-playing YMCA worker a central part of the plot. In the book YMCA secretary Judson Roberts, nicknamed the “praying fullback” for his past football exploits, wins Elmer Gantry to Christ, setting in motion the philandering Gantry’s turbulent rise to ministerial stardom.
By the end of the 1920s, however, the Judson Roberts types were increasingly rare in the college YMCA as the organization’s leaders began to view themselves as a prophetic minority working to reconstruct American society. In the eyes of these activist college YMCA leaders, football mirrored and bolstered the capitalist status quo that needed to be drastically reformed and Christianized.
A third voice of criticism came from liberal Protestants associated with The Christian Century. Published by Disciples of Christ minister-turned-editor Charles Clayton Morrison, The Christian Century was sympathetic to both the economic reform ideas of left-wing Protestants and some of the traditional moral concerns of conservative Protestants. Yet the journal did not attack college football on those grounds. While it decried “the ridiculous position which athletics—football in particular—occupies in American college life," The Christian Century concluded that little could be done about the public demand for the sport.
Instead of trying to deemphasize the game or return it to the old days of “pure” amateur athletics, The Christian Century urged college administrators to embrace an honest assessment of the situation. Since most big-time football programs already secretly funneled money to football players, why not dispense with the myth of amateurism and pay the players openly? “Religion and righteousness would be just as well satisfied with honest professionalism,” one editorial declared, “but cannot stomach dishonest professionalism.”
Although there were differences in their line of attack, the Protestant critics of football tended to be scholarly, intellectual types. Believing they possessed a moral guardianship role in American society, they reacted to the unprecedented national obsession with football by attempting to articulate a sober and responsible Christian approach to the problem.
In contrast to the criticism expressed by Protestant intellectuals, well-known Protestant football coaches like Amos Alonzo Stagg, Fielding Yost, and Glenn Thistlewaithe offered a different moral perspective, penning defenses of the sport that emphasized college football’s ability to police and regulate itself and the character-building benefits the sport continued to provide. Meanwhile thousands of Protestants in the pews went about playing, watching, and enjoying the game—and continuing to believe that despite the commercialization of the sport, football could develop Christian character in young men.
Support for football existed among some ministers as well. Methodist minister William Stidger provided perhaps the most direct justification. An expert on using publicity for church purposes, Stidger’s first claim to fame came in the 1910s when he placed a revolving electric cross on top of his church in San Francisco. One of the most famous ministers in the United States by the 1920s, in 1929 Stidger took up the topic of football in a message to fellow ministers.
“There ought never to be a football season go by that the preaching of the minister of God is not touched every Sabbath with figures from the high-school and college football field,” Stidger advised. "Why? Because so many thousands of young boys and girls and men and women are watching football and are fascinated with it." Stidger concluded by urging ministers to preach on the “heroic things” that occurred on the football field, and on the “high type of Christian player” that participated in the game.
Stidger was not a fundamentalist, but his emphasis on the positive aspects of the sport and on using football to attract a crowd was mirrored by some who were. “Fightin” Bob Shuler of Los Angeles and Paul Rader of Chicago were especially conspicuous. Both had backgrounds in football, and they used their past involvement to reach a wide audience and present themselves in hyper-masculine hues.
Women could make the sport useful for evangelization purposes, too. On at least one occasion in the 1920s, popular Los Angeles-based minister Aimee Semple McPherson donned a University of Southern California football uniform as she performed a skit encouraging her congregants to carry the ball for Jesus.
Much has changed since McPherson’s football theatrics. The television-fueled popularity of professional football has replaced the primacy of college football, while racial integration has pushed the sport even further from its earlier association with elite white men. College football players now openly receive financial compensation in the form of scholarships, even as colleges maintain the fiction of amateurism (and profit to an unprecedented degree from their “student-athletes”). The current CTE crisis represents a new development, too, and may well provide the blow that finally turns the vast American public off from football, as more and more parents steer their kids away from participating in the sport.
Until that happens, however, it is safe to assume that patterns set in the 1920s will continue. Protestant intellectuals will intermittently debate the ethics of the sport and the moral implications of its centrality in American culture. Meanwhile, most evangelical ministers will likely follow the model set by McPherson, Stidger, and Rader, focusing on meeting people where they are and highlighting the positive and useful aspects of the sport.
Because today, as in 1929, so many thousands—or rather millions—are watching football and are fascinated with it.
Paul Putz is a PhD candidate in history at Baylor University, where he is completing a dissertation on the blending of sports and Christianity in the United States. You can read more about his work here.
Hunter Hampton is a lecturer in history at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he teaches and researches American religious history and sport history.