God and the Gridiron Game
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.
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.
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. ...