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God so loved the Super Bowl ...

Commercials have become a Super Bowl tradition. And yesterday was no different. Though the Packers and Steelers delivered a great game, if at times brutally sloppy, there were certainly some memorable commercials. That's the big game within the game. Right?

All of these can be seen here, but if I had to summarize the commercials quickly, I'd say: people hated the Groupon ad, found the flower delivery reference to "nice rack" odd, were surprised by all the celebrity cameos (Diddy, Adrien Brody and Eminem twice?!) and may or may not have noticed the whiny Jew stereotype in the Snickers spot.

But in recent years, the Super Bowl has added another tradition. Not just that people tune in only to watch the commercials. Or that they now opine about just how clever those commercials were in pithy remarks followed by the #brandbowl hash tag. It's that every Super Bowl brings with it a bevy of commercial deemed too hot or political or inappropriate for TV. And, without a doubt, a few of those that did air yesterday, could have gotten the ax ahead of time.

Of course, in the age of YouTube, banned Super Bowl commercials are quickly resurrected online, spreading the advertisers message and at a much, much cheaper cost. Slate V had a good report yesterday about the anatomy of a banned Super Bowl ad, and I assumed last week that that an ad about John 3:16 that Fox Sports had rejected fit squarely in this camp.

Most of the early news reports on the saw on the nixing were knee-jerk, at best. But then I read Mark Oppenheimer's article for the New York Times. In short, this column was exemplary of good religion reporting -- perfect balance and tone.

Oppenheimer opens by reminding the reader they've seen the John 3:16 signs at sporting events before. Then he notes that Fox Sports said no to a commercial focusing on the Bible verse, and then speaks with Larry Taunton, the executive director of the evangelical Christian nonprofit that produced the ad.

Fox Sports refused the ad because, according to a statement, "Fox Broadcasting Company does not accept advertising from religious organizations for the purpose of advancing particular beliefs or practices."

But televised sports are infused with religion. Fans hold signs, coaches lead prayers, and the players kneel or cross themselves after touchdowns and routinely thank Jesus in interviews.

"We're not even forcing Christianity on the sport," Mr. Taunton said. "We're just springboarding off a current message that's there. You see it all the time, so what does it mean?"

The prevalence of religion in sports is an important point. (It's also something I and other GetReligionistas have talked about a lot.) And I appreciate that Oppenheimer mentioned it because it begs a bigger question: What's wrong with religious advertising if the players themselves can advertise religion? Why have Super Bowl ads involving religious issues become so controversial, for several years now?

Easy. As Oppenheimer explains, end zone prayers don't run the risk of cutting into a network's profits. Religiously themed ads lead are like politically based ads -- they rile up one segment of the audience while endearing another (though debatably not as much as some of the ads that made it onto the air).

This is a easy point to miss, but the story really can't be told without it. Religion, it seems, has become uniquely offensive -- even more than Joan Rivers.

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