When I saw the headline on the Washington Post's in-depth feature on college football as a Southern religion, I braced myself for plenty of Belt Belt cliches and stereotypes.
To be sure, there's some of that in this 3,000-word sports opus.
But mainly, the writer, Kent Babb, weaves a fascinating tale full of colorful characters and compelling scenes. Along the way, he peppers the Southern-fried narrative with a diverse variety of voices, both pro and con.
Some of the meat-and-potatoes up high:
In this part of America, college football fits somewhere between pastime and obsession, and like church, it is more than a weekend activity. Nothing says more about a Southerner than the team he cheers on Saturdays and the church he attends on Sundays — “the two things we love the most,” says author Chad Gibbs, Auburn fan and Methodist. To many, the merging of cultural forces feels natural; to others, the most stark instances are uncomfortable — maybe even inappropriate.
Throughout most of the United States, church attendance is on the decline, but according to a “religion census” sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, eight states in the South, including Mississippi, saw increases between 2000 and 2010 — in some cases dramatically.
Later in the piece, the writer serves up this metaphorical gravy:
Sometimes the passions occupy too much of the same space, causing friction. Some religious leaders worry that football in some ways could be replacing churches: crowds in cathedral-like stadiums the new congregation, the all-knowing coach seen as pastor, prayers offered up for one more big play.
“It’s amazing to see how religious they become when their team is down by two points and there’s a field goal to be made,” says Ole Miss chaplain John Powell, who has an office in the Rebels’ football building, “and they’re praying to God that, if there’s any way possible for us to win this game, I’ll change my life.”
Others worry that men such as (Ole Miss coach Hugh) Freeze, powerful coaches at state-funded schools, are abusing their influence by pushing their beliefs on young men who want nothing more than to please the man sitting in the back of the room. “That’s something a university shouldn’t be doing,” says Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which earlier this year sent a letter to Clemson criticizing how its football program promotes Christianity.
Freeze says his program must be a reflection of himself, of his beliefs, of his place in the world. And he is a man of God, the South and football — almighty one and all. “We’re unapologetic,” he says, “about who we are.”
Besides the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the story includes mentions of groups such as the American Humanist Association and the American Civil Liberties Union — all of which have concerns about potential religious coercion of football players.
But on the other side, football coaches are mainly left to defend their turf. If there's a missing element to this story, it's any input from organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty that I suspect might offer a different legal perspective.
The Post writer deserves credit, though, for not bogging down his eloquent prose with too many predictable soundbites. I particularly liked that he interviewed both a Jehovah's Witness and a Muslim who played for overtly Christian coaches and said their religious affiliation had no negative impact on their team status.
In the end, readers must decide for themselves what to make of God's role on the gridiron. That counts as a journalistic touchdown, folks.