Sunday, January 31, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joan Connell

Supersermon Xxvii -- Whose Side Does God Play On?

Newhouse News Service

Nothing comes closer to a religious experience than America's mass fervor for football.

And while Pasadena's Rose Bowl isn't quite a cathedral, Super Bowl XXVII will become a crucible of faith as the underdog Buffalo Bills take on the favored Dallas Cowboys today, not only for fans seeking the secular salvation of the ultimate win, but for the increasingly vocal breed of Christian athletes who play like hell and give all the credit to heaven.

The growing influence of a muscular Christianity has made the post-game prayer circle, the end-zone genuflection and the touchdown-for-Jesus as much a part of the pageantry of pro football as the cleavage of the cheerleaders and the roaring of the crowds.

While some consider the pairing of piety and pigskin a welcome antidote to the in-your-face ego and excess of major-league sports, there are others who see evidence that evangelical religion is being used as an unofficial cheerleader for a violent corporate sport, providing a veneer of sanctity that obscures what they see as its sleazy ethics and money-grubbing ways.

"By allowing religion to use its arenas to carry out its evangelistic work, the sporting establishment gains the assurance that those same evangelists will not ask the thorny ethical and moral questions about the way they conduct their business," said Shirl Hoffman. He heads the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's department of exercise and sport science.

"We've reached millions of people with the Gospel through the medium of sport. It's something that appeals to young and old, rich and poor," countered Ralph Drollinger, the former UCLA basketball star who heads a Pasadena-based ministry, Sports Outreach America.

Drollinger is coordinating the efforts of 40 denominations, including the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist Convention and Evangelical Free Church, in a Super Bowl Sunday evangelism strategy designed to place God firmly on the gridiron.

When Michael Jackson prances onto the field for the secular halftime show, thousands of Christians watching at home will assume a more reverent attitude. Sliding videocassettes into their VCRs, they'll watch former Cowboys' wide receiver Michael Irvin, running back Emmitt Smith, defensive lineman Russell Maryland, the Bills' defensive back Mark Kelso, backup quarterback Frank Reich and tight end Pete Metzelaars testify about the ways their Christian faith affects their performance on the field.

Produced by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network and narrated by former Cowboys' coach Tom Landry (a super-Christian who claimed for his players the distinction of being "God's Team"), the video has been distributed to nearly 2,000 churches nationwide.

While Drollinger takes pride in this unique style of evangelism, it raises red flags for UNCG's Shirl Hoffman. The way Hoffman sees it, major-league football, baseball, basketball and hockey are shot through with drug and money scandals, crass materialism, inflated egos, huge salaries, dehumanizing personalities and an unrestrained celebration of the superficial.

With the exception of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has threatened to organize a boycott of major-league baseball this season to protest the absence of minorities in management, Hoffman says organized religion is silent on a sporting establishment badly in need of moral renewal.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that winning at the highest level may require values and a disposition of stunted moral development," Hoffman said.

Such criticisms make no sense to National Football League spokesman Gene Aeillo, who contends the league is totally neutral on the subject of religion.

"We're entirely secular," Aeillo said. "But we don't have a problem with things like post-game prayer circles and other expressions of faith. As long as these demonstrations are brief, they fall within our rules of exiting the field. It's analogous to a basketball player making the sign of the cross at the free-throw line. If they were marching around with signs, that would be something different."

Hoffman said he is less bothered by prayer circles than he is by organized religion's apparent sanction of violence on the playing field.

"There these guys are, praising God, maiming each other for life. It conjures up visions of the Roman Colosseum. The clash of symbols is almost laughable," Hoffman said.

Rod Handley, a former college football player who now heads the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a sports ministry in Kansas City, sees it differently.

"If you've been given certain gifts and abilities by God, you have to use them for the best," he said. Handley recalled an incident a few years ago when his roommate, Steve Pelluer, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs and a former University of Washington star, was knocked unconscious by now-retired Chicago Bear Mike Singletary, whose hits are so hard that he broke the helmets of 13 opposing players during his career.

"After he knocked Steve out, Mike leaned over and prayed over him. There was no vicious intent. Mike still cared about Steve," Handley said. "Remember, Jesus was not a meek person himself. He flipped over tables and turned the money-changers out of the temple. He stood up for what he believed in."

But Handley is in total agreement with Shirl Hoffman on one issue.

"The salaries, the hysteria, the gambling. Major league sports is totally out of control," Handley said. "Sport itself has become a god. And for many fans, the achievement of success mandates their happiness or sadness. I don't enjoy sports as much as I once did. Where does it all lead? How high can salaries and ticket prices go? We're a sports-crazed society and our athletes are paying too high a price."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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