Colleges in the South Make It Their Business to Mix Faith and Football

JONATHAN NEWTON - WASHINGTON POST Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram listens during a service for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the football meeting room at the Manning Center at Mississippi. The use of facilities at state-funded schools like this has brought criticism.
JONATHAN NEWTON – WASHINGTON POST
Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram listens during a service for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the football meeting room at the Manning Center at Mississippi. The use of facilities at state-funded schools like this has brought criticism.

Hugh Freeze takes his seat near the back of the Mississippi football meeting room, and from here, with his three daughters sitting to his left, the Rebels coach can see everything.

Players begin filing through the doors a few minutes before 10 a.m., some wearing dreadlocks and others buzz cuts. Several carry Bibles. Christian music plays through the speakers of this 200-seat auditorium, and Freeze mouths the words to a song titled “Jesus Paid It All.”

This room in the Manning Center is where the Ole Miss football team gathers to discuss its mistakes, players’ hopes and goals, the opportunities and pitfalls that lay ahead in the season, and anyway, doesn’t that sound like life? To Freeze, it makes sense to merge his beliefs with his coaching, holding a Fellowship of Christian Athletes worship service each Sunday during the school year. For the Rebels’ players and coaches during the season, this is church.

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 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.

College football’s influence in the region grew, as well, with bulging stadiums and millionaire coaches. “I don’t know if people have stopped looking forward to church,” says Gibbs, whose book “God & Football” was published in 2010. “But that’s a part of it though: this weird identity we have with our teams where we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Freeze is one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches, with a $3 million annual salary and a team ranked No. 10. He believes two strong forces, football and his Christian faith, brought him to this point, and within the framework of both parts of his identity, he is able to teach all manner of lessons to young, impressionable men. He uses his Twitter account to share Bible verses and practice photos, sprinkles praise music into the playlist during practices and believes it’s important to tell recruits and their families he believes in Jesus.

Players are not required to attend FCA meetings or participate in devotionals and team prayers, but Freeze encourages them. On this day, dozens have taken him up on it. “I tell them or our position coaches will: ‘We have worship on Sunday,’ ” the coach says.

Others worry that men such as 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 this year sent a letter to Clemson criticizing how its football program promotes Christianity.

Christianity at Clemson

SOURCE: Charlotte Observer / Washington Post – Kent Babb

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