This is a guest post by Jessica Kirsner.
Whether it’s coaches leading their teams in prayer or players being baptized on the field after practice, sports and religion seem to be frequently entangled. However, what Liberty University is trying to do crosses a line.
The Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell is trying to build its athletic department — specifically its football team — into a proselytizing machine. They are calling themselves “Champions for Christ.”
It’s not like Liberty is unique in merging the two worlds. There are plenty of religious schools with prominent athletic programs, the obvious big name being Notre Dame, a Catholic school that has its football team ranked third in the nation, its men’s basketball team a preseason top-twenty team, and its women’s team in the top ten (for those who don’t speak the sportsball: the media thinks they are doing really well). Beyond that, Brigham Young University, Texas Christian University, Baylor University, and Creighton University all have excellent sports programs. So what makes Liberty University different?
It isn’t their strict “moral code of conduct” that could be devastating to recruiting efforts; BYU has a similar policy. (In fact, BYU suspended one of their star basketball players during last year’s March Madness run for breaking their conduct code by having sex with his girlfriend. He was reinstated the following year, probably because the team couldn’t win without him.) Their code demands one to “live a chaste and virtuous life, participate regularly in church services, use clean language and abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea and coffee.”
It isn’t the mandatory attendance at a convocation service three times a week. Students — all students, not just athletes — know what they are getting into when they attend a religious school. I grew up in Texas, and I had a Muslim friend who turned down a scholarship from Baylor so she wouldn’t be forced to go to chapel. These schools understand that they will lose recruits, on the academic side and the athletic, because of their policies.
Liberty University is different because their football program is first and foremost a tool for conversion. When Notre Dame plays a secular university, they don’t try and tell them their beliefs are wrong. When BYU has non-Mormon players fighting for their teams, they respect their beliefs. But the fact that Liberty’s coach Turner Gill is motivated by the notion that “God has called us to be examples and to change the world…” tells me something about what this program will and won’t be about.
It won’t be about bringing joy to the students. It won’t be about strengthening a community. It won’t be about sportsmanship and respect and giving people an opportunity to better their lives — all things that college football does.
It will be about spreading the word of their god. And that has no place in sports.