Backstory: Football team wears faith on its sleeve
Football may be just a sport across the nation, but it's practically a religion in the South. Tonight, the Birmingham Steeldogs are moving one step closer to making that maxim a reality, literally wearing their faith on their sleeves as part of a growing convergence between spectator sports and grass-roots evangelism. History is being made at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Alabama, but to many fans it looks like football as usual, in all its brutish glory.Skip to next paragraph
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Contrails of sweat arc through the air as a football player slams his opponent into the wall, the momentum carrying him over the four-foot barrier and nearly into the nacho-laden laps of a family of four. Fans leap to their feet and pump their fists to a chorus of "Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof!"
With a triumphant grin, the airborne player vaults over the wall and plants his feet firmly back on the green Astroturf as a parade of silver-clad women shimmies into the end zone.
Football is the main event on this Friday night, though religion is a definite subtext - with a Bible giveaway, a Christian concert, and, controversially, football players wearing jerseys with biblical references.
Members of the Steeldogs wore the jerseys during pregame warm-ups. Originally the idea was to have them don the shirts throughout the game as a way to spread a faith-based message and put more fans in the seats. But officials of the arenafootball2 league balked, citing rules that require player and team names on jerseys.
Nonetheless, even the brief wearing of the Bible-themed shirts, and their subsequent sale at an auction after the game, represents another step in the growing nexus of religion and sports - raising questions about how far the trend might go. "It's a very slippery slope that they're starting down," says Richard Megraw, an expert on social culture and sports at the University of Alabama. "To bring Christ to the arena is to demean Christ and sully the message."
The man behind the convergence of God and gridiron on this night is Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports, a Nashville-based marketing company that merges Christian outreach and professional sporting events. The setup varies, but his basic model remains the same: find a team that wants to boost attendance, find a city with enough Christians to make it happen, and assign someone to market a faith-based sports event to every church leader and religious group within 75 miles. Then it's just a matter of keeping the activities separate enough from the main event to avoid offending non-Christians.
Mr. High says his firm has a long waiting list. More than half a million sports fans are expected to attend one of the 65 events scheduled this year in some 40 cities across the nation. Deals are under way with two major league baseball teams - the Atlanta Braves and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"We just have to be careful to not alienate the fans who don't want anything to do with it," says High. "We never want to be controversial, but at the same time, corporate America is realizing that it's not only OK to position yourself within the Christian movement: It's smart business."
At a minimum, a Faith Night usually includes three elements: a pregame Christian concert outside the event, an appearance by characters from the Veggie Tales (a series of children's books and computer-animated videos that convey Christian ideals), and an athlete's testimonial about the role of faith in his life. Some teams, like the Steeldogs, do more. Or at least try to.