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.

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.

Steeldogs managing partner Scott Myers admits he got a little ahead of things when High suggested having a Faith Night for their matchup last Friday against the Louisville Fire. As a Christian himself, he saw it as an opportunity to gain new fans during a traditionally slow month, and spread a faith-based message. What better way than to be the first professional sports team to wear Bible-themed jerseys in a game?

The jerseys look the same, except the "Steeldogs" name on the front has been replaced by "Samson," an Old Testament hero. On the back, a book of the Bible replaces each player's last name, with his jersey number referring to a specific chapter and verse. Bibles distributed outside the arena before the game give fans an easy way to look up the passages. Proceeds from the post-game jersey auction will go to Cornerstone Schools of Alabama, a faith-based alternative to the struggling inner-city schools of Birmingham.

The team responded with enthusiasm, but arena football officials threatened to fine the owners $25,000 for the jersey violation. Thus the team's decision to wear the jerseys only in warm-ups and during the autograph session and auction.

***

Many fans do respond to the post-game bidding. Almost as quickly as quarterback Ryan Hawk slips on his No. 12 jersey, he's pulling it off again, scrawling his signature beneath the name "James," which, with the number, refers to James 1:2 (New International Version): "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials." Grinning, he seems nonplussed that someone paid $350 for a jersey he basically used as a hand towel. "My family tried to bid on it, but it got too high," he says.

Even though the players couldn't wear the jerseys during the game, expressions of faith are evident. When an opponent is injured, team members drop to their knees and coaches link arms - all praying openly. Nor do players seem hesitant to flaunt the Bible passages. "I really liked the idea," says Lawrence Story, a wide receiver and linebacker, as he waits to auction off his jersey. "It was something different and it was for a good cause, so anything for a good cause, we're down with."

How much the event increased attendance is debatable: 6,156 fans are here, up from the season average of 5,773, but still short of the opening game's turnout.

Reaction to the faith activities is mixed among those milling around the snack bars. Huddling over a display of jerseys, Rashad Upshaw, 14, and his friend, Jamarcus Nelson, are trying to figure out how to raise $60 for a shirt with the words "King James" on it. Rashad's not interested in the biblical connotations. He just wants to show support for his favorite professional basketball star: LeBron James. "I'll come back," he says. "I'm gonna ask my grandma for the money."

But others, like 12-year-old Austin Park, are thrilled with the opportunity to mingle two loves. Austin ponders his bid, finally deciding on Nehemiah. "I bid on I Samuel, Nehemiah, and Romans," he explains. "I just love Romans. There are a lot of great verses in there."

Other families, like the Huffmans, came for the Christian concert but stayed for the game - most of it anyway. They've never seen the Steeldogs, but heard about Faith Night on the radio and wanted to show their support. "It was a good Christian activity," says Stephanie Huffman. "The kids had a blast, and the band was really good. We hope our family was a positive influence on others."

Nor do all the faith-based activities seem to hurt the Steeldogs: They won 63 to 60.

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