Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

For half a century or more, journalists seeking insights on religion news in America have given a consistent answer to the question, "Who you gonna call?"

The proper response, of course, is "Martin E. Marty."

So it's no surprise that the 88-year-old historian -- author of 60-plus books -- has weighed in on the media storm surrounding Baylor University's Christian identity, big-time college football and the painful challenges facing educators wrestling with sexual abuse, alcohol and the law.

The key, according to Marty, is that Baylor is involved in a clash between two religions -- Christianity and football.

"But isn't football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise?", he asked, in a "Sightings" essay for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Marty's answer: "No." Anyone with a good world-religions textbook or encyclopedia will recognize the characteristics that define "religious" activities, he added.

Is this activity an "ultimate concern" for those involved? Put a checkmark there.

Does football provide "ceremonial reinforcement," adding a kind of "metaphysical depth" to life? Check and check. Are deep emotions involved in these rites, providing a crucial sense of "communalism" among the faithful? Once again, add two checkmarks.

Now what about football, especially in Texas?

Concerning the prayers of Tim Tebow

Moments after the New England Patriots smashed his Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow stood before a wall of reporters and said exactly what anyone who has been paying attention already knew he was going to say. The Patriots, he stressed, "came out and they played well and they executed well and you've got to give them a lot of credit."

Then Tebow interrupted himself to deal with a higher matter: "But before I talk about that, I just want, you know, to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and thank my teammates for the effort that they put forth, not just tonight but this whole season."

Please note one crucial detail in this thanksgiving statement.

In a recent Poll Position survey, 43.3 percent of the respondents said they believed divine intervention played some role in Tebow's roller-coaster season, including that stunning Broncos playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, 42.3 percent said God was not helping Tebow out.

This schism is one reason Tebow critics enjoyed asking some obvious questions after the Patriots loss: So what happened? Did God tune out all of Tebow's prayers?

People can laugh all they want, noted the leader of a Denver-area megachurch that has long had its share of Bronco players in the pews. The key is that Tebow -- as is the norm for athletes who are believers -- always offers prayers of thanksgiving after losses, as well as victories.

"If people have been listening to anything that Tim Tebow has been saying, then they know that he never prays to win. He has said that publicly many times," said the Rev. Brad Strait, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Englewood.

"The key is that many people who keep commenting on this situation don't know very much about why believers pray. It seems that they think the main reason, or even the only reason, that people pray is to ask God to give them things. ... It's that old Santa Claus equals Jesus thing. You mix all of that up with football and this is what you get."

In this case, what you get is controversy about a hunky missionary kid who continues to confound his critics on and off the playing field. Meanwhile, choirs of Tebow fans -- saith an early January ESPN poll -- have made him the America's most popular athlete.

His life began, of course, in a dangerous pregnancy and his mother's decision to reject doctors' advice to abort provided the hook for a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Tebow's drive to excel in high-school football -- while being home-schooled -- fueled headlines long before his two national championships and Heisman Trophy win as a Florida Gator. Then there was the 2009 press conference in which he cheerfully answered a question about his sex life, pledging to remain chaste until marriage. This put Tebow on the radar of every comic with a microphone.

This recent blast by liberal talk-radio star Mike Malloy hit all the crucial notes.

"Tim Tebow, of course, is a massive irritation," he said. "God, I hate crappy-ass displays of public religiosity, especially, especially, in a sporting event. This to me is vile, just vile, for these fundamentalist Christians to find divine intervention -- in a pass for a football game, in Denver, Colorado? Oh well, it's their religion, not mine."

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Tebow doesn't believe God is pulling strings for him, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, where the student body includes Tebow's brother, Peter.

The fact that Tebow gives thanks after a game doesn't imply that he prayed for victory before the kickoff, said Groothuis.

"He always says that he is giving thanks to 'my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' which says, to me, that he is thanking God for his salvation. Then again, he could be thanking God that he is a professional football player and that he has a national platform. He could be thanking God that he didn't get hurt during the game," he said.

"If you look at this logically, it doesn't make sense for him to thank God after a loss if he has been doing what people seem to think he has been doing -- which is praying to win. ... There's one other point that's important. Tebow isn't cursing God after he loses, that's for sure."

Faith on the Blind Side

In the beginning there was "Big Tony" Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education. But there was one big complication. Steven didn't want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced "Oar"), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. "Big Mike" was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe and her 13 children.

So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother's dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven's grades. Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball and looked like God's gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their "blind side."

The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money and education. But a key player in the real-life version of "The Blind Side" stressed that this is also a story about faith.

"We're convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing," said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter and clothing. "We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke. ... This was God-driven from the start."

Author Michael Lewis didn't hide that faith element while writing "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," a bestseller that mixed Oher's story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in any National Football League offense. Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. "The Blind Side" grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.

On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. After all, Sean was a University of Mississippi hoops star and Leigh Ann was an Ole Miss cheerleader. Their daughter Collins is both a cheerleader and volleyball star, again at Ole Miss, and their young son, Sean Jr., seems to have inherited his father's gifts as a tireless sports entrepreneur.

The movie does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.

Leigh Anne Tuohy said that "from day one," Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons and trips to sports events and practices.

The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.

"This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return," she told reporters, after a press screening of "The Blind Side." Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little "faith in those who say they represent a faith. ... I've finally met people that walk the walk."

While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God's work in the events that changed Oher's life, and their family, that doesn't mean the details were clear at the time.

The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it's impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America's cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens?

After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it's hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.

"A miracle is what this is," she said. "Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this."

The Word according to Tim Tebow

After being knocked halfway to kingdom come, Tim Tebow knew that millions of college football fans would be paying close attention to his eyes the next time he led the Florida Gators into action. Viewers would be looking for signs that the quarterback was OK after a nasty concussion. Many would also want to see which Bible reference would be written in the patches of eye black that would be visible whenever television cameras focused on the face of America's most famous muscular Christian.

Tebow was wearing Isaiah 40:31 when he got hurt against Kentucky: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

This biblical commentary continued when he returned against LSU, with a reference pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."

The Palm Beach Post put it this way: "Give thanks in all circumstances."

Not exactly.

You see, it's hard to avoid quoting the Bible when you're writing about an athlete who refuses to stop quoting the Bible.

Viewers who used an Internet search engine could find the full scriptural reference. Those who relied on news reports, however, tended to find language scrubbed clean of the fervent, conservative and, for many, offensive faith that shapes the lives of Tebow and his missionary parents and siblings.

Bob and Pam Tebow already consider his life a gift from God. During that pregnancy, his mother slipped into a coma after contracting amoebic dysentery. Doctors in the Philippines, where the Tebows are evangelical missionaries, feared that the strong medications she received had damaged her unborn child. Doctors advised an abortion. She refused, the family prayed and Tim Tebow survived.

Thus, Bob Tebow told Sports Illustrated, "I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback."

The son has done his share of preaching and missionary work, both overseas and in U.S. prisons. Meanwhile, he has refused to retreat during the many media marathons he endures as a superstar. This is, after all, the guy who seized the podium when he won the Heisman Trophy and, after taking some nervous gulps, immediately gave thanks to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave me the ability to play football." In his rush, he said almost exactly the same thing moments later. The news reports that followed steered clear of these references.

While Tebow has been outspoken about his beliefs, he has avoided making openly evangelistic remarks while in the hot spotlight at a secular university in a highly diverse state. The closest he has come to giving an altar call was when he put John 3:16 under his eyes during the 2009 BCS championship game.

For those who have never seen Billy Graham in action, that verse proclaims: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

But that was a mere tremor compared with the quake that followed Tebow's candid response when asked during a press conference: "Are you saving yourself for marriage?"

Laughing, he said, "Yes, I am."

While another reporter struggled to ask a question, Tebow continued. "I think ya'll are stunned right now. Ya'll can't even ask a question. Look at this. The first time ever. Wow. I was ready for the question. I don't think ya'll were, though."

Thus, a simple Google search for "Tebow, virgin" yields 70,000-plus hits. Journalists and commentators can't seem to decide if they were more offended by the question or by Tebow's unapologetic answer. Was this a victory for the religious right or for crass, "gotcha" journalism?

The columnist who pushed that button has refused to apologize, noting that Tebow considered it a logical question in light of his highly public faith.

"Tebow demonstrated that he lives his life according to his own religious principles," noted Clay Travis of the website.

"I asked because I believe it's newsworthy and because, believe it or not, I thought Tim Tebow would answer the question by saying: 'Yes, I am.' ... Why did I believe this? Because Tebow lives his faith. And I believe that living his faith is not artificial, he's not pretending to be something he's not."

Saving the Baylor brand name

WACO, Texas -- Looking out his window, athletic director Ian McCaw has been watching workers tear up the turf in Baylor University's football stadium one more time.

The environment is brutal in there, and not just because the Bears play Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Big 12 powers. Central Texas offers searing heat and then its share of ice. Since 1950, Baylor has tried grass, various brands of fake grass, real grass again and now Prestige System artificial turf.

"We're committed to making changes," said McCaw, a young sports management professional who arrived in the midst of Baylor's recent siege of scandals and woe. "We're moving forward. We think this is going to work out fine."

McCaw was talking about the grass, but he could have been defending his own turf. The environment has been brutal for months, with the world's largest Baptist school facing a searing media spotlight and the cold reality that when many fans hear "Baylor" they now think of death, drugs and dirty dollars, not dedication to Christian principles.

Surely the grass was greener at the University of Massachusetts, where McCaw had done his graduate studies and returned to direct a 23-sport athletic program. But after one successful year, and two weeks before moving his wife and four children into a newly constructed home, he answered the call to help resurrect Baylor's reputation.

"From a branding, marketing standpoint, we know what we have to do," he said. "We have to position ourselves to the whole Baptist and Protestant community as the flagship, much as Notre Dame always has been for Catholics. ... To compete at the highest level, we're going to have to have that kind of brand.

"We certainly can't try to hide what Baylor is, or what Baylor is supposed to be."

But that brand name also raises questions in an era when schools with small markets and high academic standards face brutal pressures to cut corners. Meanwhile, this is a boom time for Christian colleges and universities, along with their athletic programs. Many are now asking: What does it mean to have "Christian" athletics?

It doesn't mean all of the school's athletes have to be Christians, said Grant Teaff, a Baylor coaching legend and, for the past decade, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But dedicated Christian coaches are a must.

"You can't say, 'Find me the best Christian defensive back you can and go sign him.' You can't compete like that," he said. "But that doesn't mean that, if one of the top defensive backs in the country is a strong Christian kid, you can't look him in the eye and tell him Baylor is where he would feel right at home."

It's also time for these coaches to admit that larger schools will sign almost all the top blue-chip recruits. However, Teaff noted that most of these phenoms -- in basketball and perhaps soon in football -- linger only one or two years in college. At some point, teams led by experienced, loyal juniors and seniors may start winning more games against the freshmen and sophomore superstars.

"The world says to these young men, 'Get as much as you can as soon as you can. Get your hand out -- right now,' " said Teaff. "Schools like Baylor can't compete in that game. ... But a school like this has other strengths and it can't be afraid to use them."

Schools that emphasize academics and spiritual values will also need stronger ties to national networks of ministries, home-school families and Christian high schools that stress athletics, noted McCaw. The evidence is strong that schools emphasizing faith are especially attractive to top female athletes.

Another trend may help. As Third World churches grow in power, global recruiting efforts will increasingly affect sports such as soccer, track, baseball and basketball. Missionaries often packed sports equipment with their Bibles.

But earning the trust of parents remains the key.

"There is a growing percentage of parents that want their children to go to a Christian college, yet they also want to see their children compete in Division I athletics. If you want a quality, Christian education and you want to compete at the highest level in athletics, how many options do you have? Where are you going to go?"