EDITOR’S NOTE: Art Stricklin, a sports correspondent for Baptist Press and director of ministry relations for Marketplace Ministries in Dallas, is reporting daily from Phoenix with exclusive coverage for BP readers about the spiritual side of Super Bowl XLII.
PHOENIX (BP)–The National Football League has used an unstoppable combination of marketing muscle, longtime loyalties and on-field performance to create the most successful professional sports league in America, if not the world.
Its annual season-ending showcase, Super Bowl XLII, on Sunday, Feb. 3, in Phoenix, has become secular sports’ high holy day, drawing interest and global TV ratings on par with the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup.
NFL officials, fearful highly publicized illegal and immoral behavior by some of the sport’s biggest stars was jeopardizing the league’s multi-billion-dollar success, instituted a new Personal Conduct Policy this spring.
The behavior policy, spearheaded by newly hired commissioner Roger Goodell, draws a clear line between right and wrong, and it says players may be punished for behavior that does not result in a legal conviction.
Among the incidents specifically mentioned in the new policy are gun violations, drinking and driving, domestic disputes and gang-related activities. The commissioner also cracked down on NFL clubs’ alcohol use by limiting or outlawing open beer and wine possession in locker rooms and other team facilities.
“It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches and staff,” Commissioner Goodell said. “We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League.”
While the NFL has not specifically cited Christian principles, and league spokesman Brian McCarthy denied there was any method in place other than to see good behavior, some in the faith-based NFL community see it differently.
“There are absolutely Christian principles involved in all of this,” said Don Davis, a former NFL linebacker and now the New England Patriots’ team chaplain. “The league would never say they’re putting Christ first, but it’s exactly the same thing if you look at their new rules.
“Those of us who are behind the scenes [have been] on our knees about this,” he added.
Former player and Chicago Bears chaplain Harry Swayne isn’t sure what to make of the new policy and the NFL’s heightened interest in mandating right and wrong for its players.
“Bad behavior is just bad business for the league,” Swayne said. “Until the Lord changes a person’s heart, a man won’t get right by himself. This is a knee-jerk reaction and a small answer to a big problem. The problem is sin in a person’s life.”
New York Giants chaplain George McGovern said his team hasn’t had a public lawbreaking scandal in nearly two years, partly because New York players have seen what’s happened to once-bright stars such as Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones.
McGovern said another reason for the heightened emphasis on good behavior is the number of outspoken Christian coaches and players in today’s NFL.
“They are certainly more outspoken about their faith than they were 35 or even 20 years ago,” McGovern said. “I’ve had coaches personally tell me they are taking a bolder stand in their faith after hearing [Indianapolis Colts head coach] Tony Dungy share his faith last year. He’s a good example of a bold witness for Christ.”
Davis, who played in the league 11 years, the last four with the New England Patriots, said it’s been a gradual progression of star players sharing their faith in Jesus Christ publicly.
“First you had some like Reggie White who people respected, then you had Kurt Warner, then Shawn Alexander and Curtis Martin, guys who wanted to share their faith.
“Even the worldly player has an overall sense of right and wrong,” Davis said.
Goodell said the new conduct policy would continue into the coming years, and the league would not relent on its stand that players recognize the basic difference between right and wrong.
“We made it very clear what was expected of players, coaches and anyone affiliated with the NFL,” Goodell said. “That standard is clear. From our standpoint, people understand that. I think they are responding to that.”
While Sunday’s game will pit the history-seeking Patriots, looking to become the NFL’s first 19-0 team, against the upstart Giants, who have won three straight road playoff games to get here, the Super Bowl offers an entire week of faith-based activities and other opportunities for players to express their faith.
It kicks off Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix when several Christian golfers, in town for the week’s PGA Tour event at the TPC-Scottsdale, share their faith.
Tuesday is the annual media day when more than 3,000 media from around the world have one hour to talk to all players and coaches on each Super Bowl team.
The annual Super Bowl Gospel Concert, with testimonies from several players, is Friday night at the Phoenix Symphony Center. The annual Athletes in Action Super Bowl breakfast will be Saturday, highlighted by the Bart Starr award being given to a player for advancing Christian morals and values in the league.
North Phoenix Baptist Church will hosting a Day of Champions on Saturday with several NFL players at the Southern Baptist church campus to share the role personal faith plays in their lives.