NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In an e-mail to Baptist Press Feb. 4, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello emphasized that the NFL had not altered its policy about mass out-of-home viewing of the league’s championship game.
“Nothing has changed. We have no issue with churches holding Super Bowl parties under our longstanding guidelines that hundreds of churches adhere to every year,” Aiello wrote hours before the game. He was responding to a question about a report on WorldNetDaily.com that the NFL apparently had eased curbs on churches planning festivities related to the championship.
Unknown is the impact the restrictions had on churches on game day nor what the eventual fallout will be for the NFL and its advertisers because of the NFL’s inflexibility toward churches and favoritism toward sports bars.
According to an e-mail NFL attorney Rachel Margolies sent to Indianapolis’ Fall Creek Baptist Church Jan. 31, the NFL restricts showing of the game only on televisions not larger than 55 inches and allows only one television per audience. Also prohibited, according to her e-mail, are “events that promote a message” in connection to the game, as well as entrance fees. The TV curbs essentially rule out church-wide events except for the smallest of congregations.
The NFL exempts some drinking establishments, except for the prohibition against charging for admission, waiving the restrictions for sports bars because their “normal, everyday business operations … are to show televised sports events. They do not bring in televisions to create a special event around our games,” Aiello wrote Feb 2. “That is the difference.”
The confusion about whether the NFL is sticking by its “message” rule or by its strict 55-inch policy arose from a WorldNetDaily story that ran two days before the Super Bowl based on an e-mail from an NFL spokesman. The e-mail said, “The National Football League has absolutely no objection to churches and others hosting Super Bowl viewing parties as long as they do not charge admission and show the game on a television of the type commonly used at home.” The supposed prohibition on promoting a message and the 55-inch restriction weren’t mentioned.
There is no reliable way to gage how many churches were affected, because there is no database about churches that hold Super Bowl parties. Moreover, there is no way to know how many of these churches knew about the NFL’s rules nor which, if any, knew of the rules and held the events anyway or chose to cancel their planned gatherings.
Fall Creek, a Southern Baptist congregation, was ordered by the NFL to change its plans or cancel the event.
According to Aiello, the NFL objected to the church’s “charging admission, using large, theatre-style screens, and advertising it,” calling the violations a “misappropriation of our event.”
The church planned to project the game onto a 12-foot screen and announced the event on its website, viewed mainly by members, asking for a fee, explained by Fall Creek’s pastor John Newland as an offset for the costs of snacks. SBC records show Fall Creek has about 400 members.
In materials obtained Feb. 1 by Baptist Press, the NFL notified the church that the use of the “Super Bowl” name and its plan on charging admission to show the game “on a big screen” violated the NFL’s copyrights. Newland responded to the NFL by saying the church would drop the admission charge and would not use the “Super Bowl” name. The NFL replied that the church still would be in violation of copyright law because it was using the large screen.
The league also said the church — if it held a Super Bowl party conforming with the law — would not be able to promote the church or Christianity. The church had planned on showing a video highlighting the Christian testimonies of Indianapolis Colts head coach Dungy and his counterpart, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears.
“[Y]ou admit … that part of the benefit of using our broadcast to host such an event is that it may allow you to bring your message of Christian values to non-Congregants; i.e., you will be using the event to promote your church and its values,” NFL attorney Rachel Margolies wrote Newland. “While this may be a noble message, we are consistent in refusing the use of our game broadcasts in connection with events that promote a message, no matter the content.”
However, official events leading up to the game included the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration and the Super Bowl Breakfast sponsored by Athletes in Action, a Campus Crusade for Christ ministry. Both events were singularly focused in message, featuring Christian testimonies from players and coaches, active and retired.
Also, Christians like Dungy and Smith have been unashamed to share about their faith at Super Bowl media events.
In a note on the church website, Newland wrote to the “Fall Creek Baptist Church Family” his regret at having to cancel the intended “family friendly” event due to the NFL’s enforcement of the Copyright Act, noting that “the only [mass out-of-home] exceptions to view the game are given to sports bars and restaurants.”
“While we have argued that we only intend to provide a family oriented environment that will make no profit from the showing, the NFL claims that we cannot proceed by law,” he wrote.
Newland said the church chose to call off the gathering rather than challenge the issue in court.
Mike Johnson, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, told Baptist Press Feb. 1 a lawsuit against the NFL was possible, if a church is willing to take on the league. Another religious liberty legal organization, the Rutherford Institute, also sent out a press release saying it would be willing to defend churches. Both legal entities contend the league’s policy prohibiting promotion of the Christian message at large gatherings is blatantly unconstitutional.
The public relations impact on the NFL and its sponsors remains to be seen. At risk is the public’s goodwill and actual dollars for the league and its advertisers.
At least one newspaper is reporting somewhat of a backlash against the NFL.
The Indianapolis Star broke the story about Fall Creek Baptist Church and subsequently reported it had received an overwhelming negative public response to the league’s handling of the situation.
The backlash may not stop there.
Estimates of 90 million viewers allowed CBS to charge up to $2.6 million for a 30-second spot to such companies as Coca-Cola, Doritos and Chevrolet. Researchers estimate that 25 to 30 percent of Americans are evangelicals, meaning that the NFL risks alienating a significant segment of the population if the outcry continues or if it possibly swells following the game.
Baptist Press was unable Feb 4 to reach representatives of advertisers for the championship. In the recent past, family advocacy groups have urged consumer activism to pressure such corporate giants as Ford, Wal-Mart, Proctor and Gamble and Disney, each for various offenses and with varying results.
Adding to the dynamics, Baptist Press learned that members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reportedly met with NFL lobbyists about the matter on Feb. 2, and other government involvement might be forthcoming.
Newland said his preference would not be a lawsuit.
“From everyone I’ve talked to, [the NFL] can say exactly what they’ve said to us,” Newland told Baptist Press Feb. 1. “Really and truly, if we’re going to be law-abiding citizens — and the Scripture teaches us that we need to obey the laws of the land — then we have no choice but to comply. If this was a matter of civil disobedience, where they were challenging us to not obey God, then that’s a whole different matter. But this doesn’t even come close to that.”
Instead, Newland said they would work with government officials to obtain relief.
“[W]e are going to try to get our legislators to get the law changed.”
Michael Foust contributed to this report.