WASHINGTON (BP)–Churches can resume hosting Super Bowl parties without opposition from the National Football League, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has informed Sen. Orin Hatch, R.-Utah.
“For future Super Bowls,” Goodell said in a Feb. 19 letter to Hatch, “the League will not object to live showings –- regardless of screen size -– of the Super Bowl by a religious organization on a routine and customary basis.”
Goodell’s reversal settles an issue reported by Baptist Press on Feb. 1, 2007, when the NFL informed a Southern Baptist church in Indianapolis it would run afoul of federal copyright law by showing the Super Bowl on a screen wider than 55 inches. The church, Fall Creek Baptist, cancelled its Super Bowl party. Baptist Press along with The Washington Post also reported on the issue prior to this year’s Super Bowl.
According to a Feb. 20 news release from Hatch’s office after Goodell’s reversal, “In essence, this provides churches the same right as sports bars.”
Another senator, Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., had drafted legislation to permit churches to show NFL games on big-screen TVs, the Washington Post reported Feb. 21.
Goodell, in his letter to Hatch, stated, “The League does not believe that legislation is necessary for this purpose and will implement this policy unilaterally beginning with our next Super Bowl on February 1, 2009.”
Hatch, in a Feb. 13 letter to Goodell, raised 20 questions about the NFL stance against big-screen Super Bowl parties at churches.
“Are churches the only non-profit organizations the League has contacted for copyright infringement?” Hatch asked in one question. “For example, has the League contacted hospitals or other non-profit organizations, advising them against televising League games?”
Goodell acknowledged sending two “cease-and-desist” letters to religious organizations prior to the 2007 Super Bowl, but he did not specify the recipients. No such letters were sent out prior to the 2008 Super Bowl, Goodell said.
Goodell acknowledged that the NFL did not target churches’ big-screen parties for previous Super Bowls.
League policy, according to Goodell’s letter, continues to stipulate that “there must be no charge for the gathering.”
Fall Creek senior pastor John Newland, in an e-mail to the NFL after its cease-and-desist notification last year, wrote:
“The churches of this great country are often the very people reaching out to help those whose lives are ruined by alcohol and yet, we are told that we cannot host an alcohol-free party to watch the Super Bowl, while bars across America are free to do so, using the exact same technology we had planned to use and more.”
Newland also pointed out that bars, unlike churches, stand to gain financially from the sale of alcohol and food.
“[W]e only seek to provide a family oriented atmosphere for people of all ages to come and enjoy the game, without the distractions of alcohol and other things that are inappropriate for young children.”
Alliance Defense Fund attorney Mike Johnson told Baptist Press the NFL stance was discriminatory. “The idea that they would allow exceptions for bars and restaurants but not for churches and other family friendly venues is just outrageous,” Johnson said.
The NFL first sent a letter dated Jan. 25, 2007, via overnight mail to Fall Creek Baptist Church, declaring that the congregation’s use of the Super Bowl name and its plan to charge admission for showing the game “on a big screen” violated the NFL’s copyright. Newland responded to the NFL by stating that the church would drop the admission -– which was to help pay for food -– and would not use the Super Bowl name. The NFL then replied that the church still would be in violation of copyright law because it was using the large screen.
An NFL attorney, Rachel Margolies, also complained to the Indianapolis church of its plan to show a video highlighting the Christian testimonies of the two head coaches in the 2007 Super Bowl, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and 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 using the event to promote your church and its values,” Margolies wrote. “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, the NFL does sanction two Christian-themed events in conjunction with each year’s Super Bowl –- the Friday night Super Bowl Gospel Celebration and the Saturday morning Super Bowl Breakfast sponsored by Athletes in Action, a Campus Crusade for Christ ministry.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press, with reporting by assistant editor Michael Foust.