by Seth Dowland
Now that sportswriters interested in the intersection of football and faith aren't writing about Tim Tebow every day, other stories are coming to the fore. This week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on a new wrinkle in college football recruiting: coaches going to church with their most prized targets.
In the regions of the country obsessed with college football (mainly the South, but also parts of the midwest and plains states), college football recruiting attracts considerable attention. I can remember seeing local-access shows in Atlanta dedicated to the latest whims of eighteen-year-olds who happened to be elite football players. Social media and the growth of college sports have accelerated the interest in recruiting, creating national websites and television programs dedicated to answering the burning question on minds of fans: which school is he going to choose?
The interest in recruiting is not surprising, as college sports have mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar business and coaches earn salaries that make us lowly professors weep (and occasionally gnash our teeth). Teams can succeed in the most competitive conferences only by attracting the top talent, and the only way (legally) to attract that talent is through recruiting. So coaches go all out to woo their favorite eighteen-year-olds, and fans spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about the thoughts of high schoolers. The whole process is bizarre, frequently slimy, and always controversial. Given the high stakes, it's no surprise that schools and coaches will go to great lengths (legal and illegal) to attract football stars to campus.
But I had never heard of a coach going to church with a recruit before. This story raises a raft of interesting questions. For starters, who is the object of worship in that service--the player, the coach, or God? (Note: congregants in parts of the country may conflate the latter two.) When the coach kneels in prayer, what is he asking for? What is expected of the coach with a $2.9 million annual salary when the offering plate passes by? The story reports that it was the deacons' idea to invite coaches to church -- and an elder suggested that University of Florida coach Will Muschamp might have donated a bit more than a crumpled $5 bill. (A note to churches struggling to make the budget: have the youth minister reach out to local football stars.)
National Signing Day -- when recruits sign "letters of intent" making their commitments official -- is this Wednesday. While those letters will answer questions about where the top recruits will matriculate this fall, plenty of other questions remain open. Who has power here? How fuzzy is the line between sacred and profane--if it even exists?
And, of course, what about next year's stars?