A (Cautionary) Lion’s Tale

It might seem a distant memory. But just two years ago, the Detroit Lions were a streaking team and a big story. In the fall of 2007, the Lions, who had been one of pro football’s most forlorn franchises, won six of their first eight games and created a surge of media interest around the country.

As much of the coverage stressed, the Lions were not only hot on the field, but on fire for the Lord. From secular outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, to religious media including the Christian Broadcasting Network, the resurgent Lions were portrayed as the sports version of a faith-based organization.

kitnaexultsThere was the evangelizing quarterback and team leader Jon Kitna, who claimed a miracle following his return from a concussion in the Week Two win over the Vikings, and who preached salvation as frequently and naturally as breathing. There were reports of rampant conversions, burgeoning participation in Bible studies, and rock-solid team unity built on a foundation of Christian faith.

And there was the message from faith promoters–sometimes implicit, sometimes stated more boldly–that the Lions’ competitive resurgence was fueled by their devotion to Jesus. Here, we were told, was compelling evidence for the wonder-working powers of Christian faith. As sports journalist Jemele Hill wrote at the time, “It’s hard not to note the
impact spirituality has had on the team’s incredible resurgence.”

You know what happened next: The Lions lost seven of their eight games over the second half of that once-promising 2007 season, and that was just a grim prelude to the winless 2008 campaign and the 1-5 record compiled through the first seven weeks of this season. And therein lies a cautionary tale for the promoters and admirers of the Christian religiosity that has become such a conspicuous part of big-time sports in this generation:

Pinning the validity of faith to sports success can appear mighty tempting, but when God’s team or player falls–as will inevitably happen–someone’s going to end up with egg on his (or His) face.

As the followers of our big-time spectator sports know, expressions of Christian faith are commonplace in today’s game, and they’re invariably attached to moments of victory. This is partly due to the fact that it’s the winning player who gets the camera, microphone, and live-TV audience. But it goes deeper than that. Since the formation of the
Christianity-in-sports movement several decades ago, sports ministry organizations have been hard at work to leverage the popularity of big-time spectator sports to reach the public with their evangelistic message. And in doing so, groups like Athletes in Action have consciously attempted to meet Americans on their turf–their love of
sports, and their love of competitive success. As an AIA staff member once observed, “It’s important to win, not because God wants winners, but because Americans do.”

Cynics, of course, had a field day with the religion that the Lions were wearing on their sleeve back in 2007, especially when they collapsed and Kitna began piling up the sacks, interceptions, and incomplete passes. Where was their religion now? The snarky “Deadspin” sports website put it this way in one hilarious headline: “Jon Kitna was sacked for your sins!”

Not that the headline writer intended it, but there was a measure of insight and wisdom in the joke. Christianity has long taught the redemptive power of suffering and has always offered hope and consolation to followers who were taking their shots in the here and now.

As it turns out, those close to the Lions that season will tell you that Kitna and his Christian teammates remained committed to their faith and one another, even as mounting losses disproved the notion that the team that prays the best plays the best. Kitna would later testify before a local church congregation that the riches-to-rags season deepened his understanding of what it means to be a Christian. In a sense, he and his faithful teammates found Jesus– in the loss column.

But by then, the religion promoters had moved on, in search of the next hot team with a cadre of Christians. Typical of the tendency was the Christian Broadcasting Network, which had made much of Kitna and the Lions when they were winning. As it happened, the playoffs found the Green Bay Packers just one win away from the Super Bowl, and like
virtually every team in pro football, the Packers had their share of pious players. One could see the CBN headline coming from a mile away: “Super Faith Taking Packers to Super Bowl?”

The Packers, alas, lost the game.

Any embarrassment in such situations obviously belongs not to God, who is quite above that human frailty according to religious teaching, but to those who would hold up something as fleeting as sports success as evidence for Christianity’s validity. Faith has much to recommend it. But as the Lions’ story attests, a team’s win total is no place to rest your case for religion.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is the author of “Onward Christian Athletes” on religion in pro sports.