By Tom Krattenmaker
Judging from much-hyped story lines around this just-concluded Super Bowl, “Super Sunday” seems to have morphed into “Redemption Sunday.”
Ben Roethlisberger’s return to the pinnacle after the much-publicized sexual assault allegations and resulting suspension. Michael Vick’s just-announced Comeback Player of the Year Award following his incarceration for dog-fighting crimes. The NFL enjoying its highest-ever TV ratings this season despite rising labor strife and bad PR about violence and head injuries. Pro football and some of its most iconic villains appear to be in the good graces of the football-adoring public like never before.
“Roethlisberger Playing for Redemption,” reads one typical headline. “Endorsement Deal a Big Step in Vick’s Redemption,” reads another. So far has Vick’s image rehab advanced that he is one of two pro players featured in a faith-and-football DVD meant for playing at Super Bowl evangelism parties.
Not to begrudge the success of Roethlisberger, Vick and the league in which they play, but all this fast-and-loose talk about “redemption” ought to be tempered with a little clarity lest we completely trivialize a concept with deep religious and philosophical meaning. To return to popularity — to succeed on the football field while keeping out of trouble for a brief period of time — is one thing. Whether these two players and their sport are “redeemed” in the deeper sense is another matter, one that remains very much unresolved.
Consider Big Ben’s rise, fall and rise. Less than a year ago, as he faced the second set of allegations around his abuse of alcohol and women, I was one of the critics pointing out the serious dissonance between that image of Ben and the “playing for Jesus” Christian image he had cultivated since his entry into the league. Following his return from suspension five games into this season, the on-field Roethlisberger has been the one we’re accustomed to seeing: a solid, winning quarterback with a penchant for late-game heroics and exuberant religious expression. And yes, I am happy to report, there have been no more allegations of sexual assault.
Ben was back in the Super Bowl this year — a major accomplishment even though his Steelers lost to Green Bay — but to speak and act as though that represents “redemption” is to completely miss the point. Roethlisberger was not in need of a football redemption. It’s not as though he had fallen into the “sin” of low pass-completion percentages, high numbers of fumbles and interceptions, and last place in the standings. What he needed was character redemption — a saving from the sin of immoral if not criminal behavior off the field. Whether he enjoys that redemption is known only by Big Ben and his maker.
As for the image rehab of that other Jesus-professing quarterback, Michael Vick, there is much to admire and celebrate. Could anyone have predicted two years ago, when he was released from Leavenworth, that his football and popularity comeback would advance this far, this fast?
The apotheosis, for me, has to be Vick’s selection as one of two Christian-athlete poster men to be featured in the “Power to Win” halftime evangelism kit, along the Cowboys’ Jon Kitna. “Power to Win” is promoted as an “unparalleled ministry tool” by the Christian magazine Sports Spectrum, revolving around a DVD meant for playing at halftime of football-loving evangelists’ Super Bowl parties. (I’ve often joked that I hope these hosts are playing back the game on a DVR so that they can fast- forward through those irreligious commercials glorifying sex, drinking and crass materialism. And thank God they had a built-in excuse to skip the Black Eyed Peas halftime performance.)
A trailer for the DVD shows Vick talking about the rehabilitation of his relationship with God, with a graphic flashing, “Redemption, perseverance, and faith.” Given the severe penalty Vick has paid — prison as opposed to a few games’ suspension — and given the serious contrition he has expressed about his crimes against animals, Vick’s redemption seems to have real depth. Cheers for Michael Vick, I say.
Then there is the league itself. During the 2009 season, amid the proliferation of evidence of the toll football takes on men’s bodies and brains, I questioned my own fandom and wondered if the game would start taking a popularity hit. The hand-wringing returned in force after a particularly gruesome Sunday this past October, when the head shots, concussions and fines were flying and longtime NFL analyst Peter King remarked that it was the most violent day he had ever seen in the league.
If you were worrying that pro football would pay a price for its more-conspicuous-than-ever violence, you needn’t have. The league released stats last month showing that this was the most-watched NFL season ever in terms of TV audience. I suspect it will take a lot more than players’ poor cognitive health to erode football’s massive popularity.
But let’s not mistake popular with good — good in the moral sense. The NFL’s TV ratings do not redeem the violence and concussions, just as Big Ben’s Super Bowl success and Mike Vick’s comeback award are not the measure of their moral or religious redemption.
As Mike Wise writes in a perceptive column in Saturday’s Washington Post, winning can serve as a highly effective deodorant for players whose images have been marred by misdeeds off the field. For all its wondrous ability to mask a nasty smell, though, deodorant does nothing to improve the substance of anything. And it is the substance of their character that is ultimately the issue when we consider the “redemption” of these football heroes, and their sport, at the level that really counts.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and the author of the award-winning book ‘Onward Christian Athletes’ on Christianity in pro sports.