Belief  /  Antecedent

God and the Gridiron Game

America's obsession with football is nearly as old as the game itself.

Immediately after his last college game in 1925, the Wheaton-born Red Grange, star halfback for the University of Illinois, signed a contract to play professional football. For three years Grange’s dazzling feats had been exalted in the press, so much so that the “Galloping Ghost” practically embodied the cultural myths of amateur college football. By joining the ranks of the paid professionals—and doing it brazenly, without a hint of remorse—Grange posed a direct challenge to the very symbol of the amateur athlete.

Among Protestants, the most extreme responses came from the older generation of muscular Christians who held the amateur ideal sacred. A. J. “Dad” Elliott, a former college football player who worked as a YMCA secretary, believed so strongly in the sanctity of amateur athletics that he declared Grange had committed “no less contemptible [an] act than the act of a boy killing his mother.”

But despite Grange’s best efforts, it would not be until the post–World War II rise of television that the professional game outpaced college football in fan interest. The key point in the hoopla around Grange, then, was not so much how Protestant leaders reacted to the controversy, but rather how Grange laid bare the commercialization that swirled around the sport.

To be sure, college football had long been a commercial enterprise. But its association with higher education and amateur athletics provided an aura of respectability that popular sports like prizefighting and professional baseball did not possess. In the 1920s, however, college football’s commercialization became especially glaring. By deciding to capitalize on his football success, Grange brought into open discussion what historian of football Michael Oriard calls “the contradiction at the heart of big-time college football. … [C]ollege football players were student amateurs, despite their participation in a multimillion-dollar business."

In the years after 1925 this contradiction came under greater scrutiny, culminating with the 1929 publication of the Carnegie Report, a comprehensive investigation of big-time college athletics. The report showed that college football’s claim to be an amateur, educational sport was mostly a farce, as colleges hired and fired coaches based on their winning percentages and had systems in place to recruit and subsidize football players. But although the report sparked a flurry of comment, it had little effect on football’s popularity or on the practices of most major college football programs.

Protestant religion came under intense scrutiny after 1925 as well. The embarrassment of the Scopes Trial, the divisiveness of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, and declining numbers of church members and missionaries caused anxiety among Protestant leaders, who feared they might be losing their privileged place in American society.