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Of faith and football

Published February 4, 2010 12:56 am

Anti-abortion ad to air during Super Bowl triggers debate over religion in sports.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Public displays of faith -- a player pointing skyward after a touchdown or crediting God for his performance during a post-game interview -- may not be as likely in Super Bowl XLIV as in some past contests.

Neither the New Orleans Saints nor the Indianapolis Colts feature high-profile players who are particularly showy about their faith.

But an anti-abortion ad featuring Florida football star Tim Tebow that is to run during the game dramatically raises the visibility of a decades-long mission by evangelical Christians to change culture through big-time sports, says author Tom Krattenmaker.

His book, Onward Christian Athletes , was published in the fall. The Portland, Ore.-based writer often explores the intersection of faith and sports in columns he writes for USA Today .

Onward Christian Athletes chronicles the penetration, beginning with the creation of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the 1950s, of an evangelical brand of Christianity that sees sports as a way to market Jesus Christ.

Krattenmaker says he should have seen such an ad coming: that a conservative Christian group such as Focus on the Family would buy a spot during the biggest of all sporting events.

"This is a very big and visible upping of the ante," Krattenmaker says. "It's a remarkable and first-of-its-kind moment in the Super Bowl."

Focus on the Family, which did not allow previews of the ad, said only that Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam Tebow, tell their story of how she ignored doctors' advice to abort her fifth child.

The family was doing missionary work in the Philippines at the time and she contracted an illness that endangered her life.

Doctors expected her son to be stillborn after her treatment, but she refused to abort him. He grew up to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy, helping his Florida team -- and former University of Utah coach Urban Meyer -- win two BCS championships.

Known for the scriptural citations he paints in the eye black he wears during games and for his plan to remain a virgin until marriage, Tebow, hoping to play in the National Football League, visits prisons and created a foundation that will be a conduit for future inspirational speaking and mission work.

CBS rejected calls from the National Organization for Women and the Center for Reproductive Rights to reject the ad. NOW's president told The Associated Press the ad is "extraordinarily offensive and demeaning" for holding out one way as superior to another. The group also warned the ad could hurt women by encouraging ideology over medicine.

A Focus on the Family spokesman said the ad was apolitical and should not have triggered controversy. It reportedly did not use the word "abortion," and its theme was "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life." Thirty-second Super Bowl ads cost between $2.5 million and $2.8 million.

Krattenmaker scoffs at the suggestion the ad is not political.

"Even if Tim and Pam Tebow do not intend to make a political statement," Krattenmaker says, "there's no avoiding the inherently political nature of this message."

But he also criticizes the "cynical assertion" of a women's rights groups that Pam Tebow is lying about her experience.

Feminist attorney Gloria Allred and The Center for Reproductive Rights expressed disbelief that Pam Tebow's doctors in the Philippines would have suggested abortion in 1987, when the procedure was illegal in that highly Catholic country.

Pam Tebow has not said whether it was Philippine doctors who recommended the abortion, nor where they suggested she secure the procedure.

Krattenmaker says the controversy is focusing more attention than ever on the involvement of evangelical Christianity -- and its typically conservative politics -- in sports.

He hopes it will not result in the "usual polemics and over-the-top flame war."

"Let's use this moment as a starting point," Krattenmaker says, "for a thoughtful and empathetic conversation about evangelicalism in sports."

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Book explores Christianity in sports

Tom Krattenmaker's 2009 book, Onward Christian Athletes (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), digs into the history and growing presence of evangelical Christianity in sports.

He writes that what may appear to be spontaneous expressions of faith by athletes and coaches often are marketing messages orchestrated by faith coaches who are given unfettered access inside many pro teams.

While noting the good influence for individual athletes seeking to live better lives, Krattenmaker explores the flip side of the pervasive evangelicalism: sports that formerly unified communities now are a source of division; Christian athletes and coaches often seem stuck on shallow God-talk that is all about victory but rarely defeat; and, too often, Christian athletes and coaches fail to speak out about sports' seamier aspects such as greed, racism, overindulgence in alcohol and sexual exploitation of women.

Krattenmaker concludes his book with a call for evangelicals in sports to play a more "prophetic" role, living up to the Christianity they proclaim. He also notes that a number of sports ministers are pushing for a change in the overt marketing that, in the end, has not really evangelized America.

Kristen Moulton

About the ad for Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family, which has not allowed previews of the ad, said only that Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam Tewbow, tell their story of how she ignored doctors' advice to abort her fifth child.