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Somehow, I Don't Think Jesus Is A Fan

I sometimes worry about Jesus at Christmastime.

On the one hand, he gets a worldwide birthday party celebrated by 2 billion Christians, trees, Macy's windows, concerts, communal singing, gift giving, feasts, family gatherings and uplifting worship. But he also has to endure the annual onslaught of cynical commercialism, treacly TV specials, sappy philanthropic appeals, the Salvation Army and the appalling SantaCon.

On balance, though, it seems to me that the Christian Jesus generally prevails: the Jesus whose vulnerable divinity tugs at our collective spiritual heartstrings, and stirs our desires for peace on earth and joy throughout the world.

This may sound odd coming from a Jew, especially one who hated being forced to sing Christmas carols in each of the half-dozen public schools I attended as a child. But I married a minister, wrote a biography of another one and raised my kids Jewish and Christian — I gave up my resentment of the majority religious culture long ago.

I've got a soft spot for Jesus, not because he was a Jewish boy doted on by his mother who went into his father's business, as the old joke has it, but because of what he means to so many people I admire, now and in the past.

That's why I think all of us — Jews, Christians, Muslims, adherents of other faiths and non-believers alike — need to stand up for Jesus at the University of Connecticut, and suggest that the one place he does not belong is in the center of the football huddle, being invoked as the reason for victory.

This all came up because Ernest Jones, the UConn football coach in charge of player engagement, said in a recent interview that he would make sure players know that "Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle." West Hartford resident Rena Epstein, in a letter to The Courant, objected to a university staffer advocating a particular religious belief, a position quickly echoed by the university president, Susan Herbst, who said people of all faiths and views are welcome at UConn.

The problem with Jesus in that huddle is not that non-Christian players might not feel welcome there, as Ms. Epstein wrote. Given who Jesus welcomed throughout his life, my hunch is that everyone would feel welcome there.

The problem is the huddle. There's not much evidence in the Gospel that Jesus would choose to throw in with what Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs called "100 ultra-competitive, high-testosterone young men in a compressed setting … [with] an undeniably violent and militaristic bent."

What on earth would the Prince of Peace be doing in such a setting? Jumping up and down, revving up emotions, leading players in chants of "Number One" and "Team?" Laying hands on the recently injured so they could rejoin their fellows on the field?

No, of course not. Just to say these things out loud is to see the absurdity of bringing Christianity and football together, right?

Theologically, perhaps. Historically, not so much. College football's promoters and defenders, from the 1880s through most of the last century, have sold college football as an expression of Muscular Christianity and patriotic, masculine, martial virtue. But from its earliest seasons, college football has been — and remains — violent, dangerous and thoroughly corrupt, whether at Catholic Notre Dame, the formerly Protestant (and now mostly nonsectarian) service academies and in the Ivy League.

College football killed 18 players in 1905, when there were just 83 football teams nationwide — leading many to call for its abolition. But the game was becoming entrenched, and alumni, newly empowered in universities through their control of athletic revenue, fought back. None other than Fan-in-Chief President Theodore Roosevelt called football officials to the White House to "reform" the game by reducing fatalities — while continuing its brutality. Guess who won that debate.

Even Yale's great teams of the late 19th century, coached or overseen by the sainted Walter Camp, routinely made use of ringers hired for key games, and its celebrated tackle James Hogan (1901-1904), benefited from the score card concession and the exclusive cigarette franchise for "his" brand at Mory's — known popularly on campus as "Hogans."

The unholy marriage of Christianity, militarism and football may have reached one of its peaks in May 1970 (weeks after the Cambodia invasion and Kent State killings) when the Billy Graham crusade came to Knoxville, Tenn., and invited President Richard Nixon to appear at the University of Tennessee's historic Neyland Stadium. According to Robert Higgs' "God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America," the Fellowship of Christian Athletes joined the Secret Service in "protecting" Nixon from protesters.

But just for fun, what do you think would happen if Jesus did manage to make his way into the UConn football huddle?

Remember the money-changers in the temple? I think he'd figure out a way to convince those young men that their precious bodies, minds and spirits deserve far better than what the gridiron is giving them. God help college football then!

So maybe, after all, coach Jones had it right. And after Jesus has done his work at UConn, I hear there's a big game in a couple of weeks at the Meadowlands.

Warren Goldstein is chairman of the History Department at the University of Hartford. His most recent book is the second edition of "A Brief History of American Sports" (written with Elliott Gorn).

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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