Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.
“Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith,” he says. “That’s my whole thing: Faith isn’t enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”
He has tossed out sly hints in the past, just enough to give himself wink-and-a-nod deniability, but he recently decided to become a public face of the nonreligious. Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports. The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster’s willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement…
Religion may be football’s sole concession to humility, perhaps the only gesture that suggests the game itself is not its own denomination. Nowhere is the looming proximity of Christianity more pronounced than in the SEC, where, in the time of Tim Tebow, a man named Chad Gibbs was inspired to write a book — God and Football — telling of his travels to every SEC school to decipher how like-minded Christians navigate the cliff walk between rooting for Florida and maintaining their devotion to Christ. These religious currents aren’t confined to football, of course: Big league baseball teams routinely hold “faith and family” days; players appear at postgame celebrations to give their testimonials, and Christian rock bands perform well into the night. In football, though, public displays of faith can be viewed as a necessary accessory for such a dangerous and violent sport.
I’m more interested in why football might identify more with religion than other sports. (And I’m a bit skeptical of whether this is true.) Is it:
1. The physical nature of the game? Perhaps it reminds the athletes more of their own mortality. Plus, careers are short due to the physical demands. Perhaps playing football reinforces religiosity.
2. The connection between football and certain areas of the country? This article cites the Bible Belt and SEC schools. So this connection between football and religion could really be a relationship between football and the South? This could be an example of a spurious correlation.
3. The people who play football are more religious and/or come from more religious families? In this explanation, the religiosity comes before football rather than because of football (different causal order).
4. Football players have been more publicly vocal about their faith compared to athletes in other sports?
5. A historical connection between churches and/or religious schools and football?
Could be some interesting stuff to look into…