Before the whistle blows for the first time this year and the football goes tumbling through the air, there will be an act dripping with political significance.
It will come even before the singer takes the field and thousands stand with hand over heart, keeping one eye on the flag and one eye on the field, scanning for players who might be kneeling or raising their fist.
And it will probably come during and after, too.
That act is prayer. The participants may not think of it as political; they may be praying only for safety or inner peace or to draw near to their God. But when prayer and football intersect in highly visible ways, those moments—and the conversation around those moments—go beyond personal devotion, revealing and reflecting ongoing battles over the direction of American society and the meaning of American life.
From pre-game invocations to post-game huddles, from touchdown celebrations to protests during the national anthem, prayer pervades football. If we want to understand just how thoroughly politics and football are intertwined, looking at football’s long history with the devotional practice is a good place to start.
We can begin where American football began in the late nineteenth century: the (later-to-be-named) “Ivy League” colleges in the Northeast. At the time, many were suspicious of the new game for its brutality and its tendency to divert attention from education. But some white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants saw the game as a godsend. For them, football provided a way to develop the physical and moral characteristics needed to maintain their authority at home in an age of immigration and extend it abroad in an age of American imperialism. By practicing and publicizing football-related prayer, they provided the game with moral gravitas fit for future leaders.
That ethos was on full display in 1893, when journalist Richard Harding Davis published an account of the Yale/Princeton Thanksgiving Day game in Harper’s Weekly. He concluded his essay with a glimpse of the victorious Princeton locker room. “Standing as they were, naked and covered with mud and blood and perspiration,” Davis wrote, “the eleven men who had won the championship sang the doxology from the beginning to the end,” a symbol of “how great and how serious is the joy of victory to the men who conquer.”
By the early 1900s, the image of the playing and praying “men who conquer” became so entrenched that it was given a statue. Sculpted by Daniel Chester French, “The Christian Student” was placed on Princeton’s campus in 1913. It depicted Earl Dodge, a football captain from the class of 1879, wearing his football uniform with an academic gown over his shoulder and books in his left hand—an elite white Protestant male with the physical, moral, and intellectual qualities to conquer and lead subject people at home and abroad.
The statue did not stand for long. Disillusioned by World War I and enthralled with consumer culture, in the 1920s students at prestigious northeastern schools adopted more cynical attitudes towards faith. The fate of “The Christian Student” served as a metaphor for the fate of praying football players in this new atmosphere: It was repeatedly defaced by drunk Princeton students, until finally at the end of the decade it was sent to storage for safekeeping.
But just as the public blending of football and prayer was cast off in the Ivy League, it was championed by less prestigious colleges. These underdogs saw prayer as a way to cultivate community pride and stake a claim for importance in mainstream American life.
No team represented this shift better than the “Praying Colonels” of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. The team began receiving widespread attention for its habit of pre-game prayer in 1919. Two years later the attention intensified when the Praying Colonels went north and shocked heavily favored Harvard, 6-0, marking the arrival of white southern football on the national stage. For white observers north and south, the team’s prayer served as a sign of its Southernness—a throwback to the simple days of the romanticized and mythologized Old South.
Along with the white South, prayer in the 1920s also became associated with Notre Dame, the most dominant team of the decade. Before games, Notre Dame players received communion and a saint medal that had been blessed by the campus chaplain, Father John O’Hara. These religious rituals were publicized, ensuring that Catholics and non-Catholics alike would see, as O’Hara put it in 1929, that “Notre Dame football is a spiritual service.”
In the context of the anti-Catholic nativism of the 1920s, Notre Dame’s blending of prayer and football took on a political edge. It was a way to assert Catholic confidence in the midst of Protestant hostility, a means of claiming a place in a country that had long been dominated by Protestant leadership. “Notre Dame football is a new crusade,” O’Hara declared in 1924. “It kills prejudice and it stimulates faith.”
The rise of southern teams and Notre Dame to football prestige in the 1920s shifted the primary image of football-related prayer away from Ivy League elites and towards teams filled with rural, immigrant, and working-class players. Yet, whiteness remained constant. Notre Dame, like its southern counterparts, had no black players or students at the time.
After World War II, prayer in football went national, stretching from coast to coast. This was the era in which “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” placed on dollar bills. Faith in God was promoted as an antidote to atheistic communism, while faith in football was promoted as a way to develop men who could lead America in its worldwide battle for freedom.
In Pop Warner youth football leagues, “huddle prayers” became a league-wide pre-game requirement. Colleges and high schools increasingly opened their games with prayers recited over the public address system—the University of Oklahoma, for example, began the practice in 1950. And in the professional ranks, grown men began to pray in more public ways as well.
The National Football League (NFL), founded in 1920, had lacked the middle- and upper-class respectability of college football for its first three decades. In the 1950s, however, as professional football moved closer to the American mainstream, praying pros gained greater attention and political significance. Dan Towler, a black running back for the Los Angeles Rams, earned publicity in 1950 for leading his team in a pre-game prayer. He later re-enacted the scene in a Hollywood football movie.
That Towler received widespread attention for leading white teammates in prayer reflected a Cold War-era desire to promote racial harmony, at least in theory. White Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham echoed this desire when he spoke about the importance of prayer on his integrated team. In a 1954 interview, Graham declared that “color, religion, or background” didn’t matter in football. He said the Browns’ ritual of repeating the Lord’s Prayer before each game provided a spirit of unity.
But by the 1960s, the supposed consensus of the 1950s disintegrated when confronted with the hard reality of American inequality and division. Gestures and symbols of inclusion, it turned out, did not change the situation on the ground. Still, prayer in football did not go away. Instead, it became ever more conspicuous as a new group emerged as the standard-bearer of gridiron piety: evangelicals. While evangelicals were certainly interested in using prayer to support religious nationalism, they added a new twist, turning football prayers into advertisements for the born-again brand of faith.
Don Shinnick, an outspoken evangelical and a star linebacker for the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s, illustrates this shift. When he arrived in Baltimore, Shinnick wasn’t satisfied with the pre-game prayers already in place. So he created a new routine. First, he encouraged teammates to pray on their own. Then, he led the team with a personalized prayer, “one I thought glorified the Lord.” After that, Shinnick concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. “Everybody likes the Lord’s Prayer,” he explained to a Tampa reporter in 1964. “You know, convicts, everybody.” But for Shinnick and other evangelicals, it was the middle prayer—the personalized and supposedly more sincere prayer—that “glorified the Lord.”
Shinnick’s style of prayer was soon institutionalized in professional football with the help of Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO), an evangelical sports ministry. PAO leaders facilitated a system of voluntary pre-game chapels, usually featuring a guest speaker who offered a short message and prayer. By 1976, every NFL team offered these chapels. Meanwhile, in the college ranks, another evangelical sports ministry—the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—held sway. So successful were evangelicals at taking control of the public image of prayer in football that even Catholic players often filtered their public piety through evangelical media.
The new evangelical sports ministries that organized and promoted prayer in football were friendly with Silent Majority politics. Sports ministry leaders supported Republican politicians, including Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and they used their publications to portray praying football players as antidotes to the youth rebellion of the 1960s. In contrast to Joe Namath, who garnered widespread attention for flaunting his sexual prowess, outspoken Christian players Norm Evans, Fran Tarkenton, and Roger Staubach were depicted as defenders of traditional values in a society gone mad.
But defending traditional cultural values did not keep Christian athletes from playing offense. Football’s ever-growing popularity on television made players aware of the eyes watching their every move; they sought new ways to bring attention to their faith. In 1977, Herb Lusk, a little-used running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, brought prayer to the in-game action when he kneeled in prayer following a touchdown. In 1990, players from the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers—drawing on experiences from college—created the NFL’s mixed-squad post-game prayer circle, a tradition that has continued ever since. And along with these new rituals, countless players continued to pray in the locker room or on the field before games and numerous college and high school teams offered pre-game invocations for fans.
There were off-the-field forms of offense, too. After the 1980s and the rise of the Christian Right, the players and coaches who were most conspicuous in their public displays of prayer were also the most conspicuous in their willingness to champion the “family values” of conservative politics. From sexual abstinence (Darrell Green) to anti-pornography (Anthony Muñoz) to anti-abortion (Kurt Warner) to anti-homosexuality (Reggie White), socially conservative issues aligned with the Republican Party seemed to have a monopoly on the praying football player market.
This development was dramatized most intensely in 2011 when Tim Tebow became a point of national debate. His act of “Tebowing”—kneeling in prayer to celebrate a play—served as the symbol around which the debate swirled. Conservatives rallied to Tebow’s defense, viewing him as they liked to view themselves, as one persecuted in secular American society for daring to express his faith. Liberals, meanwhile, saw in Tebow a sign of the overzealous and unwelcome intrusion of evangelical proselytizing into the shared spaces of American life.
But even if the Great Tebow Debate seemed to indicate that the political meaning of prayer and football had become polarized, we should remember the lesson of “The Christian Student.” Statues do not stand forever. As American culture changes and the political sensibilities of those within organized football shift, so can the meaning of football and prayer.
For those paying attention, the past two years have brought one such moment of change—or, at the very least, a chipping away of the statue. Colin Kaepernick, the leader of the movement to use the national anthem as a moment to protest racism, settled on the kneeling gesture precisely because of its connection with the respect and solemnity of prayer. Some players went beyond symbolism, explicitly declaring that they were kneeling in prayer during the anthem, while others, including Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins, directly linked their protests with their religious faith.
The new association between football, prayer, and black activism challenges the conservative/liberal binaries of the culture wars. Liberals who were outraged by Tim Tebow’s prayers have no problem with the act now that it is associated with a cause they support. As for conservatives, a Fox News broadcast in June illustrated their bewildered response. The broadcast came after President Trump called off a White House celebration for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. In a news segment discussing the disinvitation and attributing it to “the national anthem controversy,” Fox News showed photographs of Eagles players kneeling. There was just one problem: No Eagles players had kneeled during the national anthem. The images flashing across the screen were of Eagles players kneeling in prayer on the field.
Although Fox later issued an apology, the irony was striking: The preferred media outlet of conservatives—the group most likely to champion prayer in football—had used images of prayer to provoke a negative reaction from its viewers.
Of course, the recent connection of prayer in football with anti-racist activism does not hold a monopoly on its meaning. The act is still associated with conservative politics, too. Yet, the way prayer has infused the activism of black football players offers a reminder that the public meaning of prayer in football is not static. In the late nineteenth century, it may have been used to buttress the authority of white Protestant men, but those origins do not preclude today’s black players from using prayer to challenge racism. Nor do they preclude new meanings and purposes from emerging tomorrow.
In the meantime, as long as millions of Americans remain invested in the sport, we can be sure that public displays of prayer will be more than mere acts of personal devotion. In football, prayer is—and has always been—political.
Paul Emory Putz is a lecturer in history at Messiah College. He is working on a book manuscript about the blending of sports and Christianity in the United States.