Christians often talk about work as a “platform” for evangelism. Tonight’s NCAA national championship game reminds us of the pitfalls of platforms.
If you catch tonight’s game between Clemson and Alabama, you’ll notice both teams huddle before a play. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio says the huddle is one of the facets of football that explains America. It also tells us something about American Christianity.
There was no huddle in college football before 1894. Teams like Harvard and Michigan had the quarterback or halfback bark out the plays at the line of scrimmage. Nothing was hidden from the defense. Gallaudet University, a Washington DC college for the deaf, imitated these schools. But they used hand signals—American Sign Language—to call a play. This gave Gallaudet an advantage against nondeaf schools.
That advantage disappeared against other deaf teams. They could read sign language. So Gallaudet quarterback Paul Hubbard came up with an ingenious plan. At the beginning of the 1894 season he decided to conceal the signals by gathering his offensive players in a huddle. It worked brilliantly. “From that point on, the huddle became a habit during regular season games,” states a school history of the football program.1
By 1896, other college teams had adopted the huddle. At one school, the University of Chicago, coach Amos Alonzo Stagg saw the huddle as a way of introducing the Christian faith to the game. The huddle could be a platform for the gospel.
Stagg had started out wanting to be a minister but instead became a coach. With evangelical zeal, he saw the huddle as a way to be a minister, winning souls by introducing “muscular Christianity” to the game. The huddle could be “a kind of religious congregation on the field, a place where the players could minister to each other, make a plan, and promise to keep faith in that plan and one another.”
And therein lies the pitfall of platforms. They use things for their utilitarian value, not their intrinsic worth. Platforms treat everyday things as a means to an end, ignoring whether they have any moral value apart from their functionality.
I saw this in the college ministry I was a part of for several years. We held seminars such as “How to Make Good Grades.” A high GPA was a platform for the gospel. We ignored the intrinsic value of education. Success was seeing people come to Christ. Today’s college education is about getting a high-paying job. You make good grades to make good money. In elite schools, a high GPA is a passport to privilege.
And then there’s collegiate sports. In the past five years public universities have allocated more than $10.3 billion in student fees and other subsidies to prop up sports programs. Median pay for NCAA Division I football head coaches increased 93 percent between 2006 and 2012. Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $6.9 million a year. He’s the highest paid public official in the state of Alabama. But is this right?
In a commercialistic culture, the answer is yes. This is what the market will bear. David Brooks disagrees. These are moral and cultural issues. “A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed.”2 Those who see the intrinsic value of sports see salaries as moral issues. Those who see a sport as a platform rarely do. They measure conversions, not commercialism.
Commercialism drove the University of Chicago to drop football in 1939—though it was reinstituted in 1969 at the more low-key level of Division III. In the 1930s Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the university’s president, called college football an “infernal nuisance.” As Hutchins put it: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one.”
Hutchins saw sports as a moral issue. It is. God created a world for us to play in, “to have sport in it” (Ps. 104:24-26). Sports have intrinsic value. John Milton wrote that Christians “have need of some delightful intermissions, wherein the enlarged soul… may keep her holidays to joy and harmless pastime.” The prophet Zechariah describes the new heavens and earth where “the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets” (Zech. 8:5). There will be play, perhaps even football, in heaven.
That’s why football explains America. But sports also explain creation and heaven. Viewed however as merely a platform for evangelism, huddles also explain American Christianity. We’ll observe this every time Clemson and Alabama huddle tonight.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 Sal Paolantonio, How Football Explains America (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008), pp. 38-41.
2 David Brooks, “The Amateur Ideal,” The New York Times, September 22, 2011.