How Evangelicalism is Shaping College Football

Considering Evangelicalism's role in shaping the economy of college football.

By Ben Sheppard|September 26, 2019

I was a junior in high school when Coach Richt brought his players to church. At the time, Mark Richt was the head coach of the University of Georgia football team, but he was also a member of the Southern Baptist church my family went to, and he sent his kids to the same private Christian school where my sister and I had just enrolled. At the time I remember it being strange; then again, there were a lot of things about Athens, Georgia that were strange to a Navy Brat who had spent the previous five years living overseas. I was trying to keep an open mind—after all, I had to fit in and make friends. But nevertheless, even as a sixteen-year-old, I remember thinking it was odd for a public school team to be bused to church.  

A similar issue dominates Tim Rohan’s recent Sports Illustrated story about Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney. At Georgia, Richt brought students to church and hired a team chaplain; at Clemson, Swinney has gone further, facilitating team Bible studies and staging baptisms at team practices. This last action has drawn the attention of watchdog groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Is Swinney—who regularly secures the highest-rated high school recruits (and their families) by emphasizing the evangelical Christian atmosphere of his program—violating the First Amendment rights of his non-Christian players?

The answer to this question appears obvious to me now, much as it did when I was sixteen. But a lot has changed for me since then. I’m much more of a football fan—the obsessive culture in Athens sucked me in—and much less of an evangelical. Now, the more interesting questions aren’t about evangelicalism’s relationship to politics or culture, but the nature of evangelicalism itself. How does the personal, pietistic evangelical faith practiced by coaches like Richt and Swinney help draw attention away from other aspects of their profession? 

College football is a big business. The proliferation of big TV contracts over the past few decades has made the sport wildly lucrative, challenging established brands like the NFL in popularity. But unlike the NFL, its players must remain, by the collective decision of universities organized under the NCAA, amateurs. They can earn scholarships and a limited “cost of attendance” stipend, but they cannot be paid—whether for their name, image, or likeness, or simply for the labor they put in for their university. Universities—especially the top tier of college football powers, including Clemson and Georgia, that have typically dominated the sport—collect vast sums from television and advertising partners that NCAA rules forbid from being passed on directly to the athletes who have earned them. Instead, the money goes to stadiums, cutting-edge team facilities and, most of all, to coaches. 

The tide of public opinion regarding the NCAA’s amateurism model has slowly been shifting, but it hasn’t yet caught on among the ranks of coaches, and it certainly hasn’t made an impact on Swinney. In an August New York Magazine piece, Will Leitch summarizes several incidents when Swinney has spoken out against compensating players, including the claim that he would quit coaching if athletes were paid. He also fought against the cost of attendance stipends that the NCAA now grants. Meanwhile, he took home upward of $8.5 million in 2017, making him, by far, the highest-paid public employee in South Carolina.  

The evangelical faith described in both Rohan and Leitch’s pieces is incredibly familiar to me. It’s the same faith I was taught in non-denominational chapels on military bases and in the Baptist church my family attended, where salvation required one to personally accept Jesus into their heart. I understand now that the phrase specifies not just a religious practice but a kind of individual, a particular subjectivity. The “personal” choice to accept Jesus is contrasted with any kind of inherited, unchosen, or “cultural” religion. What matters is the individual and what occurs in their “heart”—the sum, more or less, of their private, internal experiences. The atomized subject of this evangelicalism can only exist as an individual or in relation to other individuals.

Such subjectivity is incredibly valuable for what it can make unthinkable. It can erase social structures axiomatically, just as it can make material conditions irrelevant in the face of the spiritual. Evangelicals—including Swinney—can ignore something like racism by claiming it is a “sin problem,” meaning that it concerns only individual sinners. The systematic exploitation of student-athletes can be mired in arguments about personal responsibility and entitlement. There need not be, for Swinney or anyone else, an explicit theological argument against paying players, just a way of existing in the world that excludes the possibility of material conditions mattering all that much in the first place. I don’t think that Swinney’s Christianity causes him to ignore the massive inequality from which he benefits. But I do think that if Swinney is a consistent evangelical, then the possibility of considering material conditions will be excluded. It won’t even exist to be ignored.

Everything I ever heard about Coach Richt in my time in his general orbit was that he was a genuinely good person in addition to being a godly, Christian man. I believe it. The same may be true of Coach Swinney as well. But the logic of the evangelical subject means that such personal integrity can only ever be understood in a strictly individual or interpersonal context. For the questions I’m interested in now, it doesn’t matter how genuinely a coach like Richt or Swinney loves his players or cares about their well-being. Within the evangelical system of which they’re a part, the question of personal morality serves to obscure larger questions, and it seems effectively designed to do so. 

Image: Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney points toward the sky in celebration during the final seconds of the NCAA college football playoff championship game, Jan. 7, 2019. (Photo Credit: David J. Phillip | AP)

Author, Ben Sheppard (MA’15), is a PhD student in Ancient Mediterranean Religions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School, with assistance from Nathan Hardy, a PhD Candidate in the History of Christianity at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.