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Where are the prophets?

In this guest essay, Jason Smith explores the role of sports chaplains at college athletics programs during the time of COVID

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This is a guest essay from Jason Smith. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Vanderbilt University and, by his own admission, writes about sports, theology and philosophy on the internet sometimes. He teaches at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Earlier this year, he explored the morality of college football returning to play during the pandemic.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Georgia I decided, like a lot of nerdy sophomores in college do, to watch all of the 1001 Movies You Have to See Before You Die. I realized pretty quickly this was a terrible idea because I did, in fact, have to attend class and read books.

I settled instead on the 100 Greatest Movies from the American Film Institute since 100 is less than 1001 and got to work filling in the gaps of my cinematic knowledge.

One of the movies that has stuck with me is On the Waterfront, the Elia Kazan Best Picture winner starring Marlon Brando. You’ll know it as the “I coulda been a contender!” movie, if you know it at all.

The only thing I knew about On the Waterfront going into it was that line. I had no idea that the plot revolved around a mob boss taking over a longshoreman’s union and black balling a washed-up prize fighter — a prize fighter whose career he himself soiled after convincing him to throw a fight.

I’m not sure I would’ve found that all that interesting but for the inclusion of a priest — Father Barry, played by Karl Malden and his legendary schnozz.

Father Barry has stuck with me because he was the first time I saw a fictional representation of a Christian minister advocating for economic justice. I was used to priests and pastors in movies symbolizing a hypocritical hyper-morality that had to be sloughed off, institutional corruption that had to be fought, or a benevolent yet myopic concern for the soul and the soul alone.

Father Barry wanted to fight the mob and win back the union from them so everyone on the docks could earn a day’s wage.

It is one of the few movies that honestly challenged some of my priorities as a person of faith at the time. I grew up Southern Baptist, so maybe it was no surprise that I was thrown by a priest taking on a mob boss in support of dockworkers, but that was a far cry from the stuff I thought Christian ministers typically spent their time doing.

A vision of the Christian life, of what Jesus calls “life abundant” in the Gospel of John, as having something to do with a basic dignity — a dignity found in this life and the justice and mercy that ought to imbue it — was not something I had ever encountered a minister advocating for on film before.

**

I’ve been thinking about Malden’s character lately because something has been bothering me about the conversation we have been having about if and how college football could come back.

It wasn’t whether it was or wasn’t right to play. I wrote out my opinion on that question on this website. You can read it here.

No, what was bothering me about the conversation wasn’t what was being said, but who wasn’t speaking.

The typical characters that were always going to be involved in the conversation were there — conference commissioners, athletic directors, head coaches, and university presidents. The players were always going to be involved, and they have surprised all of us by organizing in a way we haven’t seen before — hinting at the possibility of a big change in the state of play for collegiate athletics.

Because of my work (theology professor), I know there is someone else behind the scenes that we could be hearing from — the team chaplains.

Now, you might be unfamiliar with the concept of chaplains. You might even be unaware that they exist at all, especially in the sports world.

The truth is that most college football teams, especially in the South, have a Christian minister of some kind charged with overseeing the spiritual well-being of the athletes. These chaplains are sometimes only associated with the football team, usually a minister at the church of the head coach or someone brought in specifically by the coach to do chaplain work. Or sometimes the chaplain is over the whole of the athletic department, typically the case at religious colleges where this sort of thing is an established tradition.

Sometimes they are brought in not under a specifically religious charge, but as more of a leadership and character coach hired under the guise of “player development.” Even still, these chaplains are almost always — in fact, I know of no exceptions — Christian ministers.

So, the situation for most of the leagues where the member institutions are insisting they will begin play in a few weeks — the SEC, the ACC, and the Big 12 — is that they all have Christian pastors tasked with doing nothing but caring for their “flock” of college athletes.

If so, where are they and why aren’t they using their voice now?

**

I have been asking myself this for some months.

All of the parties I listed above that are involved in the conversation about the return of college sports are fundamentally compromised and biased.

The commissioners, athletic directors, and even head coaches know that their jobs and the jobs of their staff and the jobs of countless others depends upon putting these athletes in uniforms and getting them onto that field. The only thing that can stop that train is the threat of legal liability for infection and death or, less likely, genuine moral reflection on whether it is right to put students at risk like that.

The point, though, is that there is no one in the conversation that does not have money in the game, and, even worse, all of their money is laid on one outcome – playing the season.

What we need, I keep thinking to myself, is someone in the conversation whose only interest is the well-being of the athlete and nothing else.

Aren’t chaplains supposed to be that person?

What players need, I would think, are prophets — people willing to speak truth to power in moments of crisis, who have no stake in whether or not a season happens at all and would, in fact, rather see the season cancelled than one member of their flock risk their health for an unworthy reason.

Instead, chaplains seem to be, at best, PR staff, assuring evangelical donors that athletes, often from “troubled backgrounds” are being developed into “nice young men.”

**

The real difficulty for sports chaplains is not a lack of training. The problem is the relationship from which their entire job springs — the relationship with the coach.

**

I reached out via email to John White and Paul Putz — the director and assistant director, respectively, of the Truett Seminary Sports Ministry Program at Baylor University. Their program is one of the only seminary programs in the country designed to prepare future ministers in the skills necessary to be sports chaplains. So, if anyone would be familiar with this dilemma from the chaplain’s perspective, it would be them.  

The first difficulty White pointed to was that chaplains are, by and large, not trained to reflect on ethical matters beyond the spiritual care of individual athletes. As a result, he said, “their ministries stay stuck in the private, interior world of athletes’ souls,” with little regard for concerns of the exterior world and the way that world impinges upon athletic bodies. Expecting chaplains to occupy a role that even they themselves do not consider a part of their job description is a bridge too far, at least at first.

Yet, there is clearly precedent for that exact sort of stake-holding role in most other areas of chaplaincy — hospital chaplains, military chaplains, etc.


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White suggested that broadening our vision of chaplaincy in this way would open up the sports chaplain’s role to more than just the guy who leads the prayer before games.

“Consider, for example, how other chaplains in other contexts like hospitals sit on ethics panels and boards,” White said. “So why wouldn’t we want sports chaplains to become advocates for and educators of the social and moral matters germane to their sphere of influence?”

Sounds great, right? A little meta-reflection training for chaplains and all of this will be different right? Well, not exactly.

The real difficulty for sports chaplains is not a lack of training. The problem is the relationship from which their entire job springs — the relationship with the coach.

“In general, chaplains in the United States don’t have independent authority outside of the trust they gain with a coach or other organizational leadership,” said Putz. “Often, they aren’t even full-time sports chaplains, but rather they do chaplaincy as one part of their job or as a side job — as is the case with many pro sports chaplains, who often have full-time pastoral roles elsewhere in the community. So, while they are there for holistic care (especially spiritual) of players, they also serve coaches and must at all times maintain that trust.”

The root, in other words, of any chaplain’s ability to care for a group of players — something these people surely cherish the opportunity to do — is whether or not the coach trusts you enough to let you into the locker room, the practice facility, or the meeting room. If you, as the chaplain the coach has personally vouched for, give public comments that make a press conference even more difficult for that coach, well, you can probably guess how that is going to work out for you.

Overall the situation is fraught, but only if chaplains want it to be, and it is not clear at this point if many of them do. Seems safe to say that often times chaplains have no interest in stepping into that precarious space in the first place. As White put it, “Most institutions do not like prophets to begin with, and when faculty speak out they have the protection of tenure, which does not exist in the sports world.”

**

The contrast between White and Putz is something like two currents within the same body of water, pulling one to either bank but headed toward the same river mouth where, ideally, sports chaplains have little else to worry about but caring for their flock.

**

But, at the end of the day, should chaplains step into a more public-facing role anyway?

White and Putz are split on the issue.

For White, the chaplain ought to be independent and tasked with reflecting always on “what is truly good, just, and beautiful in order to put right this world.” But that’s obviously not an easy task. He referenced Matthew 10:16 where Jesus sends out his disciples to be as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves. Chaplains will require training specifically designed to cultivate the “nimbleness” needed to “combine the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.”

Putz offers an interesting, if slight contrast.

A sports historian in his own right, he noted there is precedent for chaplains inserting themselves into the conversation. As he put it, there was once, in the early days of sports chaplains, a “colorful cast of evangelical types who liked to get in the newspapers,” but that sort of showmanship was never conducive to much trust. Yet, having some sort of independence from the coach, in order to do the desired pastoral work without a thought for wins and losses seems essential for chaplains to function well.

Putz just doesn’t think that kind of independence has to come with an increased public-facing role. The focus has to be much more local.

“I’m not sure about [chaplains as] public-facing, at least not as a routine matter,” he said. “Should they take a “prophetic” stance when needed by going directly to the coaches to advocate for a position that might not be popular in the sports community? Yes, I think they should. But after doing that, if a coach/leader goes in a different direction, a chaplain has to decide if that issue is worth making a public statement and probably severing their relationship and chaplaincy role with the team (as would almost certainly be the case).”

The role of the chaplain is indeed focused only on the well-being of the players, but that means that the chaplain’s advocacy happens within the world of players and their coaches. Again, the advocacy is local, not global.

“So a Big 10 chaplain right now might hear from a player who is disappointed about not playing, and will focus on helping the player adjust to that reality,” Putz said. “If a Big 12 chaplain is in relationship with a player who doesn’t want to play, I would hope that they would help that player feel loved and cared for and free to opt-out, since choosing not to play is a live option. But as far as organizing players in a locker room into a collective group? That’s not likely.”

The contrast between White and Putz is something like two currents within the same body of water, pulling one to either bank but headed toward the same river mouth where, ideally, sports chaplains have little else to worry about but caring for their flock.

But still, the dilemma demands attention given, for a committed Christian minister, the stakes of pastoral work in any context. As White put it in the edited volume Sports Chaplaincy, abuses that appear in the chaplains path demand a response. “Sports chaplaincy which does not take a prophetic stance on these abuses is not grounded in the gospel, since good news reveals how the bad news oppresses and harms human beings.”

The difficulty is finding a way to do that without losing your job.

Indeed, it is a conflict as old as Christianity itself — how do you spread the Gospel without a platform to do so? But is it really the Gospel if you dull the scandal of it in order to keep your job?

**

“A prophet always stays with his people.”

**

But White and Putz brought me back to thinking of Karl Malden’s Father Barry.

In the end, their visions, even when they contrast, draw me back to Father Barry’s “sermon on the docks.”

It struck me that Father Barry’s sermon isn’t to a reporter or in front of anyone outside of his church — the dockworkers.

And then something my Old Testament professor at UGA used to say to me comes ringing back …

“A prophet always stays with his people.”

Father Barry incited a rebellion against a vicious mob-connected union boss, but he did it by drawing that rebellion out of the workers themselves, not via a Frontline investigation or a multi-article series from ProPublica.

This is not to say that those tools are bad and that chaplains shouldn’t use them. Maybe they should. Maybe.

But the real power of chaplains, even as dependent upon the trust of coaches as they are, will come only from an upswell of rebellion within their flock, their dockworkers — the players.

Because, sure, even a few months ago no one could have imagined a chaplain calling a head coach to task in a public forum for any number of microagressions or abuses. But Chubba Hubbard tweeted once and forced an entire apology tour from one of the most well-established head coaches in the country.

In other words, as the players come to utilize more of their power over and against head coaches, whose livelihoods depend upon their ability to recruit new players every cycle, chaplains could see a similar freedom to speak publicly about the issues that affect the lives of those under their care.

Maybe chaplains won’t be the ones organizing the general strike of collegiate athletes, but they could become a scattered crew of individual Father Barry’s — not speaking for the players, but speaking to them, so that they might come to speak for themselves.

And, for now, that might very well be the work of the Gospel.

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