Faith and Football

Forget Tim Tebow.  The real story in the world of fundamentalist football is Liberty University. The fundamentalist Virginia school founded in the early seventies by Moral Majority frontman Jerry Falwell wants to become the face of conservative Christian college ball.

This isn’t news, but Bill Pennington offered a new look at the program in last weekend’s New York Times.

Pennington points out that a big sports program can signal the emergence of a religious school from sectarian obscurity, as happened with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame, or a later generation’s Brigham Young University.  Pennington gets the dates wrong; Rockne pulled Notre Dame football to national prominence in the 1920s, not the middle of the century.  But the point still holds.  Football made Notre Dame an American story, not just a Catholic one.

Image source: Wikipedia

According to Pennington, Liberty is different.  The vision of both founder Jerry Falwell and current chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. is of a team that competes with the likes of Alabama and LSU while remaining staunchly fundamentalist.  As Falwell Jr. told Pennington,

‘“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”’   

In order even to have a shot at such elite play, schools need money.  According to Falwell Jr., that should not be a problem.  Thanks largely to an exploding online program enrolling over 80,000 students, Liberty has announced it will soon reach one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Could they make it happen?  In the world of big-time college ball—to paraphrase an old prayer—with money, all things are possible.

Pennington’s article is worth reading, especially for those interested in college football.  Those interested in the world of conservative Christian higher education will wish Pennington probed a little deeper.  The story of Liberty University in 2012, after all, is much bigger than just an ambitious football program.  As Karen Swallow Prior of the Liberty University faculty pointed out recently, the campus culture has been changing in other important ways as well.  In addition to a loosening of the dress code, students at Liberty have begun showing more diversity in terms of politics and culture, according to Prior.

Liberty watchers have to wonder: Did all these changes—a push for big-time ball, loosening of the dress code, broadening of the politics of the student body—did these changes result from the big on-line payday, or did these changes lead to that payday?  That is, did Liberty make itself the big winner in the new world of online higher education by broadening its appeal?  Or did the broadening happen after the money starting rolling in so fast, according to Falwell Jr., that “we can’t spend it fast enough”?

These questions aren’t new to the world of fundamentalist higher education, nor are they unique to Liberty.  In the 1920s, Bob Jones University also fielded intercollegiate athletic teams.  However, school founder Bob Jones Sr. quickly dropped the program.  Friends said Jones worried that sports would pull the new school too far from its central mission.  Enemies whispered that Jones feared having to accommodate any outside influence in his flagship university.

Liberty University will certainly wrestle with this same tension.  As any football fan knows, money drives success.  It will be difficult for Liberty to compete without putting athletic success first.  And it will be hard to do that without changing the focus of the school from the religion of Falwell to the religion of football.