The following is an edited version of a conversation the Outlook’s Leslie Scanlon had with theologian Marcia Mount Shoop, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and author of “Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports.” Shoop’s husband, John Shoop, is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Purdue University football team.
Shoop is the fourth generation in her family to be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. She earned a doctorate in religious studies from Emory University, and has served the PC(USA) on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and the Mid Councils Commission.
Q: Why did you choose sports and football as a topic?
A: “It’s because of the peculiar position I find myself in in my life – I’m a trained theologian and actually a theologian with a pretty good amount of feminist training also, and I’m married to a professional football coach, one of the most male-dominated and some would say misogynistic things there is in our culture. Also I was a former competitive athlete myself … . But really, tipping point for me and my husband was what we went through at the University of North Carolina, when the NCAA investigated the football program (and John Shoop was an assistant coach). What we saw there and what we experienced there created a moral imperative for me.”
Q: For those who are not familiar with what happened at UNC, can you give us a nutshell version of what happened?
A “In many ways it’s pretty typical of how the NCAA operates. There was potential infraction. They found out that one of the football players had attended a party that was hosted by an agent.” That triggered an NCAA investigation which ultimately involved more than a dozen players, all of whom were black, and focused on academic fraud and improper benefits paid by agents to players. Both players who were found to have violated NCAA rules and some who did not got caught up in the scandal.
Q: Your family got to be close to some of these players. What is it like for these young men to go to college and to play football?
A: “I think it’s a lot different from what people assume. People assume in general that when a young man goes to a Division 1 school to play football or basketball, that it’s really glamorous, and they get a lot of special treatment, and they get whatever they want, that they’re treated like kings. That’s really not accurate. They do get a lot. They get an education, they get their gear for football, they have meals provided. But underneath the surface there’s some pretty pronounced problems. A lot of them have to do with the way institutions and the NCAA regulate things like benefits. In an effort to limit what kind of special treatment students can get from alumni who are big boosters or from agents and things like that, the NCAA and their member institutions have created situations where, for instance, students are given a per diem for food when the cafeteria is not open, or there’s not a training table for them to eat at. In some case that per diem is not enough to cover three meals a day … . We’ve known players who have literally gone a few days without eating. We had one player from North Carolina pass out one day in the training room because he hadn’t eaten in a few days. He had sent his per diem home to help his family … . We’ve had parents ask John during the recruiting process if there’s a way we could help their son get a coat. He doesn’t have a coat. Those are all things where our hands are tied. We are not allowed to buy groceries for the students, we are not allowed to buy them a coat. All of those things are very tightly regulated, which creates situations where these regulations conspire against close supportive relationships – the relationships you want to have with people you care about, and who have a need. … When John recruits players, he makes a lot of promises to those families that we will look out for their son, that he’s going to be part of a big family here. And when the NCAA investigation happened at UNC and all the coaches got fired, we really felt like those promises that we had both made to several families, that we weren’t going to be able to keep those promises. One player in particular told us just a few years ago UNC ‘was the best thing that ever happened to me. Now it’s the worst thing that ever happened to me.’ That’s heartbreaking.”
People assume that a Division 1 football player will go on to play in the NFL, “that he doesn’t care about school, or if he does, it’s secondary to getting into the NFL … . Only 2 percent of Division 1 athletes play in the NFL.” But the eligibility requirements “create conditions that are ripe for a lot of these young men to not get the education they deserve — because the goal is to keep them eligible, not necessarily to keep them in classes that they really care about, or studying things that they’re really passionate about or that will lead to a job someday. The top priority is to keep them eligible.”
Q: What would you say about the intensity that so many Americans have for sports?
A: “That really is the core question of my book. Why do we care so much about this? Because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be so much of a money machine, and all of these things wouldn’t be happening … . My argument in the book is that sports touches such a core space in us because it creates these spaces where we get to play with some of the deepest questions of what it means to be human. We get to play with our belief, our hope, that redemption is real … . In American culture, when we’re passionate about something, that’s where the money goes. And where the money goes, so goes power and so goes corruption. And so go a lot of other pretty tenacious distortions that we take with us into these places where the stakes are so high.”
Q: What impact does it have that the dominant sports are male sports, and that some are played in a culture of aggression and violence?
A: “I explore these questions in my chapter called `Man Up,’ where I look at what kind of concepts of masculinity and femininity and gender in general do big time sports depend on. Does the sport of football really require these kind of caricatures of masculinity and femininity for it to thrive? … We’re seeing some pushback against football now. Some things are coming to the surface about its violence and about some of the really harmful ways that masculinity is performed in football that is not just diminishing for women but is diminishing for men too. So these are some the questions that are really challenging football to really figure out who it is. And if it doesn’t do it, if it just kind of digs in its heels, I wouldn’t be surprised if it kind of really peters out in its popularity. Because more and more people don’t want their kids to play football. More and more, people are asking questions about things like concussions and all these other things … . There are real examples all over the place of players starting to ask questions, and that is all to the good.”
Q: Many college communities are having conversations about sexual violence against women. What role do you see athletics playing in that?
A: “Because athletics is a money machine, they care about public perception. With the Title IX and Department of Education investigations of over 50 institutions of higher learning around sexual violence, and even the NFL case where the punishment for a clear situation of domestic (violence) was tepid at best, for good or for ill, public perception is what’s going to turn that ship around. Now again, the problem becomes in very male-dominated enclaves like football, how you ask the questions and how you address the issues is very important. Because it can’t just be about appeasing the media. If you really do want to deal with a rape culture, if you really do want to interrupt the patterns of violence against women … , there has to be real concerted attention all around to what it looks like to share power and to be in different power relationships with women. And if women are nowhere to be found in the institutions that are doing this work or don’t have positions of power, then I’m worried about how we’re really going to do that work.”
Q: What role do you see the church and people of faith playing in all of this?
A: “I went into this whole thing thinking, ‘oh there are sort of caricatured versions of faith and Christianity that pop up all over the world of big-time sports. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. How do religion and sports go together?’ But I think I really have come out after writing the book in a very different place, where I feel Christianity hasn’t taken up enough space in the world of big-time sports. By that I mean we have not brought our Christian values to bear on the world of big time sports. We haven’t been troubled enough by things like racialized injustice or sexism or abuses of power or even just pure unadulterated physical abuse and verbal abuse to minors in some cases at the hands of people in authority … . I don’t know why that doesn’t kindle any fire in more Christians.”
“The thing that really is so clear to us after all of these years with John coaching at the highest levels of football is that even with your deepest commitment to being that kind of coach who cares about young men, who cares about making them better young men, the people they were created to be, that’s not what gets rewarded. That’s not what will get you a job. In fact, I think coaches do some of their best work during losing seasons. That is when they teach these young men how to deal with adversity, how to keep working hard, how to not turn on your teammates, how to stay in this and not give up. Those are the most important skills of grit and determination and community and coming together. And what’s the thanks they get at the end of the season? Well, normally they all just get fired.”
Q: Are there any takeaways in this for you, particularly for people who will never play Division 1 sports but for whom fitness and being active are important? For average people, what role should sports play in our lives?
A: “Sport is about life. It’s about thriving and having a zestful existence. I’m coaching the middle school cross-country team here in West Lafayette, at Battle Ground Middle School. It’s just such a delight. We’ve got kids out at all ability levels. We’ve got really great runners all the way to kids with special needs. And everybody can find vitality and connection and a new level of achievement by being on this team. And that’s one of the things I work with the kids on. You can have so many different kinds of goals, but they’re yours. We have team goals, but you also have your own. And whether I’m not going to walk any today when I run my two miles or I’m going to run a little bit faster during this part or I’m going to tell myself I can keep going when it gets hard or whatever your goal is, there is a way for every single person on the team to cultivate a new level of vitality in their own bodies, a new sense of connection to their teammates, to the ground that they’re running on, to the air that they’re breathing, to their bodies that they live in, and a new way to discover that they can do something that they never thought they could do … . That’s what sports is about. When we lose that, when we lose our connection to things like vitality and relationships and groundbreaking, then we really have gotten into a very distorted space.”