Sports Illustrated writer Mark Oppenheimer talks with Hugh about his Christians-in-the-NFL cover story
HH: Special conversation ahead. You don’t want to miss this. As you know, if you’ve been listening to me for any of the last 20 years, I love to talk about faith and politics, and faith and culture, have done so for PBS, have done so on this show. In fact, just this week, I put out the e-book, Talking With Pagans about all the debates I have hosted here between people like Hitch and Richard Dawkins, and Michael Shermer, and Robert Wright, and folks like Dr. David Allen White and Mark Roberts and John Mark Reynolds. They’re all together in Talking With Pagans, which is over at Hughhewitt.com. Just, however, as that came out, so did a new Sports Illustrated, the February 4th issue of Sports Illustrated. And there on the front cover is, of course, Ray Lewis. He’s praying in water, and the title is Does God Care Who Wins The Super Bowl by Mark Oppenheimer. The title on the inside of the magazine is In The Fields Of The Lord. It’s a very controversial piece. And I’m going to talk for the next many, many minutes with Mark Oppenheimer about his article. Mark, welcome to the program.
MO: Thanks for having me. I hope that if I end up in a future e-book, it will be called Talking With Jews.
HH: Talking With Jews, well, I could do one of those. I certainly have enough of those as well.
MO: I’m sure you have the track record to do that one.
HH: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was one of my very first long interviews, so I…
MO: He’s like pretty much the smartest guy in the world.
HH: Yes, and so I could, I’ve got that covered.
HH: Let me give people the background here. You are the author of three books, most recently Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject To Debate. You write the bi-weekly column about religion for the New York Times. You write for the New York Times Magazine, for Slate, for Mother Jones, red light, Tablet, the Forward, and many other publications. You teach in the English department of Yale. You also direct the Yale Journalism Initiative. You are a Yalie, I gather.
MO: I am. It’s the only school that would have me.
HH: And what year did you graduate from the college?
MO: From the college? 1996.
HH: And what year did you get your PhD, I guess in religious history?
MO: Religious studies, yeah, American religious history, 2003. Ought three as they say.
HH: Okay, so how old does this make you? Are you 33?
MO: I’m 24. No, I’m 38.
HH: You’re 38. Now…
MO: How old are you?
HH: Oh, I’m 56. I’m old. I’m Methuselah. Now I noted as well that you were a debater at Yale, and in fact, the Yale debate coach. Am I right about that?
MO: I was. That’s what my most recent book is about. My memoir, Wisenheimer, is about my years in the strange world of high school and collegiate debate. So that’s the book closest to my heart.
HH: Where did you go to high school?
MO: I went to a small private school in Connecticut called the Loomis Chaffee School, which is a boarding school, but I was a day student, which makes you immediately uncool, because I had to go home to mom and dad every night.
HH: And so you are a Connecticut person.
MO: Well, I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is right across the border. It’s about 20 miles away.
HH: I know it well, because my roommate was from Gardner, so I know Springfield.
MO: All right.
HH: Now did you play sports at all?
MO: I was a cross-country runner and a track…I wrestled for one year, because I was small. And you know, when you’re light, they always recruit you to the wrestling team. And then subsequently, I was a distance runner.
HH: Okay, and are you a believing Jew? Are you a Christian? What are you?
MO: I’m a, well, I’m a Jew. I’m an observant Jew, let’s put it that way, medium observant, I’m not an orthodox Jew. The synagogue I belong to is large c Conservative, part of the Conservative movement. And you know, I have a pretty strong Jewish practice, is the way I would put it.
HH: Can you elaborate on that? I mean, my friend, Prager, will want to know this. I’m asking as his surrogate.
MO: Well, okay, can I elaborate on that? Sure. I am, I strongly identify with Judaism. I’m 100% Jewish. If you did one of those DNA tests they now claim to be able to do to trace people back to Judea-Samaria, my parents are Jewish. I go to synagogue twice a week. I take my kids on Saturday, and then I’m usually there for the Monday afternoon Minyan, which is the prayer quorum. That’s something else I do during the week, and I teach, you know, I lead the children service several times a year. I’m in the rotation to do that. So I would say in terms of why I practice, which I probably what you’re getting at, it’s less a belief in the Supernatural, although on certain days I have that. And I think that that’s something we can talk about. I don’t think anyone is as consistent in their belief or their disbelief as they often will say. But it’s less that than a strong appreciation for tradition and ritual. I’m what you call a ritual junkie, which is not uncommon among people who go to grad school in this stuff.
HH: Now I read your debate with Sam Harris sponsored by the Economist, and have down that your three reasons for approving of religion is that it meets our need for ritual, organizes our search for ethics, and is fun.
MO: Yeah, he was incredibly scornful of the fact that I said that it was fun. I mean, Sam Harris thought that was like the stupidest reason to do anything, when to me, you know, it seems to me as long as we’re on this Earth, it’s one of the best reasons to do anything. I think I should also add that I probably put somewhere in there that it may well be true. I’m not dismissive of the possibility that religious claims could be true. But we have to have a certain amount of humility in light of the fact that no matter how you slice it, the majority of the world’s believers are somehow living in a state of error, because they all believe different and mutually incompatible things. And that’s something that Sam is always right about.
HH: Now I have to ask you about Sam, and I have debated him on Lee Strobel’s show, and I’ve seen him at the Palm Springs book show and all these…Sam is a lightweight, and I dealt with Dawkins and Hitch, and Hitch was a friend. And I mean, I know serious non-believers and serious…but Sam’s just a lightweight.
MO: Well, what do you mean by that?
HH: He doesn’t have much backing for his claims, nor much training in argument, or discipline when it comes to research.
MO: You know, I guess I’ve read two of his books. I’ve never debated him except online, an di did feel he was mailing it in a bit online. I don’t think our Economist debate, for which we weren’t paid, was the highest priority of his that week. I think that his book, you know, trying to make that neurological claim for his sort of neuroscience-based ethics was pretty ridiculous.
HH: Yeah, it really is. I’ve dealt with Shermer, who is the editor of Skeptic…
MO: Sure, I know Shermer.
HH: And Michael’s smart. Robert Wright has been a guest on this…
HH: So they’re all in Talking With Pagans. They’re all very smart. But Sam Harris? Lightweight. But let me move on.
MO: Well, you know, and I should say I’ve never debated him in person. I think, you know, he’s not stupid. He can do things I can’t, like get a PhD in neuroscience or whatever it was in. I mean, he has his gift, but I don’t think he’s the most convincing of the skeptical thinkers, no.
HH: So now when you were debating at Yale, did they give you a topic that you worked on? Or did you…
MO: No, our league was parliamentary debate, which in the United States tends to be extemporaneous. So you wouldn’t find out your topic until a half an hour before the round started.
HH: Yeah, see, I want people in the audience to know I’m being very cautious, because I’m working with a Yale debater, and indeed the Yale debate coach. Were you any good?
MO: I was pretty good. When I was a senior and we went to the World English Speaking championships, my partner, Jed Shugerman, who’s now a Harvard Law professor, and I were the only American team to make it to the quarterfinals, as I recall. We didn’t win, but we, yeah, we were, you know, our mixture of some knowledge and a lot of glibness was pretty effective.
HH: All right, so I want people to know this is not a debate. This is an interview. Andrew Sullivan, when he came on the show many years ago in our memorable conversation kept trying to make it a debate. It’s actually just an interview of Mr. Oppenheimer, so let’s go to that.
MO: Well, and I should say I’m retired from debate. I much prefer conversations now to debate.
HH: All right, I want to dig into this, because as you know, your Sports Illustrated article is extremely controversial.
MO: So I’m told. I mean, it wasn’t controversial to me, but I imagine it seems that I upset some people.
HH: Oh, did you ever. So we’ll talk about that, but first, let me put you on the geography of ideology, if I could.
HH: Are you left wing?
MO: No, I wouldn’t say I’m left wing.
HH: You’ve got to have voted at least four times for president. Can I assume it was Gore, Kerry, Obama, Obama?
MO: You may assume that, yes.
HH: Is that correct?
MO: Yes. Now we should say, by the way, that I have left wing friends, and they think that voting for those mainstream sort of neo-liberal consensus candidates puts me if anything somewhat to the right.
HH: Yes, and they are not listening to this show right now.
MO: So I mean, that’s important to understand. I don’t know how often you have on some of the really great truly left wing thinkers, I mean, someone like Corey Robin at Brooklyn College, for example.
HH: Glenn Greenwald drops by every few months…
HH: And my head doesn’t spin around. But so…
MO: You know, well, Glenn, I mean, Glenn has a particular set of issues like foreign policy and libertarianism and things like that. But you know, if you’re talking about people who really have a left wing economic analysis, they aren’t represented most anywhere. And they don’t think that Obama is particularly liberal at all. So that’s just important to note.
HH: Now as to you, though…
MO: Yes, as to me.
HH: Do you believe in unrestricted abortion rights?
HH: Where do you draw the line?
MO: You know, it’s not something that I’ve, this will sound like a cop out. It’s not something I’ve thought deeply about in terms of like which month or something like that. I don’t have a strong philosophy of it. I am made deeply uncomfortable by third trimester abortion at will. I probably would be supportive of some sort of legal regime that would impose certain kind of tests once you’re fairly far along in pregnancy.
HH: Okay, that’s fine.
MO: You know, I tend to be a pragmatist about it. I tend to think that it’s one of those things that is very, very hard to legislate. And legislation that is almost universally disobeyed ends up undermining rule for law, so it’s one of those things where no matter what the ideal regime is, you have to look at what’ s a workable regime.
HH: And Mark Oppenheimer, do you own a gun?
MO: 12. No, no, I’m pretty strongly supportive of gun control.
HH: And did you support the invasion of Afghanistan?
MO: You know, I was a lot younger then. That’s a large percentage of my lifetime. I don’t remember what my thinking was on that. I remember being fairly persuaded that we had to go into Iraq after 9/11.
HH: And think about this during the break. Afghanistan was the first one. I think you’re reversing them.
MO: Okay, okay.
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HH: Mark, when we went to break, I was sort of plotting your ideological geography.
HH: And I asked if you supported the invasion of Afghanistan.
MO: And then I got the dates wrong, vis-à-vis Iraq.
HH: Yeah, yeah.
MO: You know, I just, and here’s the truth, is that I tend not to follow, I mean, I certainly follow the news. I know what’s going on. I tend not to read the arguments with regards to foreign and military policy as closely as I do with regards to domestic policy. And so I tend to defer to people who I think are pretty thoughtful and know a lot, and I tend not to take, I mean, I’ve never in my whole life, I think, written an article or an opinion piece having anything to do with military affairs. So that tells you sort of the level of my conviction.
HH: Okay, but are you against the use of force in protection of the country?
MO: No, no.
HH: So the Just War doctrine makes sense to you?
MO: You know, I have a fairly strong feeling about, you know, Thomistic and more recent, you know, Michael Waltzer and Jean Elshtain, people like that. I think that they’ve had a pretty thoughtful working out of Just War theory.
HH: And so would you explain to the audience what that means, because not many people are running around reading Waltzer.
MO: Yeah, I mean, well, there are different versions of it, but…and you might do a better job than I. I mean, it tends to have to do with setting up certain conditions for when it’s okay to go to war. And they tend to have to do with, you know, self defense, and then there are workings out of what that could possibly mean, and you know, can that include preemption, can it not, use of proportionate force, protecting civilians when at all possible. I mean, there are many iterations of it, but there are, it tends to be putting a kind of set of conditions on it that make a war just rather than unjust.
HH: Okay, and so you’re not a pacifist?
MO: I’m not a pacifist, no.
HH: All right. To the Bible and to the article.
HH: Is the Bible true?
MO: Parts of it, but in the main, it’s not literally true, no.
HH: Which parts are true?
MO: Well, I think that there historically was, there has been a Jewish people, that they probably originated in the Middle East, and certain aspects of their journey as recounted in Genesis and Exodus are true. We know from archaeological data that they may never have been enslaved in Egypt, or certainly not enslaved in the way that it’s described. Certain of those figures are probably true. At some point, I mean, so you look at something like the commandments, right? At some point, these commandment, whether you’re talking the 613 that are meaningful to Jews, or just the ten, however in the various forms that they came down to be meaningful to Jews and Christians, became law, so they were obviously given at some point. We don’t know. It’s pretty obscure. It’s pretty murky back there. I don’t take it on faith, on theological faith. I don’t have a fideistic, to use the theologians’ term, conviction that any of it’s true, per se. I think it needs to be tested against science and reason, and I think that some pieces of that tradition, or in fact, large pieces of it for me as a Jew, have produced what I would call a true culture, a meaningful way to live.
HH: All right, now let’s turn to the article.
HH: So obviously, you do not believe Jesus Christ is Lord.
HH: And have you ever believed that Jesus Christ was Lord and then laid it down?
HH: So who do you think Jesus is?
MO: Well, we do know, certainly from not only Christian sources, New Testament, but also contemporary sources, that He lived, and that He was a teacher. I mean, we know certain rudiments of His life. I don’t deny that He existed. But I don’t think He was resurrected, and I don’t think He was Lord. I don’t think He’s the Messiah.
HH: And so, this is just curious, why would they pick you to write about Christian athletes? Did you put your hand up? Or did they come to you?
MO: Why would they pick you to interview Jews?
HH: Because I get to self-select. It’s my radio show. I get to do…but remember, it’s an interview, but not a debate. I get to go and ask whoever I want to come on.
HH: But Sports Illustrated has to go…
MO: You certainly could…well, let’s spend some time on this. You certainly could ask them. I don’t really, I assume, right, and we never had that conversation of, I didn’t say, you know, when a magazine comes to you and says would you like to write a major story for us, and we’ll give you a lot of space and thoughtful editing…
HH: And write you a big check.
MO: And a good paycheck.
HH: What did they pay you for this, for a cover story?
MO: You know, nobody who’s ever been a freelancer says but why me?
HH: No, but what do they pay you for a cover story in SI?
MO: I got, I’m trying to remember here, I’ve got a lot of projects going, I got $2 dollars a word for this.
HH: Okay, so what’s that work out to?
MO: So I think it was $8,000. I haven’t been paid, yet, I should say.
MO: But I will be. I mean, they pay you after publication. I got $8,000 dollars for this.
HH: This has been out for two weeks, Mark. As you business manager, I’ve got to advise you, that’s not a good move…
HH: …because they could go under at any time, given the number of cancellations that are happening because of your article.
MO: There are not cancellations. There’s one guy on the web who said he was cancelling.
HH: Andrew Klavan.
MO: Yeah, Klavan. Exactly, and he’s been reprinted in a lot of places. I don’t know that there have been two cancellations, but there may have been.
HH: Do you know Andrew?
MO: I don’t know, I’d never heard of him until he attacked…
HH: I know Andrew. He’s a smart guy. Anyway, we’ll come back to that.
MO: He may be a smart guy. It was not a very sophisticated attack he wrote on me.
HH: I’ll come back…
MO: Would you agree?
HH: Again, not a debate, interview.
MO: Not a debate, but can I interview you?
HH: No. No, you’ll have to call me up and do that for an article.
MO: Do you want me to answer your question?
MO: Why they picked me?
MO: So I don’t know, first of all. I assume it has something to do with the fact that I am a really, really respected writer on religion.
HH: And so when they called you up, and by the way, who called you? Who’s the editor?
MO: It was an email, and it initially, honestly, I don’t remember. I worked with several editors there over the course of the piece, and it was the top people there. It was Chris Hunt and Mark Moravec, and John Wertheim. I mean, there was a whole, the way magazine writing works, you end up getting edited, if it’s good, you end up working with several people.
HH: And so what was their take? What was the original pitch to you?
MO: It was extremely vague, which is the way I think good pieces often happen. It was would you do something on religiosity in, initially, it was sports. It was not the NFL. It got narrowed down. I wrote a first draft that included a discussion with David Boudia, the gold meal winning diver who is a Christian. It included a discussion with Matthew Morin, who’s a former mixed martial arts champion who then became a pacifist, and now runs a gym in Milwaukee. So it initially was much broader. It was about sports more generally, and then I think the thinking was well, the Super Bowl is coming up, so let’s maybe narrow it to football.
HH: All right, now is it fair for me to summarize the thesis of your piece, football is bad for the soul?
MO: No, well, that’s not how I would summarize it. I think it’s fair. It’s not how I would summarize it.
HH: What’s the thesis of the piece, then?
MO: I think it’s that, the thesis of the piece is more like there are some deep tensions between Christianity and big time football, college and pro, let’s say Division I and pro football, that many Christians and many football fans don’t want to recognize.
HH: Okay, at one point, you write, “Stars in all sports are rich and worshipped as heroes. But only football adds to the money and adulation a level of violence and physical domination that is deeply at odds with Jesus’ message.” That would seem to me not just tension, but out and out conflict with, and bad for your Christian soul.
MO: Well, you know, you’re asking me to sort of make certain theological distinctions there. I mean, ultimately, only if there is a God, and if He cares about people’s “Christian soul,” only He would know what’s good or bad for your soul. It’s certainly in conflict with the Christian message as, I shouldn’t say as I read it, but as a lot of theologians read it.
HH: Yeah, but deeply at odds with Jesus’ message, when I say football is bad for your soul, that’s a fair, you already told…
MO: I said it was fair. I said it’s not the one I would describe, I would use, but I did say it was fair.
HH: It is inescapable?
MO: Is what inescapable?
HH: The conclusion that football is bad for the soul an inescapable conclusion of your piece?
MO: I think there’s some thoughtful people who have escaped it, but they shouldn’t.
HH: They shouldn’t. Okay, I’ll be right back.
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HH: Mark, let’s move through your piece a little bit at a level that most people don’t ever get to, and they want to ask about. I already quoted you one piece. Let me quote you this. “The people who run these ministries,” and you’re talking about Crew and Athletes In Action, “say sports should be subservient to God, not the other way around. But they have participated eagerly in the deification of sports in American culture, acting if someone faced with the conflict between sports madness and Godly obedience can simply step away from it like declining a penalty when your team is ahead, which in a sense, their team is.” Two things, basically you’re calling them all hypocrites.
MO: Yes, not all of them, and not all the time, but I’m calling, I’m saying…I’m not calling out any one person, right? But I’m saying that there’s a deep hypocrisy in the message of, and let’s focus on Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which tends to focus on scholastic and college sports versus Athletes In Action, which has a greater ministry to the pro sports level. There’s a deep, deep, deep hypocrisy in what they claim is the focus of their Christianity, and the work they do and how they do it with athletes.
HH: And people will be shocked to hear this if they haven’t read the piece, and by the way, I’m reminded whenever people say I’m not calling them all hypocrites of the Neiman Marcus case, which your undergraduate friend who teaches at Harvard can tell you about, where someone remarked that everyone at Neiman Marcus’ dress shop was a hooker. And the non-hookers sued successfully because the defamation was general as opposed to specific. So it’s kind of hard to say oh, they’re not all hypocrites, but damn near every one of them are.
MO: I don’t know them all. You can certainly read the article. I encourage people to go read the article and they can see the people I quoted and I talked to, right?
HH: Now hypocrisy, first of all, let’s get basic.
MO: And by the way, which is I don’t think is a word I ever use in the article.
HH: But you just agreed that that’s what, you don’t think they really believe what they believe.
MO: No, no, no. Well then, let me back up. That’s not the claim I’m making. I think that there’s a level of denial about the problems, the tension between what they, between their Christian message and their football message, or their participation in big time athletics. What level of awareness they have? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an intentional deception or intentional line. I think that just someone like Coach Steckel, you know, the president of FCA, I think he honestly can say that he doesn’t believe there’s any tension at all. Now I think if he thought a little more deeply about it, or cared to explore that tension, he would, he’s a bright enough guy that he would see that it’s more problematic than he’s admitting. But I don’t think he walks around intentionally lying to anyone.
HH: So they’re self-delusional?
MO: I mean, we all are to some extent. I think in this, they’re not thinking as deeply as they could.
HH: When you sat down with any of them, did you declare your worldview about Christianity to them?
MO: No. As a journalist, I tend not to do that. When asked, I’m always honest.
HH: Would it have been fairer to those that you interviewed to have revealed to them your background, because you know, the SI is coming to talk to me, hoorah. They’re writing about Christians and athletes, hoorah. And arrives Mark Oppenheimer, way left of center, pretty anti-sports…
MO: Well, I’m not way left of center, first of all. And second of all, there’s an assumption underlying what you’re saying, which is that I gave them a less fair hearing as a journalist.
HH: No, I didn’t say that. There’s no assumption.
MO: Well then, why would, I mean, journalists don’t typically go to talk about themselves. They go to interview someone else.
HH: I think they might have been on guard had they realized that you brought your assumptions with you. Not only, you know, they might not care that you weren’t a Christian, but that your animus towards big time sports, which is pulsating in this article, might better have been…
MO: Well, now wait a minute, you haven’t asked me anything about that, right?
HH: Oh, I’m getting to it. You want me to go there next? Okay.
MO: Sure. I mean, you’re passing all these assumptions about why they should have been suspicious of me. I think I’m a very fair journalist. I quoted them fairly. Fact checkers called them back and said did you really say this, oh yes, we really said this. I don’t think there is any unfairness in the treatment of any of the people I spoke to.
HH: Would you, did you declare to any of them, “Sports are self-contained moral universes. It’s okay to break bones if it’s for sports. Football can’t be subjected to moral claims that pertain to other aspects of life.”
MO: Well no, I don’t believe that. That was my paraphrase of some of the things that I was told.
HH: That is, that’s declaratory writing on…you don’t believe that?
MO: Well, did you read the article?
HH: Oh, I’ve got it right in front of me. I think that’s…
MO: So it’s not clear to you that that’s me paraphrasing what, the cases they were all making to me?
HH: Absolutely not. That is my suggestion of your summary of what had been said to you, and that you…
MO: Oh, no. Well, that’s not, well Hugh, that’s not a very thoughtful reading at all. I think anyone, look, people should go read the piece. Can we agree with that?
HH: Absolutely. I’ll link it. Is it available online, by the way? Did they make it available online?
MO: It is, as of yesterday, it was available online. If you go to Sports Illustrated’s I think Vault is what they call the archives.
HH: I’ll be right back. Mark, let’s take a break.
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HH: I want to read you the complete paragraph so that we put it into context. “What about concussions and broken bones? The abuse meted out to the bodies God gave us,” Mark asks Mr. D. “‘You know, D. says, football is football. You can get hurt walking across the street.’ That is the mantra of these ministries. Sports are self-contained moral universes. It’s okay to break bones if it’s for sports. Football can’t be subjected to the moral claims that pertain to other aspects of life.” You’re saying, Mark, that you do not believe that, you’re just attempting to summarize their view?
MO: Hugh, you just read it. I said that is the mantra of these ministries.
HH: Do you believe that that is what football is?
MO: I believe that’s the mantra of these ministries.
HH: I got that part. But I’m asking you now.
MO: Do I believe football is what?
HH: Is a self-contained moral universe in which it’s okay to break bones?
MO: No, not at all. I believe that’s what these ministries are claiming, and I’m criticizing them for it.
HH: Okay, see, I think that people, I’m glad you corrected my reading of it. Let me give you a different part of your article.
HH: “Here’s the catch. Jesus’ message is not exactly neutral towards winners and losers. The Bible is clear that He preferred the loser. The Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong, and the poor at the expense of the rich.” That is your assessment of the Bible. Do you believe that these ministries don’t believe that?
MO: I actually am not sure. I think that they don’t believe that. I think that they read certain passages to, look, and you can, again, I encourage people to read it, and I’m grateful to you for giving, for putting the story out there. I assume you’ll link to it on your website or Tweet it or something.
MO: I really hope people do read it. I actually think that look, these are people who would generally assent that every part of the Bible is completely true. They would say it’s all as true as the rest, right? But if you look at what they think the important parts are, what goes into their ministry and their evangelism, they talk a lot about Jesus wanting us to use our talent and to be excellent at everything we do, which by the way is not something Jesus ever said. But there’s a lot of talk of that. There’s a real theology of if you’re big and strong, you owe it to Jesus to be as big and as strong and as dominant as you possibly can be.
HH: But Mark, the impression that comes out of this, and you’re attributing what I’m thinking is perhaps not fair about this…
HH: …is that the people that you interviewed didn’t know that you had that opinion of what they believe, that you didn’t, they didn’t know that you believed they thought it’s okay to break bones. They didn’t know that you believed that they didn’t buy into Jesus’ idea of winners and losers. In other words, they were being interviewed by a very hostile agent, not a journalist.
MO: No, so Hugh, so let me explain this. That’s a deep misunderstanding of how I do journalism. I didn’t go in with those preconceptions of, I knew nothing about Fellowship of Christian Athletes except the vaguest, you know, I knew it existed. And you know, FCA, AIA, this is not a world, these were not fields I had trod before. And I went in pretty open-minded. I didn’t have, it was after spending hours and hours talking to them that I ended up writing those conclusions about what they seemed to me to believe. I didn’t go in with that agenda and then fish around for quotes to prove it. I quoted them at great length explaining their own theology. And then I summarized what it seemed to me they were saying.
HH: Did you find anyone, Mark Oppenheimer, who is in any of those ministries who fairly represented a view that in fact, Christianity flows through every aspect of life, and you take what you find there and you try to improve it?
MO: No, that was not, I’m searching my mind as you say that for all the things they told me, right, in hours and hours of interviews. I don’t remember ever having that impression of their Christianity. I should say that Athletes In Action was not cooperative, and any AIA people I spoke with, I tended to speak with on the sly, and they didn’t allow me to quote them. Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I’m grateful to say, was much more cooperative, and spent a lot of time on the phone with me. So that, of course, affects my perception. Maybe if I have spoken to 15 or 20 Athletes In Action chaplains, I would have had a different perception of that ministry, and I don’t meant to conflate them all. But no, the people who talked about Christianity in those kind of broader terms that you just said were often ex-sports chaplains, ex-FCA or AIA people. And I quoted one of them, who now teaches at Baylor.
HH: Okay, I want to quote another piece from the article. “Even if a player could Christianize the strip club,” and people will have to read to get the context there, “he can’t cover up the central irony of big time football.” And this is a fact statement by you. “The sport with the biggest Christian presence, the most famous Christian athletes, the Tebows, the Kurt Warners, and the deepest penetration of chaplains, ministers and Bible studies, is quite likely to corrupt a player’s Christian values.” That’s a fact statement, correct? That’s not, you’re not reporting someone else’s view. That’s Mark Oppenheimer’s view.
MO: I would say it’s my judgment. I’m not making a specific fact claim, but yeah, that’s my judgment.
HH: And so, how do you come to that? I mean, that’s probably the most startling thing. How in the world does playing football corrupt Christian values? And first, let’s start with what are those values? You have to have a normative judgment of what those values are to make the statement that they’ve been corrupted.
MO: Sure. Well, we could go through it pretty systematically. I mean, we could say that if you, you know, that if you think of money, or the worship of the dollar as a kind of idolatry, then the money in pro football is certainly more likely to tempt you and to lead to that kind of idolatry than the money in, say, cross-country running or collegiate wrestling.
HH: Stop for a second. What is your attitude of Christians and money, that they shouldn’t have any?
MO: No, no, no, not that they shouldn’t have any, but I don’t think, well, let me talk about my attitude towards people. And do you want to talk about my personal attitude or my perception, my reading of the Christian…
HH: No, what I’m really getting at, Mark, I don’t think you know Christianity very well, and your statement about Christian values indicates that to me.
MO: I think you’re assuming that I’m making certain mistakes other people on your show make, like the such that you’re assuming I believe that all Christians should be poor, which is a common misreading…
HH: No, no, no. I’m just saying that you write that it’s likely to corrupt a player’s Christian values, and you’ve got to be able to state what those values are. You began with money.
MO: No, I began, no, be…you know what? So many people said the thing about Hugh is he’s fair. And I didn’t begin with money. I began with the love of money.
HH: Okay, fine. Absolutely correct. Absolutely correct.
MO: And treating, setting up money as a form of idolatry.
HH: But the first Christian value is kind of a trick question, and I’m not always fair, but I try to be, is that the first Christian value is belief that Christ is Christ and who he says he is. And so…
MO: I…and I’m not, and by the way, I didn’t make the claim that pro football necessarily corrupts every Christian value, right? That would be an impossible…
HH: Actually, it’s pretty close to that, Mark.
MO: No, no, Hugh, here’s the thing.
HH: Quite likely to corrupt a player’s Christian values.
MO: Hugh, let’s be fair here. So therefore, your question to me is does pro football necessarily corrupt every single Christian value of every player? Is that what you take me to be claiming?
MO: That’s it’s impossible to play pro football, that not one of the single pro football players playing after a year in the NFL could possibly have any shred of authentic Christianity left?
HH: No, because you say quite likely, not absolutely.
HH: So I would say what, 90 out of 100 players are likely to have their Christian values…
MO: Well, let me, can I ask you a question?
HH: It’s interview, not a debate. We’ve got to go to break.
— – – –
HH: Mark, this is a short segment, three minutes, and so I want to just turn it over to you to make statements that somehow equalize where I’ve been leading you. I don’t want to overrun your position and not give you a chance to sort of, as we go out of the hour, to put something on the table.
MO: Well, you are a Harvard man, as we know, and a gentleman. So I think that one way to think about the criticism of the NFL coming from the people I quoted is here’s a simple way to look at it. If you’re really being Christian athletes, then if you got a bad call in your favor, wouldn’t you tell the ref? And isn’t honesty one of those things that the tradition teaches? And if you think that lying is okay, or covering up the truth or denying the truth is okay because it’s a football game, then aren’t you likely to, isn’t your virtue likely to be corrupt in other aspects of your life? Would Christ want you to cordon off one piece of it and say well, you know, football game it’s okay to lie or cheat or whatever. And I asked the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplains and coaches, you know, how would you feel about a player who said to a ref, you know, that call should have gone to the opponent, I was out of bounds, it’s not a touchdown. And they all kind of chuckled. And they say well, that’s not very realistic. And I think that’s really, and again, I’m coming from what some Christian critics of the NFL told me. That’s where they want to see the message taken.
HH: And did you belong to Skull and Bones?
HH: You did?
HH: Aren’t you normally supposed to deny belonging to Skull and Bones?
HH: There’s no requirement that…can you reveal who your colleagues are in Skull and Bones?
MO: Well, you know, for the sake of privacy, I don’t talk about other people who aren’t relevant to stories that I’m writing. But you know, you obviously have been on the internet, so…
HH: I actually didn’t know that you were in Bones. So I was just wondering. There are rules, though, about belonging, correct?
HH: I mean, you accept certain obligations and requirements.
MO: What are those?
HH: I don’t know. I’m asking you. Let me put it this way…
MO: No, there are no obligations or requirements.
HH: Are there any conventions that go with belonging to a secret society?
MO: Yeah, sure. You go on Sunday nights and Thursday nights, you have dinner, you talk.
HH: And are there any conventions that would ordinarily require you to depart from what say a Christian norm would be?
HH: So you turn in all of your members who have done something illegal or immoral?
MO: Turn into whom?
HH: To the law enforcement. If someone commits a crime, you would turn them in?
MO: I would turn in anyone I knew was committing a crime that I thought should be turned in. I don’t turn I my friends for speeding or…
HH: If they were driving under the influence away from a Bones event? Would you call the police?
MO: I wouldn’t treat them any differently because they were a Yalie or a Jew or a Springfield resident or any of the other…
HH: Okay, that’s a good response.
HH: That’s a good response. I’ve got to go to break. We’ll come back and talk about this. What I was attempting to demonstrate is that some conventions apply to all human organization that don’t necessarily put you in contradiction with your religious faith. But I didn’t do a very good job of it.
— – – – –
HH: When I issue Talking With Pagans, Part 2, I don’t really think he’s a pagan since he’s an observant Jew. So I’m going to have to have Talking With Journalists, which is going to go under my category of many interesting…
MO: Why aren’t you doing Talking With Jews? Why don’t we merit our own e-book?
HH: Because there might be other journalists who aren’t Jews that I want to put into this.
MO: I see.
HH: Like Andrew Sullivan, right? That was an interesting conversation. Now Mark, back to where I was going in the article.
HH: You quote, you have two big sources in the book, in the article, for support. One is Sharon Stoll, and the other is Shirl James Hoffman, correct?
MO: Yeah, I mean, there are others, but those are, they’re both in the article.
HH: And they’re major. They’re props of the argument.
MO: Yeah, yeah.
HH: How did you pick them?
MO: Well, I mean, Stoll has done the longest longitudinal study of ethics in athletes. I mean, she’s pretty highly regarded in the athletic world, in the chaplaincy world. Everyone was pointing me toward her work, and toward her name. In terms of Shirl Hoffman, his book is, again, very highly regarded. I’d seen a review when it came out. He has a long history as a Christian and an athlete. He’s not someone who’s hostile to athletics at all. I read the book, every single line of it. It seemed to me really fair and really thoughtful. So I ended up using him, because my judgment told me that they were fair and thoughtful sources from whom I had learned a lot as a reporter.
HH: Now the Stoll paragraphs, and there are three of them, are put in there to serve, you know, they’re evidence for a proposition, but I’ll let you summarize what her argument in your article is supposed to prove up.
MO: God, you wanted me to reread the article before coming on your show? You know, what she studies, I think her conclusion, and I want to try to be fair to her here, right? People again are free to go to the article and then find her article, which is easily found on the web, is that the male revenue contact sports, especially if they go on in their pro form, or if they are revenue producing for universities, so you’re talking about things like hockey, lacrosse and football, tend to have students who when, student athletes who when surveyed about their ethics and about their behavior, tend to give responses that are less ethical than students in other sports or than female athletes.
HH: And so what’s that prove? Why did you include it in the article?
MO: Well, I include it because…here’s where I think that actually comes into play. A lot of people have a kind of assumption that athletics builds character, however construed, right? Character might mean honesty, it might mean virtue, it might mean faith, fidelity, whatever. It might mean loyalty to one’s teammates. When she surveyed players using a questionnaire that I did glance at, and there have been iterations of it over the years. She surveyed 90,000 athletes to date, and her study is ongoing. She found that no matter how you looked at it, the evidence actually runs the other way for certain sports, that the longer you play those sports, the less likely you are to give responses that correlate with things like loyalty, honesty, compassion, things like that.
HH: And you see the reason I think it’s here, as you go back to my summary of your thesis, that football is bad for the soul, that’s how I summarized my takeaway from your piece, and I read these three paragraphs, and they all support that statement that football is bad for the soul. In fact, I’ll read them. “Since 1987, Sharon Stoll of the University of Idaho has surveyed more than 90,000 student-athletes on their moral reasoning in matters such as fair play and sportsmanship. Her research shows that athletes on average score lower than the general student population on tests of moral reasoning, and athletes in “male, revenue-producing contact sports” are the most deficient of that group. One major reason for their moral indifference, writes Stoll, is that in the culture of male team-sport athletics, “the opponent is not seen as an honorable opponent but rather an obstacle, of little worth, to be overcome.” This dehumanization of the opponent is amplified by the rules of football. Stars in all sports are rich and worshipped as heroes, but only football adds to the money and adulation a level of violence and physical domination that is deeply at odds with Jesus’ message. In 1994, Stoll asked a group of West Point football players, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, about the role of intimidation in sports. As Stoll tells the story, “One of the linebackers says, ‘Ma’am, my job is to kick them in the head, knee them in the groin, stand over them and tell them never to get up.'” Stoll then asked how the linebacker would play against Jesus. “And the guy looked at me and said, ‘Ma’am, I’m as Christian as the next guy, but if I’m playing Jesus the Christ, I play the same way. I leave God on the bench.” Now first of all, that’s hearsay, right, that Ms. Stoll told you that that happened, and you’re crediting her account?
MO: I am crediting her account, yes.
HH: Do you believe that actually happened?
MO: Yes, I do.
MO: Yes, I do. My experience with scholars who have spent many, many years on a research project, and whose work has undergone a lot of peer review by other scholars, generally other scholars working the same field, who often would love to take it down or find fault in it is that you know, there’s a pretty high level of honesty in academia that way.
HH: Did you actually…
MO: And that if there’s not, if there are mistakes, they usually get caught over a 20 year career. I have no reason to disbelieve her on that.
HH: Did you investigate her credibility as a scholar?
MO: Well, I certainly have talked to a lot of other people and said you know, what do you think of Stoll’s work. I don’t know what you mean by investigating. I didn’t fly out to Idaho and comb through her files.
HH: No, I’m not saying that, just a quick internet search.
HH: She’s in business, right, or was at least with a football coach, Bobby Lankford, selling character building curricula to teens.
MO: She does a lot of consulting, and I think probably has a lot of, I would certainly take your word for it that she may have side projects. But that’s true of numerous academics. I have no reason to disbelieve her survey of…you think she’s fabricated…
HH: No, I’m just saying it is significant as a lawyer, I look at this and say if she was a witness on a stand, I would bring up the fact that she is in the business of creating moral deficiency in sports so that she might in fact fill that business with her consulting. And I think that would be useful to this article.
MO: Well, it would be certainly useful in a court of law to creating doubt in a jury about her honesty. I’m not sure that academic consulting, I mean, look, sometimes academic consulting work affects the work that they do.
HH: Sure, it does.
MO: And sometimes, it doesn’t, right?
MO: But that’s a pretty strong claim to make, that she’s creating…
HH: I didn’t make it. I said I would be interested, and I would investigate it. I don’t know. I do know, though, I went and read some of her other research…
HH: And other places, she concludes female sports athletes are becoming more morally calloused, lack of respect, honor towards fellow competitors, teammates, rule and against the spirit of the rules.
HH: Results on male athletes’ reasoning, sports reasoning, have been fairly consistent, she writes. The longer they participate in sports, the more morally calloused they become. The same appears to be happening with female athletes, especially team sport athletes. It appears, she writes, that female athletes are being socialized into the current capitalistic, commodified model of moral callousness, less of a concern for others, and more of a concern for self. So I took away from that that she actually thinks all athletes are becoming morally calloused, and that this is not particularly applicable to football.
MO: I take away from it exactly the way you fairly quoted her, which is that she thinks that female athletes are catching up to male athletes in their callousness. But you yourself read a little bit earlier, began the quotation I had from her, which is that even within athletics, there is, you’re able to differentiate in a statistically meaningful way, and that certain male contact, revenue producing sports, those athletes score the worst.
HH: So here’s the journalistic question.
HH: Did you cherry pick her research to serve the thesis that football is bad for the soul, whereas a full explanation both of who she is and what she has written might stand for the proposition that she’s in the business of showing that all sports needs moral redemption, and she’s here to provide it.
MO: No, I didn’t cherry pick it. In fact, I looked really, really long and hard for surveys that showed anything otherwise. There doesn’t seem to be a single survey anywhere that shows that playing college football, for example, and I’m picking that out of the blue, but I think you could replicate it with other sports, because I did a pretty extensive search, is good for one’s character on any sort of metric that you can create. Anecdotally, of course, you know, I’m an athlete, my father was a college athlete, my brothers are athletes, my sister’s an athlete. I have nothing against athletics, and I think that it could be extraordinarily wonderful, a wonderful part of one’s life. I can tell you, and you probably have an intern somewhere, and you could put him or her on the case, that if you go looking for research that runs contrary to hers, that shows that participating in football makes you more honest, for example, you simply won’t find it. So it wasn’t cherry picking so much as just looking at what’s out there.
HH: Okay, but correlation is not causation.
MO: No, it’s not. It’s not.
HH: If we have a general decline in the society of moral reasoning, attributed to…
MO: Yeah, but Hugh, again, again, even within that declined society, she still finds that for example, college football players do worse than participants in many other sports.
HH: But they might do…
MO: It’s not fair, it’s not a fair representation of her research. Let’s be fair to her.
HH: No, but it’s still not dispositive, because you’d have to show a control group.
MO: No, it’s dispositive. It’s not dispositive.
HH: You’ve have to show that people from whom football players are drawn did better not being in football, but that in football, to answer the question whether it’s good for your soul, you’d have to have found…
MO: Right, well the most dispositive piece of it, the piece of it that tends toward a kind of proof is that the longer you stay in it, the worse your reasoning gets.
HH: We’ll come right back and argue that, because it doesn’t follow.
— – – –
HH: What’s the URL for the blog, Mark?
MO: Oh, it’s just www.markoppenheimer.com.
HH: Isn’t it Mark E. Oppenheimer?
MO: It’s not. It’s not.
MO: That’s my, you’re thinking of a version of my email address.
HH: Okay, www.markoppenheimer.com, and he is author of many books, etc., and we’re in the middle of discussing his article on football. And I was talking about what the key academic research you cite for the propositions that you make about faith and football and the NFL is, I think, demonstrably beside the point, that you can’t educe anything from it, because there’s no control group, and that what we really want to ask is what would these football players be doing, and how would they be living without football? Isn’t that really the question?
MO: You know, Hugh, for a Harvard man, you’re really smart, and I think that that’s actually, really is the question. I don’t think that the academic research is any sort of conclusive proof, and you’re absolutely right. And in fact, Les Steckel made that point to me. He was bragging about the way that Christianity can transform certain people’s lives. And he said I’ve seen players, you know, you see that they become a Christian, and all of a sudden they’re speaking politely, and they’re being kind to people. And I said to him, well, isn’t that what we’d just expect of everyone? I mean, is that some great accomplishment of finding Jesus, that you would be polite and stand up tall? And he said well yeah, but you have to remember where some of these players come from, and the lack of parenting they had, and stuff like that. And that’s an extremely powerful point, right, that you don’t know where a player’s necessarily going to end up but for participating in a particular extracurricular or sport. I absolutely take that point very seriously. For me, I just go back to the question of okay, are these coaches then telling the players if a bad call is made in your favor, doesn’t candor and honesty dictate that you say so? Is there a kind of integrity that maybe we could be teaching in sports that we’re not, because the money, the fame, the adulation, the desire to win, overcomes the Christian or the moral instincts?
HH: Well, I want to stay on the bigger question for a moment, which is…
MO: I think you do, because that’s, I mean, how do you answer that one, right? I mean, we have, in the history of the NFL, how many times can we think of a player who said you know what, Ref, I was out of bounds, or I interfered with that pass.
HH: But that’s actually not the key question. The key question is whether sports…
MO: Hugh, in terms of someone who is raising three young children, and the eldest of whom is playing soccer now, the other two are quite young, but I hope that they will be athletes, I think that’s an extremely important question.
HH: Oh, it is an important question, but the most important question from your article is whether or not football is a good thing generally, and whether it’s bad for the soul.
MO: Well, it’s not, you cherry picked that. I spent a lot of time on the question in my article of what kind of values are being taught in the game. Are we teaching people that honesty, that love for the opponent, that breaking bread together in fellowship, that treating each other as human beings is something that the game is teaching? And you’re sidestepping that all to stay in the theological realm of one’s soul. But I think the really pragmatic, on the ground question of how participation in sports molds our character is front and center in my article.
HH: But here’s the reaction to your article, and I wanted to make sure I quoted it. Andrew Klavan writes, “It’s smarmy and poorly reported, not an offense to God. It was an offense to journalism. Unsupported conclusions, innuendoes, slanted use of quotes, flat out untruths, unacceptable in any magazine attempting to report fairly. My point is it’s only, it’s not journalism or interesting or even vaguely worth reading. I would love to read a well-reported, balanced article about the problems of mixing faith and sports. And I would be interested in an intelligence debate about Title IX and the damage is does to boys sports, etc.” So I don’t put that out there to agree with Andrew. I put it out there to say the key is your article elicited an enormous negative reaction from people…
HH: …not because of the question you raise, but because of the conclusion I took away from it, as did many other people, that you are arguing that football is bad for the soul. So I want to go back to the key question.
MO: Wait, your evidence for the enormous negative reaction, as far as I can tell, is one blogger whom I had never heard of until last week.
HH: Yes, well, Andrew’s actually pretty well known, but also, I’ve tested it out, for example, last night at dinner with a group of super-animated, I mean, they were old guys, but a bunch of athletes, saying I was going to come in early and talk to Mark Oppenheimer about football. And they’re all USC and UCLA people, so they really don’t read much. But nevertheless, the opinion is they were all aghast at the proposition that football is bad for you, because they all believe that football is character building, that football is good for you. And I think if journalists have moral agency, meaning that there are consequences to what we write and broadcast, we have to own those consequences, and I think the consequences of your…
MO: I don’t think football is in any danger of suffering a fall from grace in the American mind because of my article.
HH: False flag. I do believe that some people would be less likely to play football as a result of your article.
MO: Possibly, sure.
HH: And so if that is the case…
MO: And look, I’m getting a lot of mail from Christian pastors saying thank you so much for this article. I mean, how you want to put that as anecdotal evidence against your…
HH: No, it’s legit. It’s absolutely legit.
MO: …against your UCLA friends, I don’t know. But if we’re playing anecdotally, the mail, actually, I got an email last night from Sports Illustrated. They sent me the packet of all the letters to the editor they got, and it seemed, it might have been a couple hundred or so. I mean, I didn’t even get through it all. It was overwhelmingly, it seemed to me, from Evangelical Christians saying thank you for this article.
HH: I’m sure, and in a nation of 300 million people, you’re going to get some good answers and some bad answers. But I think we agree you just conceded, I’ll call it an admission against interest, that some people will be less likely to play football…
MO: In a nation of 300 million people, I’m sure some will, yeah.
HH: And for them, will that be a good choice to make on the basis of your piece? Will they have had a fair argument about why they ought to play or not play on the basis of your piece?
MO: Okay, well, let’s look at, let’s invent a character, put him in a town that’s football mad, or just in love with football, getting all sorts of positive pressure, let’s say you’re a big kid or a fast kid to play football, your parents are hopeful you’ll play, the coach is trying to get you on the team. In a lot of towns, the pastor ends up preaching about the Friday night game on Sunday. If you then, against all of that, have this one skeptical note, which is my article, that doesn’t seem to have hurt you in any way. If it has provoked some thinking, I think that’s fine.
HH: Well no, if you want to revoke your statement that some people may not play because of your article, that’s different. You made an admission that some people…
MO: Oh, okay, so if some people don’t play, I mean, look. We have to have some epistemic humility here, right? Will their lives be better off? On their deathbed, will they say I wish I’d played football instead of either doing chess club or…
HH: No, that’s not the question. The question is did they have a fair argument presented to them? Did they read this article, this one article, and walk away, or their mom and dad saying you’re not playing, you’re done, it’s not Christian? And would have been fair for them? Or did you not represent well, for example, the Mark Murphy’s of the world. I only know one NFL player, and not very well. It’s Mark Murphy, who is president of the Green Bay Packers, wonderful man, extraordinary human being, former athletic director at Northwestern. You’d want him to coach your kids. You’d want him to be around. If you wrote an article about Mark Murphy, and you talked about his faith life, etc., or you could go find six or seven other people who are not Tim Tebow or Kurt Warner, you could have written a piece that said faith redeems, holds up, and generates opportunity and life where it wasn’t before. You could have done that.
MO: Well, Hugh, you should tell people whom I did quote in the article. You know, Tim Hightower, Justin Tuck, I mean, the FCA people who are former pro coaches, I mean, it’s filled with the testimony of people who have made football their life and love. And it concludes with a testimony to football from Tim Hightower. I mean, it’s…no, I think it’s a very fair portrait, if anything. It has nothing in there about, nobody’s life in the article is destroyed by football. So I think it’s, certainly if they sent them to find out who are these people, why did they play the game, they’d end up with a very fair perception of the game, I think.
— – –
HH: And this brings up now the end of the article, a biography of Dan Savage, gay rights activist. By the way, did you see that Dan Savage recently berated a bunch of Christian high school kids in a public audience?
MO: Well, that’s a very, very famous episode. I wouldn’t say he berated them. People should go watch the…but rather than talk about that, you should put up a link to the YouTube of that speech, and invite the adults to go see what he said to the audience.
HH: Did you approve of his conduct there?
MO: I don’t think he should have used profanity.
HH: Okay, fine. Fine. I thought it was morally obtuse at best.
MO: And Dan has said as much. I mean, that’s been a much debated thing, because he was invited by this journalist association to come talk, and he said look, I’m going to give a fairly provocative speech, I’m going to give it to kids straight. And I don’t think the content of it was objectionable, except he should not have used profanity with high school students. So you know, we could down that byway. I know a lot about Dan Savage.
HH: Yeah, I know. You wrote a biography about him. But I bring him up only because the penultimate section of your Sports Illustrated article brings up the debate about same sex marriage in the NFL, which kind of came out of left field for me.
MO: Yeah, for me, too.
HH: And I said what in the world is this doing here. But then you conclude that a couple of the players turns as gay rights advocates, serves as, “A reminder that the conservative Christian message has not taken hold everywhere in the NFL.”
HH: Now do you believe that the conservative Christian message is dominant in the NFL?
MO: I think that if you’re on most teams, the pressure to, say, take part in prayer circles, for example, is very, very strong. I think that, now so you look at a team like the Giants, which is entirely typical this way. I’m not picking on them, and in fact, I grew up a Giants fan, being from Western New England. Wednesday night Bible study, Saturday night chapel, Sunday morning Mass for the Catholic players, there’s a pretty strong culture of Christianity, and again, this is true for the majority of NFL teams. It’s not my sense that anyone is spurned or rejected if they don’t participate in it, but the Christian culture is much stronger on these teams than, say, the atheist or skeptical culture.
HH: But what do you think is the conservative Christian message?
MO: Oh, that was just a term I was using to describe Evangelical culture or conservative Catholic culture. It would in part include the theology, it would in part include the necessary of salvation through Christ, or if you’re Catholic, through Communion, and partaking the Sacraments. But you know, I’m speaking more largely about the culture of it than the theology of it.
HH: Because what’s interesting, the conservative Christian message, earlier in the piece, you talk about Padre Joe. He’s been a guest on this show, Notre Dame graduate, class of ’78, runs a mission in Northern Peru where Jim Harbaugh, I believe has worked in the fields and build the sandstone and all that kind of stuff.
HH: He’s a friend of a friend of mine, and so I know this pretty well. The conservative Christian message is actually service to the poor, love of the least and the lost, belief that Jesus redeems, but I don’t think that’s what you meant when you put this in after talking about same sex marriage.
MO: Yes, so this is interesting in two ways. First of all, now you’re the one editorializing about what you take the message to be.
HH: Yeah, I am. I am.
MO: I was using quotations from people throughout saying what do you think it is, and what does it mean to be a Christian, and how do you evangelize. So it would be interesting if you asked Les Steckel of FCA what does he think the message is. I think people would have different answers. But the other thing is, and I’m so glad that you’re addressing this, is you’re pointing to how fair and even-handed my piece is, which is that I do bring in people like Padre, and then talk about his work in Peru, and I do bring in all sorts of people speaking in very positive, authentic terms about their own Christianity, because it’s not a one-sided piece.
HH: Actually, I don’t think that’s what you did. I think you brought Padre Joe on for a walk on to make a bow towards, to affirm your point that sports doesn’t have anything to do with theology. But…and I’m very serious here, Mark. I think you’re a fine reporter, and I read your columns, and I think they’re great.
MO: Thank you.
HH: But I would never have picked you to write this piece. I think you’re almost incapable of genuine sympathy for the point of view that Christian athletes have, and I think your hostility to the game bled…I don’t know what it’s versed in, but I think you probably did deter people from playing the game, and I think that’s probably a social negative.
MO: You know, as a journalist, I don’t say to myself when I set out to write a piece am I going to draw people or deter people from a particular activity. As a journalist, you know, my responsibility is to write a compelling, thoughtful, but most of all honest and fair piece. And again, in a country of 300 million people, I’m sure that somebody read this piece and won’t play football, somebody will read this piece and decide they’re going to switch from Coke to Gatorade, and somebody will read this piece, and I mean, it’s…that’s a silly game to say well, what happens when this piece goes out to 3 million people. The answer, if we have any sort of humility, is we say we don’t know. But that just avoids the question of, you know, is it a thoughtful, honest, fair, well-reported piece?
HH: Thoughtful and honest are different. Fair is what I’m getting to. And the question that Klavan raises…
HH: ..which I think critics would raise, is why did SI hire you to do this? And when we come back, we’ll answer that.
— – – –
HH: I want to thank my guest, Mark Oppenheimer. I hope he comes back on other columns that he writes for the New York Times. We’ve been discussing last hour and this hour his cover story in the Sports Illustrated, Does God Care Who Wins The Super Bowl. Mark, let me finish with Klavan’s argument.
HH: “I’m going to let me subscription to Sports Illustrated lapse when it runs out this year,” he writes. “I hope lots of other people will do the same. Like too many other publications, the magazine has become dishonest, dishonorable, even occasionally despicable in its conformist, lock-step, left-wing bias. Republican politicians in conservative positions are routinely insulted in articles that have nothing to do with either. Yawn-inducing, left-wing predictability is brought to the discussion of every issue. No SI writer is ever allowed to disagree with leftism ever. Despite its great photographs and occasionally good athlete profiles, the magazine has remade itself into crap in the name of political conformity.” He then goes on, that’s his thesis, and he goes on to argue that your piece is in defense of that.
MO: His elegantly stated thesis, yeah.
HH: Now you are a man of the left. You know, my characterization is pretty far left. You deny that. And the piece is anti-Christianity in football, and pretty dismissive of the organization. So the question is, did SI make a good editorial choice? Could they have found someone maybe to write about athletes in the game…
MO: Well first of all, I think you won’t find much support for the idea that Sports Illustrated is anti-football. It has about 20 pro football covers a year, and is enthusiastic and passionate and assiduous in its coverage of pro and college football. So that will be a curious argument to try and sell…
HH: But don’t, that’s, you’re a good debater. It’s the Yalie debater.
MO: No, I mean, that’s a really curious argument.
HH: My proposition is on Super Bowl week, when it probably has the highest newsstand sales of any time in the year other than the swimsuit issue, they come up with you for their cover story, and it bangs on the sport.
MO: Well, as I told you, right, we had this conversation an hour ago, right? As I told you, they came to me and said why don’t you do something on Christianity in sports, because we think it would be interesting. And I set out and did a lot of reporting, and then we ended up narrowing it to football. They didn’t give a charge. A good, a strong journalistic enterprise doesn’t go out with an agenda, I think, and hire a writer hoping that they’ll do some sort of hatchet job or hit job, or praise job, or gushing job. They hire a writer they think is good and strong, and ask him or her to go do something interesting and well-reported. So what I came back with, they ran. But I could have just as easily come back with totally different conclusions, because I didn’t go in with any preconceptions. So I don’t know, it’s sad to hear your dismissal of the possibility that someone could just go in with no preconceptions and do a fair job.
HH: No, I’m not dismissing that. I just don’t think…
MO: It’s just not something I’m capable of?
HH: This is shocking after our conversation. I don’t think it’s a fair piece.
MO: And I don’t have any history of writing about football. The editors literally, none, zero. I don’t think, so the editors would have had no, if they were looking for someone to go tear down football, I’m sure that a five minute Google search would have found much better candidates than…
HH: But if they were looking for someone to go rip on Christians in football, and to make them appear stupid and hypocritical and shallow…
HH: They might go to you.
MO: That’s doubly silly, because if you are a regular reader of my Times columns, you know that I have an extremely strong record of reporting fairly, and often very sympathetically on Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Muslims, Jews. I mean, I don’t come at religion to tear it down at all. I come at it to report on it honestly and fairly.
HH: Here are the columns you wrote recently. Seeing Darwin Through Christian Eyes, It All Depends On The Christian, A Christian Pioneer Of Home Schooling Looks To Its Future, No Religious Exemption When It Comes To Abuse, Guiding Gay Evangelicals Out Of The Campus Closet, and…
MO: Right, the second one you mentioned was the piece on Mary Pride, the pioneer of Evangelical home schooling…
MO: …which was a piece she was thrilled with.
HH: No, I was pointing this out so people know I did go back and read your work.
HH: And so you may disagree with this, but I would think…
MO: You could go read my piece on Eve Tushnet, the conservative Catholic, you could go read my work on Maggie Gallagher, the anti-same sex marriage activist.
HH: But I was pointing it out that I did read your work, and therefore, if I was looking for someone who would bring in a hit on conservative Christians, but I needed cover for their credentials, because you have grade A credentials, you have an extraordinary resume, I’d hire Mark Oppenheimer.
MO: Because of all the…
HH: This is not about you. It’s about the editors, Mark. It’s like predicting what you would do.
MO: But I have no history of doing hit jobs on conservative Christians.
HH: No, but you have, you are a left winger, you’re not a Christian, you’re not sympathetic to the Evangelical point of view, you have a concern with the same sex marriage issue, which would almost certainly and did, in fact, get into the piece about what Christians believe and the NFL, and I think it was fairly predictable that you would produce the piece you did.
MO: Well, you’re attributing a level of sinister motive to the editors at SI…
HH: Not sinister, political. Agenda journalism.
MO: Well, you know, you should ask them, because that’s not, I didn’t assign me.
HH: No, and I would have taken the money, and taken the assignment. But it does have moral consequence, right?
MO: You know, we never got back to the question of whether athletes should answer if, if they should speak up if they got a bad call.
HH: Go ahead.
MO: No, I want to know what you think.
HH: No, no, it’s an interview, not a debate.
MO: Oh, but my…
HH: I haven’t thought about it yet.
MO: But my position on it is like abundantly clear. I mean, if there’s one thing you can fairly say I do imply in the article, it’s that, is that an authentic, moral message, let’s not say Christian or Jewish, but moral message from any of those points of view, including secular morality, would teach kids that you have to be honest in sports as well as in the rest of life.
HH: And here’s my counter statement. I think men like Jim Harbaugh are at every level of the game, like Brad McCoy, and coaches throughout the country, and that they’re deeply convicted of religious faith, and that they bring faith, reason, order and goodness to the lives of young men, many thousands of whom would never have it because they lack dads, and that the attack on the game inherent in your article is an attack on their opportunity to have men of good judgment, value and faith in their live, and that it would be tragic if they did not play because they developed a hostility to the game based upon your piece.
MO: So I honor that statement, and I think that’s well put. I would ask if you were Jim Harbaugh, would you tell players that if they got a touchdown but knew that they’d stepped out of bounds, that they should speak up and say so?
HH: I don’t know. I have to think, I really have to think that through. It’s a very interesting question, but it’s almost like saying…
MO: And it goes all the way down.
HH: That’s a debater’s question. I pose an enormously big, important question, and you want to talk about a rare instance over here.
MO: No, no. I think, Hugh, I think all of your listeners will understand why the question that I responded with, which my article is suffused with in many ways, is in its way as big and central as the one you posed.
HH: That’s interesting. I don’t think so, but I’ll go back, we’ll post the transcript.
HH: Come back and we’ll take calls one day, and we’ll let them bat this around. They’re already mad at me for not letting them talk to you, but I have an agenda when I start. I want to make sure I get it all done. Last minute to you, sir.
MO: I’m honored to have been here. I really just encourage people to go read the piece. I think that you’ve done me a service by having me on for this long, and I look forward to being collected in your future e-book, Interviews With Jews, or interviews by Harvard educated Catholics with Yale educated Jews.
HH: Will you come back, by the way?
MO: Oh, of course.
HH: Wonderful. Look for him in two weeks, America, Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times and SI.
End of interview.