Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ All-World quarterback with Berkeley pedigree and long established hipster’s snark, threw some shade on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson after Green Bay’s 27-17 victory on Sunday. In the post-game version of sub-tweeting. Rodgers commented that God “was a Packers fan tonight,” as he seemed to visibly fight a grin. Rodgers’s comments, subtle as a blowtorch, are being read as a direct response to the garrulously religious Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s comments after last year’s truly “miraculous” come-from-behind playoff win over the Pack when he said that a Higher Power made him throw four interceptions because, “That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”
Rodgers, upon hearing Wilson’s comments in the wake of a bitter defeat, said, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.” Nine months later, Rodgers jabs back with a holy joust.
Without question, it is more than understandable that so many football players speak about God as if He (always “He” in the NFL) is the Big Coach in the Sky, scripting outcomes like Vince McMahon with a baggy sweatshirt and a headset. In a game when any play can be your last, when crippling injuries can often take place in the most random and undramatic of ways, when a lifetime of brain disease is a distinct possibility, it doesn’t take Thomas Aquinas to figure out why thinking there’s an angel on your shoulder could feel like a bonus.
Yet the locker-room incursions of groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action have turned college and pro football into religious spaces controlled by a very political strain of Christianity, one that demands that its adherents use their athletic platform to praise Jesus at every turn. These devout jocks are ascribed to having “character” and “intangibles” that less religious players would almost certainly not possess. (Think about the deification and continued opportunities of Tim Tebow, a k a “the Quarterback Who Cannot Throw.”) Players who were Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or just irreligious have long told stories of finding themselves on the outside looking in.
Far from the fictitious “War on Christianity” bleated by those on the GOP debate stage, the nation’s most popular cultural product is a constant megaphone for a particular version of Christ, even though the stadiums are funded by the government and the network airwaves are—allegedly—for all of us. In other words, when it comes to football, there is no separation between God and the public square.
Hearing Aaron Rodgers give a little nationally televised pushback against the idea of a higher power being deeply invested in a football game is as satisfying as it is overdue. It also comes a month after the off-season story of Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster “coming out” as an atheist with a stirring 15-minute video he made for the organization Openly Secular. Yes, the 21st century’s loud and proud atheists can be some of the most self-satisfied boors on the political landscape. Comedian W. Kamau Bell tells a story in his stand-up of a white friend on Facebook who tells him that he knows what it’s like to be black because as an atheist he has faced oppression. Kamau responds, “Look, if Howard Zinn never wrote about you, then you aren’t oppressed.”