Pastor’s experience as coach’s wife and former athlete provides insights into sports’ dark side
By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today
Sports encroaching on Sunday worship. Controversies over kneeling versus standing for the national anthem at football games. Praying before the big game. Americans are passionate about sports. But where does faith come into play on the playing field and in the pew?
When it comes to faith and sports, Marcia Mount Shoop has some thoughts. She, a former athlete who is now a pastor, and her husband, John Shoop, who spent his career coaching college football, have seen firsthand that often in sports the Jesus playbook — which calls for treating others justly — is tossed aside. And when it comes to the local church and the tiring complaint of secular sports cutting into the church’s Sunday school program, Marcia Shoop sees a larger problem that is not being addressed: the problem of not addressing the question “Why are sports chosen over church?”
An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Marcia Shoop was in the world of big-time sports for more than 20 years. Before that she was an NCAA track and field and cross-country athlete. In 1995, she married John Shoop, an NCAA athlete in baseball and football.
They met while studying religion at Oxford University in England. John was considering a coaching or ministry career. He chose the former, because coaches had the biggest impact on his life, Shoop said.
After John had brief stints as a volunteer coach at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and as a graduate assistant at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the Shoops, in Marcia’s words, “got on the fast train.”
At 25, John was hired as a quality control coach for the Carolina Panthers, making him the youngest coach in the NFL. The Shoops went from the Carolina Panthers to Chicago to Tampa Bay to Oakland — and then in 2007 back to college, where John was an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
In the third year of his stint at UNC the Tar Heels became the focus of an investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The investigation began because a football player received what the NCAA called improper benefits. It resulted in the UNC football program receiving a post-season bowl ban for the 2012 season, a loss of 15 scholarships and three years’ probation.
During the investigation, Marcia and John had serious questions about how the university and the NCAA were treating the black football players under investigation. They say the UNC compliance officers and tutors told these players to not talk to anyone — and not to get lawyers. But Marcia began to write about the experience, in a blog series, “Calling Audibles,” that helped tell the story of the NCAA investigation at UNC.
After the football coaches, including John, lost their jobs, the NCAA investigation at UNC mushroomed into a seven-year probe that encompassed the basketball program. Despite reports that hundreds of students, many of them athletes, took fake classes at UNC, the NCAA concluded that no academic rules were broken and no penalties would be imposed. Addressing the issue of so-called “paper courses,” the NCAA Division 1 Committee on Infractions report, released late last year, said: “The record does not establish that the courses were created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to solely benefit student-athletes.”
In John’s last big-time job, as offensive coordinator for Purdue University’s football program, the Shoops increasingly became advocates for players. It was at Purdue that they began to learn more about traumatic head injuries in football from engineers at the university. Marcia invited athletic officials to be part of an event where concussions and sports justice could be discussed with an eye toward solutions. But Purdue wanted nothing to do with the forum, she said, because a film that emphasized players’ rights, The Business of Amateurs, was going to be shown during the event.
The Shoops were also openly supportive of the Ed O’Bannon antitrust case in which the former UCLA basketball player and other athletes filed a class-action lawsuit over whether NCAA Division 1 basketball and football players should be compensated for the commercial use of their names, images and likenesses. In 2015 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that certain NCAA rules violated federal antitrust law. But a year later the Supreme Court denied petitions by both O’Bannon and the NCAA to review the case.
The Shoops also publicly supported University of Missouri football players who threatened to strike after troubling racial incidents occurred on campus in November 2015. The players demanded that university President Tim Wolfe resign, which he did just two days after they threatened their boycott. Marcia and John also made it known that they favored Northwestern University football players’ efforts to form a union, which failed in 2015, when the National Labor Relations Board declined to rule on the question of whether football players on athletic scholarships are employees under the National Labor Relations Act.
The advocating for players’ rights created tension and controversy at Purdue. Ultimately John lost his job.
It was then the Shoops walked away from big-time coaching. John is now a quarterbacks coach and social studies teacher at A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, North Carolina. Marcia is pastor/head of staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville. The husband and wife continue to speak about sports reform at churches, on campuses and in communities across the country. The Shoops also co-host a podcast called “Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century” at Blue Ridge Public Radio, the NPR station in western North Carolina.
Marcia also wrote a book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse, which offers insights into the intersections of race, gender, higher education, faith and sports.
Presbyterians Today caught up with Marcia and asked her about some of her observations when it comes to faith and sports in both the local church and the public arena.
PT: How do you react when you hear complaints in churches that sports are cutting into worship time?
Shoop: I spoke on this topic recently at a conference at Baylor University, where a diverse group of pastors were talking about how sports were hurting their churches. It’s easy to blame society’s obsession with sports for encroaching on our Sundays, but churches need to look in the mirror. Why are sports more enticing than church? Is it because sports are exciting, while church is boring to many people? Why do sports have such a visceral and spiritual hold on people?
What people see as a problem can also be received as a call for faith communities to have more integrity about what we’re doing — and why. In worship, we need to focus on what really connects with people’s deep needs.
Another piece to this question is the absolute monopoly that parachurch movements have in sports, through more conservative groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. For the most part, progressive-minded Christians aren’t part of the theological conversation in faith and sports. Why do we shrug our shoulders as if faith and sports have nothing to do with each other? Racialized and economic injustice in sports is worth our attention as people of faith.
Instead of complaining about sports and American culture, let’s look in the mirror and learn things about ourselves that are difficult — and hard to see.
PT: What are some things you have done to raise awareness of faith and sports in your congregation?
Shoop: John and I have taught a class on my book, Touchdowns for Jesus, at Grace Covenant. The church has also focused in on addressing race and power issues in everything we do. Many sports fans in the congregation talk to me regularly about how differently they see things in sports now.
PT: What about prayer before games?
Shoop: I certainly have done my fair share (laughter). Thinking that God somehow is involved in sports doesn’t bother me. I feel like God is involved in everything. Why wouldn’t God care about something that we care about so much? But I believe God doesn’t decide who’s going to win. I don’t think God decides who gets cancer either. That’s not how I believe God works.
For me, the more pressing issue about religion and sports circles is around the cajoling or even forcing players to adopt a certain faith perspective. Things like having team prayers in public universities — and schools have some problematic layers to them as well. Prayer should be a part of a person’s life, but for an institution or hierarchy telling someone how they should be a faithful person is a violation of conscience.
In the coach-player relationship, the coach has power to make players conform to certain behaviors, rules and regulations. When it comes to faith, I don’t think any coach should use their power to enforce conformity, or put his view of God as what’s preferable, for young men. He is a public employee and he is using his position of power to endorse his faith perspective with people who have less power than him. That’s an abuse of power.
PT: What is your reaction to former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick starting a movement of kneeling before the national anthem is played at NFL games — using sports as a venue for protest and a call for change?
Shoop: I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Colin is trying to do. Again, it’s a mirror to our larger culture. People of color are trying to say, “It’s not working for us. We are at a disadvantage.”
Opportunities and advantages are not equally distributed in this country. He hit a nerve, just as Black Lives Matter hit a nerve. There is a white backlash coded in language that doesn’t name race, but codes it in things like patriotism and the flag. But the basic message is “Shut up. Remember your place in society. We don’t have to listen to you.”
We’ve heard such insulting and dismissive statements about NFL players for years. People say about the players things like: “You are all so spoiled. You make all this money. You should be grateful.” What they’re saying when they say Colin is “unpatriotic” or that he should be “respectful” is “Get back in your place.” It’s deeply troubling rhetoric.
PT: What about the NFL’s concussion problem and the increasing number of former players diagnosed post-mortem with the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)?
Shoop: When the biographical sports drama film Concussion was released about the forensic pathologist who fights the National Football League, who is trying to suppress his research on CTE, John and I saw it together.
There was actual footage in the film where John was calling the plays in a Bears game, where the players were hitting each other hard enough to cause concussion. Talk about a kick in the gut. We were part of what causes CTE, knew nothing about the seriousness of concussions at the time. The movie was profoundly sobering.
I can’t believe how ignorant we were about concussions. John was in the NFL 12 years; we had no clue. It’s shameful how little we knew. We were naïve. We were oblivious and never looked critically at the layers of injustice. It was a moral failure on our part. It’s why we helped create a sports reform movement made up of people concerned about the inequities in sports today — particularly in NCAA revenue sports.
PT: Any regrets walking away? Would you do it again?
To learn more about Shoop’s work in sports reform, visit marciamountshoop.com and click on “Sports Reform.”
To listen to the podcast “Going Deep,” go to shoopsgoingdeep.com
Shoop: Giving up coaching in big-time sports involved a huge economic loss. I’m not going to lie — there are days we really struggle with how different our life is now. We miss the players, the work, the money. When we finally decided to make a change, we realized that we really weren’t advocating as strongly as we could have on things like head injuries. Our lives were dependent on the money. That’s how it works in big-time sports. They pay you more, give you more incentives. It keeps everybody quiet.
But all of our experiences and cherished relationships have strengthened our resolve that we need to keep advocating for justice-minded reform in the sports world. Our focus is on collegiate revenue sports. Everything from due process, to “pay for play,” to traumatic brain injuries, to racism, inequality and abuses of power is now being discussed.
Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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