Moreover, trash-talking Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs last year dissed Tebow and the on-field displays of faith that made him a hero to American evangelicals. "With all due respect, we don't need God on our sidelines," Suggs boasted. That left Ravens fan Monica Johnson, a writer for the Baltimore Evangelical Examiner, sputtering. "No team loyalty supersedes my love for the Christian brethren," she wrote.

And so it goes. Every time a Christian finds a good reason to root for one of the teams, up pops an apparent disqualifier.

So what is a Christian football fan to do this Sunday? Maybe get some distance, suggests Shirl James Hoffman, author of the 2010 book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports and a pointed critic of the ethics of the modern game.

"I will watch the Super Bowl, but not under the illusion that the game is in any sense blessed by God or that it is going to bolster my Christian faith," said Hoffman, a professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "In fact, I will be very conscious of the fact that it is appealing to instincts that are anything but Christian."

Hoffman argues that modern football is a consumer product that glorifies violence, not God. Unless it can return to its original "flag football" ethos, the pro game is really akin to the gladiatorial contests in pagan Rome, he says, and the big-money incentives for this "degradation of the human body" makes the NFL "close to what we call prostitution."

Indeed, new revelations about the tragic effects of violence in football produced an unexpectedly dark story line in the normally sunny run-up to the Super Bowl. Even President Obama, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, voiced concern.

Given all this moral ambiguity, Hoffman says, believers who invest theological importance in football, or make icons of Christian players, are taking a big risk.

So what will Hoffman do on Sunday night? Root for whoever is the underdog, he says. "I think there's something essentially Christian in that. You're rooting for the person who is down and out -- the object of Christ's Sermon on the Mount."

c. 2013 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: February 1, 2013