I saw the headline a few days ago, and my first response was: "Is that really even a headline?" The confession is a shocking one only because it's so close to the mainstream and so far removed from anything we normally associate with confession material.
It's an ESPN The Magazine article on Houston's Arian Foster, who has been more than occasionally controversial during an unexpectedly successful career (he was undrafted out of Tennessee), and his confession is this: "I don't believe in God."
Now while it's only a small percentage of people who consider themselves atheist in this country, more than 20 percent say they don't have an affiliation with any church or religion. It shouldn't really register as shocking for someone to declare that modern science and the books written by Stephen Hawking and so many others tell us more about our true origins and who we are than what they read years ago in Sunday school (or in Foster's case, the Koran, since he was raised in a free-thinking Muslim family).
But giving it more thought, I realized this was, indeed, a significant confession, given that Foster's home is an NFL locker room — not exactly the province of against-the-grain thinking. In addition, football, probably due to its violent nature, is more closely associated with pre-game prayer than other team sports. Although athletes of all sorts might choose to give glory to God in their post-game remarks, it's a safe guess that the percentage is higher in football than all others.
Like many, I have long questioned how these players see something as irrelevant as football outcomes as part of "God's plan," but I don't question the sincerity of these players. I have felt for years that some are instructed to go this route. When NFL players find themselves in trouble, their feelings about God are almost inevitably part of their confession.
That's not to say there isn't media backlash against those who wear their religion on their sleeves. Tim Tebow's devout nature has been the subject of ridicule at times (especially kneeling down i.e. "Tebowing" after touchdowns). But that hasn't kept a truly substandard quarterback from getting a fourth chance this season in Philadelphia.
As for Foster, he's not only part of the NFL but a Houston Texan. While these sorts of things should be no one's business, there will be some in that stretch of the Bible Belt who will see this "confession" as either a deficiency on Foster's part or explanation for his sometimes recalcitrant behavior.
And yet in Tim Keown's thorough and engaging profile, Foster makes it clear he doesn't challenge others' religious beliefs as he did when he was younger. He's no longer challenging teammates on the Science vs. Religion front. Others' beliefs simply have no place in his life.
Similarly, while I haven't seen the inside of a church in two decades except for weddings or funerals (maybe a couple of Christmas Eve trips to hear my stepmother sing), I couldn't be more proud of the fact that my daughter — born Jewish but raised in a secular household in heavily Christian Coppell — made a Birthright Israel trip two summers ago that led to her taking classes to learn more last fall at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.
When I made my confession a few years back about my drinking issues, the very, very small percentage of negative responses came from those saying that until I went to AA meetings and put my life in God's hands, I had no chance of success.
I didn't tell those people I thought they were crazy or even wrong. I simply said that it's silly to think that whatever works for one person is the only possible solution for another.
While the numbers tell us there are plenty of NFL players just like Foster who skip chapel services or laugh at those who thank God for every touchdown or victory, I don't anticipate a rush to the podium to support Foster. It's got absolutely nothing to do with a player's ability to run, block or tackle, but that doesn't make atheism an acceptable stand to coaches and players who see the pre-game prayer as a ritual that's not to be trifled with.
Disbelief doesn't generate much passion. When he returns from injury, Foster, the free spirit, will mostly go it alone.
— Dallas Morning News (TNS)