NASHVILLE – As sports fans continue to ask questions about underinflated footballs in this year’s AFC championship game, football coaches at Baptist colleges and universities are using the controversy as an opportunity to reflect on integrity in athletics.
“Football is much like the game of life in that there are absolutes,” Louisiana College (LC) head coach Dennis Dunn told Baptist Press (BP). “The Bible is very clear that there are absolutes, but we live in a world now where those lines of absolutes have been extremely smeared in many ways and there’s a lot of gray area in people’s minds.”
In the “deflate-gate” suspicions that the New England Patriots intentionally deflated footballs in their Jan. 18 win over the Indianapolis Colts to advance to the Super Bowl, Dunn said less air pressure in ball could be “important” in a game.
NFL rules stipulate that each team provide the 12 balls it uses on offense and that each ball be inflated to a pressure between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. Because an underinflated football may be easier to throw and catch, NFL officials are investigating charges that the Patriots intentionally or negligently underinflated their footballs.
In the NCAA’s Division III, where LC went 6-4 in 2014, rigorous ball inspection procedures before games typically prevent under-inflation, Dunn said. But he noted other ways teams sometimes attempt to break the rules.
For example, some teams commit holding infractions in a manner that referees cannot easily see by grabbing inside defenders’ pads, Dunn said. Some teams also intentionally commit “chop blocks,” where one offensive lineman holds a defender up and another blocks him below the knees in violation of the rules.
“Many times [a chop block] gets called, but more times than not it doesn’t because you don’t see it until you see it on film,” Dunn said.
Christian football players should be especially sensitive to breaking rules – even in the heat of competition – because they know God sees all sin, Dunn said.
“Sin is sin,” he said. “If they’re all going to be laid out before the Lord … then everything that can be judged will be judged.”
Vic Shealy, head football coach at Houston Baptist University, agreed. He said teaching players to cheat on the field can contribute to poor character off the field.
“If we knowingly teach a play that specifically and intentionally violates the rules of play and our players know we are teaching that, we communicate that it’s OK to cheat because winning is more important than doing right,” Shealy told BP. “And then we begin to weaken the life lessons that football can teach young men in our society.”
Shealy’s Huskies, in HBU’s first official season of football competition, went 2-9 in the NCAA’s Division I Football Championship Subdivision during 2014. The football program launched in 2012 with Shealy as its first head coach.
One way some football teams intentionally violate the rules is by having wide receivers make contact with opposing defenders as they run pass routes to create separation that makes catching a pass easier – a maneuver that the rules call offensive pass interference, Shealy said.
But Shealy distinguished between breaking rules and utilizing rules to a team’s full advantage, as when the NFL’s Patriots line up in unusual but legal formations. Shealy also distinguished between cheating and breaking rules as a strategic maneuver with full willingness to accept the consequences, as when an offensive lineman commits holding to keep his quarterback from getting sacked or when a team intentionally commits a delay of game infraction.
Violating the rules is immoral when a coach or player does so in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage without getting caught, Shealy said.
“If we do and say things publicly that don’t honor Christ, then we are missing the mark,” Shealy said. When a Christian football player dominates his opponent but does so without malice and while abiding by the rules, the opponent “sees a snapshot of Christ dwelling in another man’s life.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)