Out of anything, the number one question I get asked about playing football is: what’s it like being a Christian in the NFL?
Being a Christian in the midst of strong minded men who are famous, wealthy and opinionated is considerably difficult. An NFL team is a culture. And it is tough living opposite of the way culture is flowing. Here are three main reasons why:
The most obvious reason it’s tough to be a faithful Christian is money. It is no secret the NFL pays it’s employees well. The minimum practice squad contract is 89k. The minimum salary for a rookie is roughly 370k. For a 21 year old man just finishing college, it is an understatement to say that is an incredible amount of money. These men went from being poor college kids eating Top Ramen 14 meals a week, to being able to buy just about whatever they’d like.
As a Christian, our God calls us to steward money well. We know that any income we earn is a gift from God, because without God’s grace, we would have nothing. All money that I receive belongs to God. He is creator of all; he created the earth and gave me the ability to work, therefore my money is God’s money. This means that we must be careful with our money, save, invest and give to our churches and to those in need. Additionally, the book of Proverbs says that “a wise man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children (Proverbs 13:22 ESV).” This means that our money must be used to protect and build our family legacy, not to build up our treasures here on earth.
The spending by NFL athletes is obscene. Pulling up to a team facility is like pulling up to a car show. 75% of the cars are near brand new. Nearly 90% of vehicles are 3 years older or less. Anything from 745i BMWs, to Land Rovers, to Lamborghinis are on display. Most have custom rims, tires, paint and stereos; roughly 60% own more than one car to themselves. Many players have thousand dollar watches and chains on. Some even purchase Louie Vuitton or Gucci bags to carry their playbooks around at work. As a Christian it is tough not buying into the lifestyle. The Bible calls it the lust of the eyes (1 John 2:16).
It is a constant battle to stay focused on God’s call to steward His money that’s been entrusted to us. Many have seen the ESPN documentary “Broke”. Many athletes earn seven or even eight figure salaries only to end up with nothing at the end of their careers. Clearly we see the that lust of the eyes is a lie that many follow to poverty and ignorance. That is easy to say, but much harder to avoid.
Let me say this: it’s not a sin to buy nice things obviously, but one must first have discernment and be faithful with money first.
2. PRIDE AND POSSESSIONS
Having too much can cause many issues. For one, possessions are a never ending cycle. There are multiple companies all competing for money. There are hundreds of TVs, shoes, and couches to choose from. We are all familiar with how companies hook you on one product, then roll out an updated product in 8 months. That causes players to purchase one thing, then feel the lust of the eyes of his teammates newer thing, which causes him to buy an even newer thing! It is a vicious circle that is unending. The Bible says that pride of possessions is not from God, but from the world (1 John 2:16). Following His word in this instance is tough because the money is available but it must not be squandered on fleeting possessions.
Another result of the NFL is fame. Many handle fame well, with humility as instructed by God. But others are beaten by it. Fame if used correctly, can be a powerful tool for one to network themselves and gain allies in the business and social world. Instead, many are fooled into thinking they are something more than they are. Some think their lives will last forever. So they go promote and headline parties and strip clubs. They will use their fame for their own foolish gain instead of using it as a valuable tool to help their families and others. In the NFL, there is a great sense of pride that dwells in many of the guys. Not pride in abilities necessarily either, but pride in themselves in general. Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6 ESV)”. God only wants good for us, and when we are proud of ourselves, he knows it only leads to folly and rebellion; it is the reason sin entered the world to begin with (Genesis 3). Even the Christian guys have it wrong sometimes. When I first came into the league, there was a Bible study and a yearly conference that handed out t-shirts that said “stay humble”. That implies that one already is humble. C.J. Mahaney in his book Humility: True Greatness, rightly points out that a humble person cannot ever say he is humble, but can only say that he is, by God's grace, a man in pursuit of humility. You see, by saying you are humble you are, by definition, not being humble! Pride and fame are a slippery slope that can easily cause one to falter in their ways.
Women may be the biggest worldly temptation of them all. With fame and money, many women seem to follow. This is a very difficult idea to navigate for most. Many men are married and staying faithful can be difficult in these circumstances. I am married to my wife, Sarah. We have been together for 5 years. I talk with her about the types of women our players are exposed to nearly everyday. We talk about temptations and how to avoid them. We often pray and ask for wisdom in our relationship, this helps us remain faithful. Additionally, if a Christian man is not married, he must learn to be a man and be faithful to His Lord before thinking of taking a wife. But with the amount of beautiful women that constantly approach him, it gets difficult to pursue righteousness. The amount of unfaithful men in the NFL is appalling. I’ve heard stories of married men who have cheated on their wives countless times. They grab a few of their buddies, head out to the bar while the wife is at home with the kids wondering where he is. Meanwhile he shares his bed with another woman. It is a sad state of affairs (no pun intended). By God’s grace, I have remained faithful to my wife. I pray to God he continues to allow me self control and discernment to avoid sticky situations. The fact is, being unfaithful it not just common, it is expected in this culture.
AN INCOMPLETE VIEW OF CHRISTIANITY
It is not as if these problems are limited to people who aren’t Christian. All have fallen to these devices from time to time, myself included. The Bible says that no one may boast in their faith, as it is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). But there are many men who profess their faith, attend chapel with their teammates and church with their families, who habitually act out as if they have no God. I have seen men who sit in Saturday night chapel, then head out before the game to the strip club while their pregnant wives are at home. Once, I overheard a conversation between a group of married men. They all were talking about the night before and what woman they brought back to their hotel. They looked to one of the guys who hadn’t said anything and asked “who did you take home?”. He said to them that he hadn’t taken anyone home and that he has never committed adultery on his wife. The rest looked at him in disbelief, then began to laugh. They couldn’t believe he hadn’t cheated; they appeared to view adultery as harmless. All of these men sit in chapel with me. Whether these men truly are Christians, I don’t know. I do know that my wife is friends with their wives. They have children who have a terrible father. What these men don’t understand is that being a Christian isn’t just a list of tasks you do so that he will bless you (go to church, read your Bible, do the right thing etc.), being a Christian is experiencing God's grace and living it out in light of the gospel.
It is a daily struggle to remain faithful to God in any context, let alone the NFL. However, we should live in the world, but not be of the world. We must Love our friends and teammates no matter how wicked their actions or how much they struggle, so that they may come to know Jesus as we do. We are not perfect, but we have a God who is.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 ESV
Eddie Williams is a Christian, a husband and a father, and public speaker, he also leads a ministry as a pastor at his local church. The 5 year NFL veteran speaks weekly at the ministry and has spoken across the U.S. at high schools, colleges, conferences and ministries. Eddie has been a part of numerous programs for youth, including NFL Play60. He has also given back to the community at organizations like the Cleveland Foodbank, Feed My Starving Children and Veterans hospitals. Eddie is pursuing his Masters of Divinity at Re:train in Seattle, WA and then Western Seminary in Portland, OR. For more, visit: Eddiejwilliams.com