Should Atheists Target the N.F.L. Next?

With the Super Bowl coming up in less than two weeks — and yes, thanks, my team made it — it’s worth considering what sort of end-zone demonstrations will be allowed and which will not. Here’s Mike Pereira, the N.F.L.’s outgoing head of officials, with an explanation from earlier this year:

If you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s what Pereira has to say:

The whole issue is, you can’t go to the ground on your knees or with your hand or anything. There’s only one time that you’re going to be allowed to go on your knee after you score like this, and that’s when you want to praise the Lord. If you do that, then I’m going to allow that, because I do not want to be struck by lightning, I promise you that. We will allow that.

This isn’t very surprising, perhaps, given the N.F.L.’s long-standing embrace, on many levels, of Christian values. Many players and officials, for instance, regularly attend chapel services; after a game, you can see players from both teams join a prayer circle near midfield.

But still, I smell a case for the American Humanist Association or some atheists’ rights group. The A.H.A. and others recently tried — and failed — to have the phrase “So help me God” removed from the presidential oath of office. Maybe it’s time for them to tackle the N.F.L. Why is it O.K. to praise the Lord but not, say, make a snow angel? If the atheists can’t gain any traction in the N.F.L., maybe they can take on Tim Tebow with his “John 3:16” eyeblack patches.


Related: see what some N.F.L. folks have to say about Barack Obama as president.

(Hat tip: Annitra Morrison.)


I am a Catholic who strongly supports separation of church and state. I don't think there should be forced prayers in public schools or 10 Commandments mounted in government buildings. But there's a big difference between the privately owned NFL and government agencies. If NFL players want to say a prayer to God or light a little volcano and pay homage to Pele after touchdowns, that's their prerogative.


The NFL is a private entity and can do what it wants to. On what grounds would anyone demand they change?

Tim H

Just wanted to note here that the phrase "so help me God" is not, and has never been, a part of the Presidential oath of office. Unlike most ceremonial oaths, the Presidential oath is prescribed in Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution and does not include this phrase.

Many presidents have said it (it remains unknown whether early presidents did) but it is not part of the oath.

Chris M

There's a huge difference between the state endorsing religion and a private organization endorsing religion. I'm an atheist and strongly believe that the NFL should be able to openly encourage religion and/or discourage atheism.


Atheists' rights groups? Don't you mean the "non-atheists-rights-denial group"?

and where's the Discoridans' right groups?

Bob Whiteman

This is easily the least journalistic article I've seen on this blog. This is just manufacturing an issue. The answer is obvious, that the law of the land requires a separation of church and state. President Obama explicitly included non-believers in his inaugural address, and I'm glad he did.

But separation of church and NFL? Who cares! The NFL isn't going to imprison or kill me for holding contrary beliefs.


Tim H:

After being administered the first oath of office, President Washington added the phrase. Every president since has done the same.


It seems like many of the comments have missed the point. The point is that the NFL is allowing players to showboat with prayer, while not allowing other forms of showboating. Doesn't that seem a little unfair?


What I am reading suggests that the religious will be allowed their celebration of choice (i.e. thanks to the heavens) but the non-religious (be they agnostic or athiests) will not be allowed a celebration to the spirits of excitement as it were...

Interesting position to take.

Go Cardinals!

Bryan A

as a faithful reader of the Freakonomics blog, I'm pretty excited to see a video I shot back in September (for my own website) being used here on the blog!

I run, a sports/faith blog that explores the frequent collisions of sports and faith from a Christian Perspective. We try to keep things lighthearted, informative, and entertaining. We also interview notable Christians to see if they love sports as much as we do (
PFB Sports Surveys).

When I heard Mike Pereira's explanation for allowing a player to go down to the ground only to "Praise the Lord" it definitely caught my attention. I couldn't find any information online about Pereira's faith, though it sounds like he's a Christian with the comment he made. Most of you probably already know this, but just last week Pereira announced he was retiring after this season.

As for the penalty and fine for Wes Welker's snow angel...I thought it was exhibit A in how the NFL is taking itself way too seriously these days.



NFL isn't publicly funded.

One pretend game inside of another is no big deal.


1, 2, and 4 say exactly what I was going to say. It's unfair to package-deal the fight for the separation of church and state with getting worked up over what a private organization does, the second of which is silly. The government is funded with our tax money, taken by force, and runs the country as a whole. Private organizations are voluntary associations. The United States was founded on secular Enlightenment ideas like the separation of church and state.

As for number 5, while I can't speak for all atheist groups, the idea isn't that the government should say "atheism is right" any more than it should say "religion is right." It's that the government should not take any stance on the issue, as it's there to protect us, not to spread ideas. Non-atheists would only have their right's denied if the government supported atheism, which isn't what we're asking for. We're asking for non-preference on the part of the government. The religious don't have a right to take other's rights to believe differently, nor do they have the right to use the government to advocate their beliefs. Your parody shows that it's ridiculous to be able to represent every possible belief, which is what would be fair if we're going to show any, which is exactly why the government should represent no beliefs.


Jean Val Jean

To answer you question: the NFL strongly discourages displays that it believes are intended to bring attention to the individual player. Their stance is that going down on one knee to pray is not intended to attract individual attention to the player, but rather it is a moment of thanks.

That is why it also explicitly prohibits the use of pre-planned props (i.e., the Sharpie incident, the "Don't fine me" poster), because it considers those items that the player specifically meant to be used to draw attention to himself.


Why is this on this blog? It doesn't have anything to do with economics. Moreover, what's the point of speculating about what a group might do hypothetically.


Not that I think this matters much, but the NFL is publicly funded, at least partially... most of the stadiums are heavily subsidized in an effort to help the local economy.

Tom Woolf

"NFL isn't publicly funded." - ??!!??!!??

I'd like you to count the number of stadiums the NFL plays in, and tell me how many have NOT been heavily subsidized by the public. I can only recall one - Joe Robbie Stadium used by the Dolphins*. And even there, the roads leading to the stadium were greatly expanded, at government expense, to handle game-day traffic.

I think the whole rule is stupid - let one class of celebration while penalizing another of equal or less interruption? I mean, I've seen teammates dance together taking longer than the snow angel. Besides, what does a "thank you god" statement by someone who just scored really say? "Thanks, god, for listening to my prayers to score, and for NOT listening to everybody elses.... gosh, I must really be something, and everybody else must be dirt to you..."

* Full disclosure - I am a Bills fan, and have absolutely no love for the Dolphins, but I did respect Joe Robbie and what he did. And, yes, the recent renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium was heavily subsidized by the city, county, and state....

...but then, the state could afford, it, since there really is only ONE true New York team. Those other two impostors are New Jersey teams...



I'm just happy that you are a STEELER fan!


It's a myth that George Washington added the "So help me God" line. Just like the cherry tree myth.

Check it out:


A few comments:

One, I think atheist rights organizations have more important things to do.

Two, the NFL is nothing if not PR oriented. They banned exuberant celebrations because some fans didn't like them. I doubt they'd want to endure the PR fallout from banning end zone prayer.

Three, the more interesting question is why hasn't PETA taken on the NFL. I once asked a PETA spokesperson about it and they had no answer other than it wasn't part of their agenda. (I asked them the same question about baseball and basketball, too.) PETA could theoretically be concerned with the fact that the football is made of leather. They don't like people wearing fur, one would think they don't appreciate a ball made of animal skin. I would think one could make a synthetic ball, so ...


What if Wes Walker was just making a snow angel to honor his guardian angel that kept him from getting hurt earlier in the game?