God, Business and the Super Bowl

Should a business firm consider the religious background of a job candidate during the hiring process? When sizing up how much energy and effort the individual will put into the job, ought the company take into account his or her practice of the faith he or she professes?

Consider how these questions have been answered by the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

The Rams are one of the great turnaround stories of the sports world in recent memory. Until the start of last season, they had lost more football games than any other NFL team during the 1990s. Last year, they won only four games against 12 losses. How did the Rams go from worst to first in a single season?

One lighthearted television commercial points out that, after the Pope visited Chicago and Denver, their NFL teams won the Super Bowl. And the Holy Father visited St. Louis last year. But most serious analysts point to a change in personnel on the team. The Rams added some new players and coaches for 1999. There was a new core of players, some of whom were deeply religious, and their spirit seemed to carry the team throughout the year.

The Rams began their preseason with Trent Green as their new quarterback. He was a graduate of a St. Louis-area Catholic high school, so it was going to be the story of the hometown boy returning to play professional football in the city where his parents still lived. He played remarkably well in the pre-season. But in their final preseason game in August, Green suffered a severe leg injury that put him out for the season.

Green could have become bitter after the injury. Instead, he became an integral part of the team, both on the sidelines and in the community. He helped the backup quarterback learn the plays, and he spent time visiting children at area hospitals.

With Green out for the year, the quarterback job fell to Kurt Warner, a player with almost no NFL experience. After playing college football at a small school in Iowa, Warner tried out for the Green Bay Packers but missed the cut. He ended up working as a stock boy in an Iowa grocery store to support his wife and children. While continuing to dream of being an NFL quarterback, he played in the Arena Football League, considered a honky-tonk wasteland for players of non-major-league caliber, and then he played in Europe. After taking the Amsterdam Admirals to the championship game on the Continent where soccer is considered the “real” football, he earned the backup-quarterback spot in St. Louis in 1998.

After the first few wins with Warner at the helm of the offense, people in St. Louis began to notice that there was something novel about this year's Rams. They had a different spirit. We've all become familiar with stories of professional athletes getting in trouble with drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. But this Rams team seemed entirely different; many of the team members were involved in church, Bible studies and charities. During October, Billy Graham visited St. Louis and held a week of meetings in the TWA Dome, the home of the Rams (and the place where the Pope celebrated an indoor mass with more than 100,000 Catholics a year ago). The Rams were the only NFL team without a loss last fall when quarterback Warner was invited to speak at the Billy Graham crusade, and soon all of St. Louis heard his testimony. He spoke explicitly about his Christian faith and his love of Jesus.

After that, Warner seemed emboldened to speak openly of his faith. Other players followed suit. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who is an ordained minister, would regularly thank Jesus during his post-game interviews. By midseason, it became apparent that there was a significant core of players on the team — more than half — who openly professed that religious faith was the most important part of their lives.

The national media seemed uncomfortable with the explicitly Christian slant of the Rams players, but the St. Louis media learned to make religion part of their coverage of these new Rams. There were reports of the religious faith of the players' wives, of player Bible study groups, and of involvement in religious charities. On the morning of the Super Bowl, the local media reported that the Rams had held a church service in their hotel prior to the game.

Was it a coincidence that so many of the Rams were devout Christians and the team won one of the most celebrated championships in all of professional sports? The answer might come from the team's director of player personnel, Charlie Armey.

Armey has admitted that, in selecting players, he is very interested in hiring athletes of sound moral character. Of course, there is no religious litmus test, but Armey claims that good Christians often make for men of good character, and men of good character are what he wants. Likewise, coach Dick Vermeil credits the team's success to the character of his players, saying, “I'm very picky about who I surround myself with.”

No one is claiming that God supernaturally blesses faithful athletes with victories. The question is whether there is a connection between religious faith, moral character and good work habits. After each victory, the Rams shunned overindulgent celebrations. Their team motto became “Gotta go to work.”

It seems obvious that individuals with strong moral character tend to make better workers than individuals who lack direction in their lives. This is as true in business as it is on a football field. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that everyone can make progress in moral virtue, but that Christ's gift of salvation “offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues.” In other words, you don't have to be religious to be a person of sound character, but authentic faith and God's grace sure help.

The dominant secular culture has emphasized that religious belief should be entirely private, having no influence on one's life at work. But is it really that simple? While it is inappropriate to discriminate against potential employees because of their religious beliefs, the NFL Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams may have figured something out about religious faith, moral character and getting the job done.

Gregory Beabout teaches philosophy at St. Louis University.