What the LDS Can Learn From the NFL

It has been a tough year for the NFL. Football is a sport; the NFL is a brand. After years of growing viewership, energetic fan support, spiking television revenue, and multiplying sponsorships, a series of largely self-inflicted mishaps has tarnished the NFL brand. There is the national anthem protest controversy, initiated by Colin Kaepernick and carried on by a handful of other players and teams, stoked by comments from President Trump, and now sort of fading into the background — but leaving many fans feeling somewhat alienated from the game. There is the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, which turned into the Ezekiel Elliot court case (a court ruling yesterday reinstated his six-game suspension). This has somehow morphed into an ugly public feud between Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. And of course there is the mounting evidence that the regular jarring contact between NFL players causes long-term brain injury, whether or not concussions are sustained. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. Quarterbacks are dropping like flies. Here’s what passes for good news for the NFL in 2017: Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings got his leg back (he is back on the active roster as of this week) and Zach Miller of the Bears didn’t lose his (but it was a close call).

Let’s get a little more personal. I have a close friend who is a solid fan of the Denver Broncos. He traveled to a game in Denver last year, he has NFL Sunday Ticket so he can view every game on his gigantic screen, and he hosts an outstanding Super Bowl party every year. Trading news of the day about my Seahawks and his Broncos with him is the highlight of my Sunday. He is the very model of a true blue fan, the kind of guy the NFL prizes. Guess what? This year he has sort of given up. Not because the Broncos are having a tough season. It’s the anthem thing and the idea it is unpatriotic. The magic, it seems, is gone, and he has apparently found other things to do on Sunday afternoon. If a guy like this, a true blue fan, has lost interest, the NFL has a real problem. The brand is tarnished and things are going to get worse, not better, for the foreseeable future. They ought to be fixing their problems. Instead, they are making arguments in the Second Circuit to keep a star player off the field for six weeks.

So what can the LDS Church learn from the troubles the NFL is now facing? Like the NFL, the LDS Church is not just a church, it is a brand. People have an emotional reaction to the LDS Church, love it or hate it. The Church advertises itself like a brand and runs a Newsroom to give helpful information to the press and promote good PR. Like the NFL, the Church has had its troubles of late: The campaign against Prop 8 in California; the November Policy, issued two years ago; the ongoing retrenchment following the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. We have high negatives across the board: Political liberals hate us because we’re so socially conservative and religious conservatives hate us because they think we’re not Christian. There has been a substantial increase in the percentage of early-returning missionaries. The number of people exiting the Church, formally or informally, seems to be on the rise. Maybe people are just tired of 3 hours of church on Sunday, plus this or that extra meeting or fireside or conference. Everyone has a shelf these days. It’s just tough to get excited about the Church at the moment. About the only good thing one reads about the Church these days is Helping Hands. Maybe we should pray for more hurricanes.

We could get personal here as well. We all know a friend or family member (maybe several) who were true blue fans of the Church just a year or two ago but who have now just lost interest. The Church’s November Policy and the national anthem protests have had strangely parallel effects, alienating a small but significant minority of fans who were previously quite devoted. Explanations vary and reliable global statistics are tough to come by, but there is certainly a problem here. We still attract converts, but missionaries have a tougher time than ever before finding people to teach, or even people just willing to talk. All is not well in Zion.

The bottom line: If the NFL brand can lose its shine and go into decline, then any brand can, including LDS. Retrenchment is a symptom, not a solution. I’ll throw out some brief and somewhat random thoughts as bullet points below and invite readers to add their own observations. Or to register a contrary opinion along the lines of “the Church has never been stronger.”

  • One easy NFL response to the long-term brain injury problem is denial. Denial is also employed in LDS contexts, such as denying that LDS youth suicides could possibly have anything to do with LDS teachings or denying/ignoring the dangerous circumstances that we sometimes put missionaries in.
  • Only recently has dissension in the NFL senior leadership (owners and the commissioner) become public. The Church has not yet reached this point. There may be disagreements between senior leaders over recent troubles, but it has not yet gone public. LDS +1
  • How loyal is your fan base? NFL fans are quite loyal but not endlessly loyal. One team, the LA Chargers, appears to have almost no fans at the moment after alienating every single fan in San Diego. Mormons, too, are quite loyal but not endlessly loyal, a fact not always appreciated by senior leadership. Loyalty is a two-way street. Blaming members for doubts and defections and aggressively emphasizing covenants suggests leadership thinks it’s a one-way street.
  • Competitiveness is part of the NFL product. NFL leadership continually tinkers with rules to keep offense and defense balanced, as well as promoting player safety. They recognize that they need to do things to keep paying customers in the seats. It’s not automatic. Now it’s hard to tell whether LDS leadership sees the religious equivalent of competitiveness (basically keeping the Church program interesting enough that members continue to engage) as a priority. Two-hour block? More interesting curriculum? Hot chocolate and donuts once in a while? This isn’t rocket science, but they need to keep tithe-paying customers in the seats. Just blaming disloyal customers who for some unfathomable reason don’t take their covenants seriously is not an effective strategy.

30 comments for “What the LDS Can Learn From the NFL

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’d suggest two important differences are the degree of morality associated with each group, and the degree of adaptive benefits each group provides (adaptive in the biological sense of things).

    Darwin’s Cathedral by D.S. Wilson seems like a good resource to tease out the difference between loose groups with minimal moral coherence dynamics and fully adaptive groups like most religions.

    This paper on competitive victimhood seems germane to the larger discussion.

    Related work suggests weak groups fail when victimized, while strong groups often strengthen.

    In terms of what can be learned from the NFL – appealing to everyone (in a cosmopolitan sense) is a slippery slope that sacrifices short term gains for mid-term stability in a utopian hope of long-term benefits. The old classic book Branded Nation suggests big brands need to compete on efficiency (due to the interchangeability of goods which occurs in a broad rather than niche market). The Trumpian tactic of doubling down sacrifices size for coherence. In high selective pressure environments this is often a pretty good strategy, especially when size isn’t critical for survival. In summary, the NFL fiasco shows doubling down for your core demographic isn’t as stupid as our liberal biases may make us believe. But, I could be wrong.

  2. The leaders of the NFL seek fans so that they can make money. It’s a business.

    The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints most sincerely want to serve the God of heaven and earth by teaching and upholding principles and correct truths. They seek fellow disciples. It’s worship.

    The Church has to exist in the world, but I hope it doesn’t try too hard to become like the world.

  3. Dave B, I have to own my biases, right off. I wanted to dismiss your post without even reading it. Then I read it and I still wanted to dismiss it. I could claim you’re building a straw man argument, that you have a negative confirmation bias that causes you to see thes events you relate as systemic issues, but I’d just be plain wrong.

    It could be argued, and has been argued, that football began out of a simple love of the sport, and the NFL was created as a response to its popularity, not just to take advantage of the economic gain, but ostensibly to keep the sporr focused on fair play.

    We can agree that a church and a sport have obvious differences, but that hasn’t stopped sports from taking on a religious role, or scale. Rugby, at least in England, deliberately invokes “hallowed ground” at the start of play. In American football, there was an opening prayer, now secularized into the US national anthem. Since when did bending the knee become a sign of disrespect?

    All that said, I think the points you make are valid, and the church, with it’s increase in scale, has become both the boulder gathering mass and growing into a mountain, but also the formidable fortress built against an unseeable enemy. There are those who haved lived within the fortifications for so long, they assume an ongoing, or even intensified, siege outside the walls, even when those who enter voluntary report not seeing an obvious entrenched enemy.

    The “us or them” divide cannot be maintained over time without leading at least some within the walls to tire of the siege mentally and want out, in different but profound ways. We seem to be ignoring the pattern the Book of Mormon would teach us, that while literal enemies may threaten from time to time, the enemy who will undo us is internal, and no barriers are effective except choosing (internally) to follow the Christ (and his prophet and apostles).

    Laman and Lemuel had access to the same information as Nephi and Sam, but they would not seek their own understanding. Nephi recorded his attempts to understand, and the vision given to him (the knowledge could not be withheld from him so great was his faith). Sam we don’t know about, but his faith was evident from his choices.
    I have faith that the November revelation will be properly understood, as all such revelations will be understood, but on a personal level, and certainly not in a public way. But the church still cannot ignore the public nature it has grown into.

  4. I am a bit of a football fan but never in my life has God revealed to me personally what team to root for. The basic presumption of similarity is based on leaving testimony out of the picture entirely. But then again I am a convert and actually joined the church because I had a testimony, not because I learned to be a fan of the “one true team” from mom and dad. The fact that there ARE similarities is the problem. We need more members with testimonies and fewer cultural Mormons. We should move church headquarters to Ghana. ;-)

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    chris g., thanks for the reference. I think I’ve seen the book at the library before but I’ll pick it up next time. Evolutionary biologists write great books.

    ji and Mark, I’m not proposing equivalence between the NFL and the Church, just suggesting we could learn from their troubles.

    Jerry, I’m thrilled we finally agree on something: “… while literal enemies may threaten from time to time, the enemy who will undo us is internal.” I don’t think the Church really has external enemies like in the 19th century. Personally, I think the internal danger is not from this or that doubter or disaffected Mormon or newly minted Ex-Mormon with a blog or podcast, but rather from simple complacency — running Church programs on autopilot, recycling manuals rather than updating them to keep them relevant (the current Gospel Doctrine manual was published in the 1990s), pushing as normative gender roles that are rooted in the 1950s, relying on meetings and home teaching rather a deeper engagement with doctrine or history or the scriptures or service to bring people to God, and so forth. We are our own worst enemy, although I doubt many senior or local leaders would agree with that view.

  6. Great post. I have several (many?) formerly true-blue Mormon friends that have left the Church, and it’s not just the November Policy. A famously depicted in Church leadership’s multi-color bubble chart (leaked by Dehlin), there are more than a dozen major reasons people are leaving. In my personal circle, it’s mostly over Snuffer and historical issues, but YMMV.

    The challenge for the LDS Church is how to grow the audience without changing doctrine and without alienating the rank-and-file tithe-paying members of the Church that are essential for it to survive. In other words, how to go after the lost sheep while still meeting the needs of the “ninety and nine.” (e.g. the current policies on immigration, refugees, abortion, and gay marriage are offensive to both conservative and liberal members, but for opposite reasons.) The Church has to appease those in the pew every Sunday, but as culture changes, it may be at the expense of long term growth. (We may already be there. Church growth is stagnant virtually everywhere except Africa.)

    Like the NFL, the LDS is at a tipping point, and it will be interesting to see if the Uchtdorf/Holland faction wins out over the Oaks/Packer train of thought.

    Interesting times.

  7. I’m with you, Other Clark. But it’s not so easy to pin particular views or policies on particular leaders. Elder Oaks once defended the teaching of evolution at BYU from attacks by the religion department and other critics. Elder Packer’s view on “the unwritten order of things” sounds reactionary but actually provides the framework for local leaders who are ignoring the November Policy and trying to accommodate gay members, couples, and youth. The Church didn’t really start to go off the rails until Elder Packer passed away. In retrospect, it is clear he was a steadying hand rather than a road block to change.

    I think the problems are systemic rather than personal, tied to this or that leader. And systemic change comes to the LDS Church slowly, if at all.

  8. I agree. With both the NFL and the LDS, “the problems are systemic rather than personal.” Or to be clear, any real long-term solution will mean changing fundamental aspects of the game. (Is football still recognizable if it ditches pads and goes to rugby-style tackles? Is Mormonism still recognizable if it embraces secular-style historical and Biblical scholarship?

    OTOH, neither football not Mormonism much resembles what it was 100 years ago. Jim Thorpe and J.F. Smith would have a hard time fitting in the modern version of institutions they once led.

  9. Interestingly, Mormonism has survived fundamental shifts in the past.

    Adjusting the doctrine of the priesthood so women participate in ordinances and leadership is no greater shift than accommodating blacks in 1978, or sister missionaries in 1897 and 2013.

    Adjusting our understanding of chastity to accommodate SSA members in committed relationships is no greater shift than the shift in understanding the “new and eternal covenant” that took place 1890-1920.

    Mormons who are sure that they know exactly where the Church will end up 20 years may be in for a big surprise.

  10. Hence the need for continuing revelation. While God may or may not change, humans do, and God understands that. I will go so far as to say the atonement of the Christ made the Lord fully knowledgeable about humanity. But his POV is still ultimately different relative to ours, it has to be; an emergency responder or physician has to maintain a POV independent of the patient in order to diagnose and treat effectively. The Lord is our tutelary, holding us personally accountable while still having our best interests in mind. When the Lord speaks to the church, his word will necessarily settle in a standard distribution. Personal revelation allows the Lord a customization, a tailoring of counsel to meet the needs of individuals. His gospel is not one-size-fits-all.

  11. Dave: “The Church didn’t really start to go off the rails until Elder Packer passed away. In retrospect, it is clear he was a steadying hand rather than a road block to change.” Please expand. What do you mean by “start”, “go off the rails”, and “steadying hand.” Many of my acquaintances would be hard pressed to find any resemblance between your statement and the reality they believe they have experienced.

  12. JR, I am to a certain extent exaggerating for effect. Elder Packer’s steadying hand is evident in the middle course on gay marriage and the culture war in general, which swerved right after he was gone. Going off the rails is a reference to the November Policy and its attendant difficulties, as well as the evident retrenchment in the wake of Obergefell (referring to the assimilation/retrenchment cycle discussed by Armand Mauss). Your views may differ — that’s fine. Perhaps you live in Africa where the Church is growing and a much more conservative approach to social policy is the rule.

  13. OK, Dave, I can agree the November 2015 policy was/is “off the rails”, but then so were BKP’s little factory speech, the blame same sex attraction on the parents approach, the blame it on selfishness approach, his encouragement of violence against gay missionary companions, his October 2010 conference talk as given [much less problematic as edited for publication], his being the referent of DHO’s “you can’t stage manage a grizzly bear”, etc. How could one call the Prop 8 debacle a “middle course”? Where is there any evidence of BKP’s “steadying hand”? Is it merely that once in place as President of the Q12 RMN was able to persuade TSM to go along with his version of the November policy (for a few days until the so-called “clarification” letter) and the rest to follow? What did BKP have to do with preventing such a policy after Obergefell and prior to his death?

  14. Please forgive yet another intrusion. I invite those who will, please save this entire dialogue (I have done so by printing the entire dialogue as a. PDF file). When you have done so, please read 2 Nephi 28. I invite you to compare the dialogue to the text of 2 Nephi 28. See if there is any wisdom to be found between that text from the B of M and our dialogue. Peace, y’all.

  15. I think Dave Banack is right: it’s hard “to pin particular views or policies on particular leaders”. As an example, Oaks oversaw BYU during a particularly dark period for LGBT students and, from his most recent conference talk, he’s clearly not a fan of homosexuality. But from a leaked document, it seems he is the author of the church’s current teaching that gay attractions are not a sin, but gay actions are. While not perfect, this teaching towards homosexuality is a vast improvement over earlier approaches to this issue. He’s also the most recent apostle to use General Conference to decry persecuting our LGBT brothers and sisters:

    “When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries. In any event, we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.”

    (I wonder if here he was speaking less to the church body and more to other, more right-winged members of the Q12.)

  16. JR, in addition to what MTodd noted about the distinction the Church started making between homosexuality per se (no longer a sin) and particular actions, there was the interview (well, transcript of an alleged interview) that LDS Public Affairs conducted with Elder Oaks and Elder Wickman in 2006. At the time, the views expressed in the interview were a clear step forward for the Church. It’s unfair to cite positions from 30 or 40 years ago. Society and science have changed views drastically in that period, so it’s unfair to compare LDS or Elder Packer’s views from 30 or 40 years ago with current social and scientific views.

    It’s hard to tell what long-term strategy the Church is pursuing here. The present policy seems to be to stay as conservative as possible for as long as possible, and compromise only when the alternative is to take unacceptable hits to credibility or social acceptability. It’s an ad hoc retreat. A good discussion outlining the difficulties Church leadership faces going forward (because it has not really grappled with the underlying scientific facts about homosexuality) is this recent presentation by Greg Prince.

  17. Dave, 2010 is not 30 or 40 years ago and I am not comparing anything to current social and scientific views. I’m asking what evidence there is that BKP was a steadying hand relative to the November 2015 “going off the rails.” There is evidence of his moderating his views over time, but it is mostly in the form of not repeating (while also not disavowing) earlier mistakes. Why not assume President Monson (while still actively engaged) or Elder Oaks or Elder Wickman or Elder Holland or President Uchtdorf or others were the steadying hands?

    It seems unfair to suppose that SWK and other Church leaders ever thought homosexuality, understood as same-sex attraction, was a sin. They seem to have been unaware that it existed. They (and Pope John Paul II and many others) used the word “homosexuality” to mean same-sex erotic behavior. As described elsewhere, at least as long ago as the early 70s some local Church leaders had begun to learn that “being gay” was not the same thing as engaging in same-sex sexual intercourse. But the trickle down (or up) effect of that learning has been slow and incomplete. Judging from his October 2010 conference talk as given, BKP had still not learned that distinction. I have not found any evidence that he ever learned it. And you have cited for his “steadying hand” on that subject only the fact that the November 2015 policy followed BKP’s death (by about 4 months). His passing followed the Supreme Court Obergefell decision by only a week. He likely didn’t do much steadying in that time.

    Actually, it’s hard to tell IF the Church is pursuing any long-term strategy. I suspect we agree on more than we disagree. It’s hard to pin a particular steadying hand role on any particular leader.

  18. We’re probably served by accepting the teachings of the apostles as a whole, rather than pitting them against each other. 1 Cor. 1:12-ff and 3:4-ff come to mind.

  19. The Church’s distinction between sexual inclination and behavior dates at least to an October 1995 Ensign article, which in turn cites a 1991 First Presidency letter.

  20. Great post.The comparisons abound. I think history has proven that any institution, despite having a cadre of true-believers, is susceptible to irreversible decline if it’s board of directors or spiritual leadership fail to make a timely course correction.

    It’s also worth noting that many football fans are walking away because they’re finding the game inherently destructive (see photos of Aaron Hernandez’s brain). The equivalent within Mormonism is obvious; many are leaving not only because they’re miffed over one policy, but because they arrive at the conclusion that the whole belief system is wrong.

  21. Part of the problem in this dialogue is the introduction of the term “gay” and infering its definition is not homosexual desire or behavior. The LDS church has defined what it considers homosexuality to be, and what its policy and doctrine are in relation to that definition. If there are cultural elements both in and out of the church with people insisting the church is not addressing their particular view point, it is most likely because they have not defined “gay” definititively and/or resist external attempts at defining “gay” as they interpret such attempts at definition as attempts at control.

    This necessarily puts the LDS church in a cultural position it will never effectively meet. The LDS church may not offer a one-size-fits-all gospel of the Christ, but it cannot support the individual defining of moral and ethical behavior. Such behavior, as far as the LDS church is concerned, is necessarily defined by the Christ as the only fitting judge of this behavior.

  22. The lesson church could learn that nobody wins when you allow identity politics to steal the stage…. Keep white supremacy And black identity complainers silent at church.

    Also, anytime people are allowing their cause of offense to matter more than the gospel, they’ll destroy the church if they are allowed to thrive rather than cut out like a cancer.

  23. Really interesting comparison, Dave. This point you made in particular struck me: “Mormons, too, are quite loyal but not endlessly loyal, a fact not always appreciated by senior leadership.” I think this is spot on. Of course the parallel isn’t perfect, but the NFL seems vastly more aware that fans can be fickle, that they can leave if they don’t like what’s happening, regardless of how much history of devotion they might have. Senior Church leaders seem pretty unaware of this reality. Choices to enter or exit a church are probably made with more thought and consideration than choices to start or stop watching the NFL, so there’s more inertia there, but it does seem like as you said, that Church leaders think there’s virtually infinite inertia keeping you in once you’re in, and there really isn’t.

  24. I read the title of this OP and got excited; finally, I thought, someone is bringing up the obvious truth that any event that lasts three hours or longer should have a half-time and nachos!

  25. Interesting thoughts/comments. I’m torn between the position of this being a time of separation between the wheat and the tares and the need for adjustment by the institutional church. I stilll think this is the Lord’s church, but recognize that He does not micromanage and allows people to make mistakes. I think, however, that people can too easily get caught up in the notion that these issues are ONLY about the leaders needing to correct course and the Lord being the head of the church having no bearing on the discussion whatsoever.

  26. Michael H- second paragraph. Nov 12, 2017 1210 am comment, Amen and amen.

    For me this is the most significant comparison. Spot on.

    American football is ending.

    Read the article below for a quick review of why. It simply is too dangerous.


    Consider these lists of former NFL players with CTE. A group of 4500 of them won a class action lawsuit against the NFL.


    For perspective this will be nearly 10% of the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam before it is over- in the NFL alone. Thousands and thousands of of college, or high school players with mostly less severe but real damage will also be afflicted.

    Mothers of young boys are getting the message and enrollment in pee wee football is declining sharply.


    I have a son who was gifted with the physique to play college football. But he was never interested in team sports. He was curious, a scientist at heart, almost from birth. He likes friendly one-on-one contests of strength between friends; such as arm wrestling, or tug of war, especially while standing on stumps, and thumb wars. He clearly was stronger than the scouts in his non-LDS troop who played high school football and they convinced the coach to ask him to consider leaving the sissy sport of distance running and join the manly football team. He famously replied: “With all due respect, coach, I have better things to do with my head than hitting other people with it.”

    Some of these other things included carrying the heavy packs of younger scouts on backpacking trips, carrying my Dutch oven on the same, saving an overweight LDS scout’s life during an asthma attack, who out weighed him by carrying him up a 2000 feet elevation gain over 4 miles in less than an hour on a hot, humid day ( 108 F – 95% humidity).Tonight he is in Houston mucking out flooded houses for the umpteen weekend since the storm, gathering small teams from among his friends and driving them down there. I imagine he takes a thoughtful approach to each task and applies his tremendous strength to it and he can work like a mule for 12-16 hours in the worst conditions. I imagine they get quite a bit done.

    I will skip over his many academic achievements, but summarize with the claim (of a biased parent) that he might be among the very brightest graduate students in physics in the USA.

    One of his current assignments is teaching physics to undergraduates. He has quite a number of football players interested in his classes and he is gently teaching them the basic principles they need to know in order to make a sensible decision on what is the better thing to do with their heads. Not a few are quitting the team.

    In the mean time, BYU football continues to languish, I believe they are disgracing themselves yet again at this very moment loosing to a very wimpy U Mass team. At least they are not getting into brawls with ghetto thugs like they did under Bronco M____. For this I am grateful. If our church leaders had wise vision they would cancel BYU football at the end of this season and quietly launch a campaign to end it for other teams as well. And if they had more wise vision concerning the direction of the church they might take equally drastic measures. But I have almost lost my faith in them, personally.

    Don’t watch any football.

    Don’t let your babies grow up to be football players.

    As for the LDS church- I leave that up to your own judgment.

  27. I would like to hear the authorized and official arguments for not cancelling BYU football, just like I would like to hear how long the Church plans to keep Scouting for the younger boys and why.

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