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In God NFL players can trust: Teams, public pave path to deviance

“I don’t need no god. … Hell, I am one.”
–NFL player in research study.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, dealing with two sexual assault allegations less than a year apart, is learning his lesson yet again from cheering fans: Succeed in the cathedrals of professional sports, and all sins will be forgiven.

It is a lesson that is ingrained into the mindsets of many professional athletes, until they find having it all – measured in terms of money, sex and public adoration – is no guarantee of happiness.

Just ask Tiger Woods. Or listen to the stories of more than 100 current and former NFL players sociologist Eric M. Carter of Georgetown College was able to interview in a groundbreaking study of an elite world closed to outsiders.

The public may idolize them, but elite athletes report high levels of both unhappiness and deviant behavior, Carter discovered. Thirty-two percent of the participants reported being arrested after joining the NFL.

With few people to hold them accountable, pro athletes find it difficult on their own to negotiate their sudden rise in wealth, fame and status, says Carter, author of “Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune and Deviance Among Professional Football Players.”

What does have a positive effect, the study found, is faith in God and access to a religious support system.

In a world where even family members and friends treat them as commodities, Carter says, “They’re grasping for something that’s solid, that doesn’t change.”

Fallen idols

Carter became interested in the issues faced by pro football players when two friends who played in the NFL shared their experiences observing widespread deviant behavior.

With his friends opening doors, Carter was able to interview 104 current and former players, with a mean age of 30, from 2001 to 2006. He reported his findings in his new book and at the October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Carter’s extensive fieldwork opens a window into a culture where many athletes who can perform at the highest level begin to believe they can do no wrong off the field.

The players share stories of rampant domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual deviance. “I don’t know how many guys I know that beat women, their wives or their girlfriends, or, for that matter, both. … It seems to be a common thing,” one player said.

Even when they faced arrest, the players reported that others — from team owners to police officers satisfied with autographs — would help them evade responsibility.

Yet lives of public excess would not bring happiness. Nearly half of the players in the study group were unhappy, Carter said.

The players spoke over and over about how their lives were meaningless off the field, and how being rich and famous didn’t fulfill their souls.

“I thought with more championships and more honors, more money, more fame, more women, I would be able to find happiness … but I still felt empty,“ one player said. “Depression, man, it runs rampant through the NFL,’ another player said.

Even in their permissive, enabling culture, 33 of the 104 players reported being arrested after joining the NFL.

Social supports

What the athletes need is a social support system they can trust. Social support in terms of strong family relationships and a good education can be key buffers protecting athletes from deviant behavior, the research found.

Yet many colleges had little concern with graduation rates for star athletes, or even if they were barely literate. And often, even the athletes’ friends and family members treated them as sources of money and prestige to be coddled and exploited.

For some athletes, God and religion became a critical resource.

In his research, Carter found a relationship between religious practice and higher levels of happiness and lower levels of law breaking.

Almost half of the players articulated in interviews and informal conversations the importance of religion as a social support. Of those 51 players, 42 reported being happy with life.

Overall, 72 percent of the players who reported that they were happy with life also reported that religion was an important support mechanism in their life.

The religious factor, Carter said, appears to furnish some players “with companionship and a sense of belonging … in essence, the emotional, social psychological, and social supports missing in their lives.”

Or, in the words of one of the players, “If you ain’t got no family, no loving wife, or other things like that, it’s God. … He’s the only thing that’s gonna save you.”

There is one kicker: The benefits of religion come with practice. Athletes who publicly proclaim their religious beliefs but do not practice their faith have worse outcomes.


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