Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dear Mr. Bowlen,

Firstly, I offer you and your family my best wishes as you struggle with Alzheimer’s. May God be near your spirits with courage, hope and peace.

I grew up a Broncos fan in suburban Denver. Many fond- and sad!- childhood memories involve the team you’ve long owned. Joe Montana, playing for the Chiefs, breaking our hearts with a last-minute drive. The pride you echoed for the Broncos-loving public, when we finally won the big one, and you said, “This one’s for John.” I’m closer to my family because we cheered on your football team together. My sister married a Broncos fan, and that’s been a bridge for our relationship. It always felt like you cared not simply about Broncos’ profits, but the pride, the joy it could nurture in my home city.

I’ve since moved to Minneapolis, but remain loyal to my first football love. I root for them weekly, enthusiastically. I’m writing, however, not simply to say thank you, but to ask your organization for help.

Every week, I’m blessed to preach for a small church in a Minneapolis suburbs. They sportingly tolerate my football obsession, until, that is, the Vikings play the Broncs. But we’ve all watched with slow-building frustration as recent, terrible news engulfed the NFL. Ray Rice punching his wife. Our hometown Adrian Peterson hurting his child. Reports about head trauma in football, seemingly neglected or willfully overlooked. Sadly, it’s felt like these issues were handled by league leadership, less with concern for their moral impact, than for the PR fallout or impact on income.

That’s not the sport I grew up loving, and I attribute that positivity in many ways to your decency, your integrity. Your franchise appeared well aware of its unique stature in Denver, and therefore, its ethical responsibility. I commend you for that success. Perhaps that’s why, as I’ve heard many recently question whether considerate people can still watch or support NFL football, I’ve been reluctant to join the critical chorus. I love my team too much.

But I love the children in my church more. I want them to admire moral leaders. One young man and I have connected previously over his beloved Peterson jersey. I hurt for his parents now having to say, “You can’t wear that. He hits his children.” My wife and I recently discussed the proper, Christian response these heartrending stories. I said, “If Broncos players were in the news, I’d feel greater responsibility to speak up. I’d probably write the Broncos a letter…” She responded, “Why don’t you anyway? They should know how their fans feel too.” She was right.

Truthfully, this letter isn’t just for you. I write one to my church weekly, about varied topics, spiritual and otherwise. But this is my first such letter addressed to someone else, which I’ll share with them also to read. Perhaps they’ll overhear my pondering, and think more deeply about the role of their own voices in our society. Because whatever team we root for- or don’t- these events are big enough to demand thoughtful evaluation.

I wonder, were I in your position, how I’d interact with the Vikings’ owners, the Ravens’, Rodger Goodell. Would I pressure them to stop reacting, and start leading better? What core values should the game stand for? Because something feels lost, like football’s leaders are hiding, dissembling, making excuses. Given its outsize influence, shouldn’t the NFL more readily sacrifice winning or revenue, for player safety, and their families?

Given your franchise’s positive reputation, I hope Broncos leadership currently advocates for a course correction. I’d love to celebrate my team being agents for positive change. Plus, I don’t want to stop watching! Should this flood of mistakes, of tone deaf responses to battered spouses and hurting children continue, however, I worry I’d have no choice but to leave my Manning jersey tucked away, neglected.
I’d be glad for a response, if your staff has time. Nevertheless, I’ll be rooting passionately, for goodness, not simply wins. And again, may the good Lord bless you in your trials. May your players be safe. May love prevail always, forever and now.

Grace and Peace,
Rev. Shane Isner
Pastor, Plymouth Creek Christian Church
Plymouth, MN

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