Holler: NFL vs. God, who wins?

The NFL is flexing its muscle with a London game Sunday that will be played during church hours in the United States. Who wins? The NFL or religion?

Every Sunday, football fans look for the marquee matchups of the week. It may be an early game on Sunday. It may be a double-header day classic. It may be Sunday night. On rare occasions, it may be on Monday night. It’s rarely on Thursday night. We’ve learned that the hard way.

Tomorrow, there is an epic matchup that may have Biblical implications.

Literally.

On Sunday, the Lions play the Falcons in London, where the NFL’s England experiment takes on its next step … a step that may cause a problem for religious types, especially those in Michigan and Georgia.

The NFL has been making trips to London for several years now for regular-season games. The plan is to globalize the brand and, potentially at some point, locate a franchise in England. Part of that vetting process is to gauge fan interest by putting on regular-season games that count in the standings at Wembley Stadium.

The games have been well attended and, as the host team for each game spends a week in London, its star players are on display – like Calvin Johnson of the Lions is this week despite the fact that he is likely no better than 50/50 to play Sunday. Marketing Megatron to a new audience is something the NFL is doing with an eye to the future.

However, what makes this game different than the previous London games is that they’re going to play the game at a normal time – 1:30 a.m. local time. The problem with that? There is time difference between London and the United States that is going to have the game being played at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast.

Both the Falcons and Lions are in the Eastern time zone, so if their fans want to watch the game it’s going to be at mid-morning Sunday, when many fans are in church. The NFL has gone up against a lot of foes over the years with its programming, but this is the first time it’s going up directly against God.

It’s one thing to go head-to-head with the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series in October. It’s one thing to put draft coverage up against the NHL and NBA playoffs, but it’s another story completely to go up against what is widely viewed as the day that many religions in the United States conduct church services.

When the league began promoting the game last week, it caught many by surprise that the game would be played Sunday morning. The other two London games were scheduled to start at the “normal” NFL times (1 p.m. Eastern Time, 5 p.m. London time), but this experiment may be the wave of the future – moving the London games to afternoon local starts and carving out a new niche for the Sunday morning slot.

There has been some blowback from players about the Thursday games that everyone has to endure. There are reasons why NFL teams only play once a week. It takes bodies time to heal up from the abuse they endure during the course of an NFL game. Having to play a second game just four days later has everyone still a little sore heading in, which may help explain why the scores are so often lopsided in favor of one team over another. But Sunday morning? The NFL may be takings it effort to expand its brand a little bit too far.

One has to wonder if the NFL has considered if Sunday’s early-early game will be viewed as blasphemous, but there will be many (some vocal) who think there are certain things that should be left alone. The NFL doesn’t have to take a backseat to anybody. Not Major League Baseball. Not the NHL. Not the NBA. But when it comes to going head-to-head with God and forcing people to make the choice between going to church or staying home and watching a football game, there is surely going to be some sort of backlash from groups like the National Coalition of Churches to the NFL infringing on church services that are viewed as sacred to devout followers.

Perhaps Sunday’s game between Atlanta and Detroit will be a one-time experiment that won’t be historically significant other than resulting in a significant one-time reduction in church attendance in Michigan and Georgia. But if the game draws some eye-popping numbers, the suits in the NFL will certainly take notice and it could become a trend.

The Shield can go up against just about any other programming or leisure activity to draw an audience. Sunday Night Football has been the highest rated network show the last three years. Monday Night Football has been the highest rated ESPN show ever and continues to do so. If they ever get some good games, Thursday Night Football could be a ratings juggernaut as well.

The NFL can go up against anybody on Earth and win. But, going up against heaven? That may end up being another story and potentially a harsh lesson for the NFL to learn as it tries to distance itself from the recent black eye it has taken from the incidents involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Kevin Hardy (not to mention the ongoing Aaron Hernandez situation).


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