>> by Shawn Hendricks  Baptist Press

SAN FRANCISCO (BP)—While underinflated footballs did not dominate Super Bowl headlines this year, the National Football League still had its share of unsportsmanlike conduct calls, concussions and doping allegations this  season. But rules do matter, and those who don’t follow them must pay the consequences, players say.

Team members from the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers weighed in on the importance of sportsmanship and their Christian faith during Opening Night of Super Bowl 50 with the media at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., Feb. 1.

Is sportsmanship becoming a thing of the past in the NFL as teams continue to clamor for an edge to get to the Super Bowl?

“I don’t think (sportsmanship) is going extinct in the NFL,” noted Brandon Marshall, linebacker for the Broncos, responding to a Baptist Press question. The Broncos successfully won the Super Bowl, 24-10, with its  dominating, hard-hitting defense that limited the Panthers’ scoring opportunities. But playing by the rules and being an example on and off the field, Marshall said, should remain the priority.

“I think we saw (an earlier) game in the playoffs where it was kind of crazy,” said Marshall, responding to another question that referenced the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals playoff game, where an illegal hit and numerous penalties appeared to cost the Bengals the game with them losing 18-16. “Sportsmanship is huge. You never want to jeopardize the integrity of the game… You gotta try to stay in control.”

Marshall said he seeks to prioritize his life by faith, family and football.

“I thank God every day for where I’m at… for blessing me with these abilities,” he said. “I’m thankful for Him because He blessed me with this. I feel like I’m anointed to do this. That’s why I play the game, also for my family.”

Jared Allen, a defensive end with the Carolina Panthers, said athletes must keep their excitement and desire to win at a level consistent with the rules. Allen sat out the NFC Championship game against the Cardinals because of a foot injury, but played in the Super Bowl.

A key to success, Allen said, is for players to accept that football and life are not about them.

“For me I think you have to realize that this isn’t about me,” he said. “Obviously God has blessed me with a tremendous talent and I have the ability to play this great game so I just try to keep that in perspective…. There is somebody else guiding this ship and God’s got a plan and I’m kind of along for the ride.”

While football can be a violent sport and one that requires intensity, players have to rein in their emotions, Allen said.

“Me personally I never go out there to hurt anybody,” he said. “Does it happen? Yes, it happens sometimes but obviously you want to play as hard as you can within the rules…. You have got to think about your team.”

DeMarcus Ware, defensive end for the Broncos, said, “Consequences do matter.”

“You gotta play smart in between the lines and (know) how to be a smart player,” he said. Echoing Allen’s advice, Ware urges young players to stay aggressive but keep their teammates in mind. “You’re playing a brutal sport. But know that you can do things to hurt the team.”

Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman, who did not play in the Super Bowl due to a partial tear of his ACL, is known for forcing fumbles by punching the ball lose from players arms. Though a tenacious player, Tillman is also known for his Christian faith.

“People think Christians are always supposed to be nice all the time,” the 2013 winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award said. “You can still be a Christian and competitive.”

“There is always a choice, a decision and a consequence,” he added. “Whatever that decision is—good or bad—you gotta deal with that consequence. You definitely gotta follow through with the rules.”

For those struggling with making the right decision, Tillman said, “My advice is to pray.”

“A lot of meditation, a lot of prayer, and again I think God always has a plan,” he said. “I don’t always understand His plan … but I (pray).”