Debate continues: What place does religion have in sports?
The images are everywhere: players pointing skyward after scoring touchdowns, teams gathering for prayer, coaches praising God following victories.
Religion has always been a part of the sports world, but its presence today is hard to ignore. Some say more athletes and coaches have been emboldened to speak out because of the rise of conservative Christianity in politics, where it has become mainstream to discuss religious beliefs.
President George W. Bush helped usher in that era, and was elected largely because of the religious right. We are seeing Christianity play a role in the Republican primaries with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But there is a major divide in politics that parallels a similar split in the sports world: There are those who believe God belongs everywhere, and there are those who believe God belongs only in church.
In sports, both sides of the “to preach or not to preach” question are jockeying for attention. The more we see the vulnerability of athletes and corruption in sports, the more each side feels it is necessary to speak out either for or against religion in sports. That presents a series of questions:
Why do coaches and athletes feel the need to share their beliefs?
Will Christians recognize what some call the hypocrisy of linking religion and sports?
Will this trend continue in growing numbers?
Christians have been taught to spread the word, so religious athletes are no different. Players such as Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard want everyone to know about their faith. When the Magic picked him in the 2004 NBA Draft, Howard said he wanted to see the day when a cross would be added to the solitary figure of a basketball player in the league logo.
Though there is no physical cross in the logo, Howard believes it is represented in spirit. He says when people “look at players around the league who are Christians like myself, they see the cross.”
Howard leads the team in prayer before each game, the way he did in high school. In the NBA and baseball, teams have organized chapel services, where players can pray together. Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams was part of the first NBA chapel service while with the Philadelphia 76ers in the late 1970s.
College football programs such as Florida State and Florida have team chaplains to help counsel players. In the NFL, players organize Bible studies. There is only one organized professional sport that has a prayer before competition: motor racing.
But there is the perception that allowing Christians these avenues for prayer leaves out other religions. Rabbis or imams are not available to athletes the way chaplains are. Baseball, for one, has run into problems with its organized chapel.
In 2005, The Washington Post described a conversation between the volunteer Christian chaplain for the Washington Nationals and player Ryan Church.
When Church went to him and asked, “Jewish people, they don’t believe in Jesus. Does that mean they’re doomed?” the chaplain nodded his head.
The New York Times reported recently about Jewish minor-league umpire Josh Miller and his discomfort over participating in chapel every Sunday morning. Though chapel is optional for players, Miller said the services were always held for umpires in their own dressing room. Miller felt he had to stay in the room for fear it would affect his career chances. The head of ‘Baseball Chapel’ acknowledged to the Times it was working to fix the problems.
“Why does management put up with this?” said Jim Mathisen, a professor at Wheaton College who teaches sociology of religion and sociology of sport. “Management gives these churches and chaplains a lot of leeway because they would rather their players do that than be out creating mischief.”
There are very few players, coaches or front office personnel who are willing to speak up about the way Christianity has seemingly taken over sports. Nobody wants to take the chance of potentially being ostracized.
“I was in my share of locker rooms, and never did anyone say, ‘Hey, everybody, This is wrong,'” said Anthony Prior, a former football player for the Jets, Vikings and Raiders from 1993 to 1998. “The mind-set is: I’m a team player, this is a team sport, we have to think team. I don’t want to be seen as an outcast. I want people to think I’m with them and not against them. It’s mind games.”
Plus, religion is a touchy subject to begin with, so people are already reluctant to offer different viewpoints.
“We need more intellectual dissent,” said Robert Higgs, professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University and author of God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America. “When everybody just knuckles under and goes with the standard theme that’s dominant in the day, you’ve got a problem on your hands.”
Christians don’t see it as a problem. Take a look at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the largest Christian sports organization in the country with a presence from youth leagues to the pros. Established in 1954, the group encourages coaches and athletes to use sports to influence the world for Jesus Christ.
FCA puts on hundreds of camps every summer for boys and girls ages 8-18, and coaches as well. Last year, it set a record for attendance with 42,001. Compare that to 13,627 in 2002.
Those are a lot of kids who are ready to spread the word.
“You should never be afraid to speak out on your faith,” Howard said. “I’ve never been ashamed of who I believe in, so I’m going to let people know about him and about what he’s done for me. I know a lot of guys who feel the same way. I believe Jesus would want everybody to know that.”
Religion and sports converged long before Christianity was founded. In ancient Greece, local religious-athletic festivals were held in honor of the Greek gods. In the mid-nineteenth century, people believed that physical strength and active Christian ideals should be promoted. The two have been intertwined, it seems, since the creation of sport.
In the book Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, William J. Baker writes, “For all their differences, religion and sport seem to have been made in the image of each other. Both are bathed in myth and sustained by ritual; both reward faith and patience; both thrive on passion tempered with discipline.”
“The language of victory in sports is identical to the Christian faith,” said Williams, author of How to be Like Jesus. “Think about what it takes to be a great athlete: discipline, hard work, sacrifice, selflessness, teamwork, respect, trust, loyalty, humility, influence. All those words cross right over. The athlete understands that language. The two worlds fit together.”
But scholars and many others have questioned the unlikely partnership between the two because they seem to be completely contradictory in nature.
Christianity teaches one to think of others first, to love others, to be humble, to do daily acts that are selfless in nature. Sports seem to fly in the face of all those ideals.
“This religion has nothing to do with saving my soul or getting right with God because you can’t get right with God on the football field,” Prior said. “You are trying to annihilate your opponent, you don’t glorify God like that. You glorify God when you give somebody some knowledge, share with them, motivate them, inspire them, uplift them. Those are the characteristics of Christ.”
Some feel Christians have latched onto sports because it is a convenient way to spread the message. They will overlook all of the contradictions just to reach as many people as possible.
“I grew up at a time when Sunday sports were considered a sin,” Higgs said. “If the people I knew growing up in the farming area could see Nashville today with the Titans and the hockey team, they would fall over dead again. . . .
“You can’t imagine Jesus up in a box seat. You can’t do it. If anything he’d be handing out boxed lunches outside the stadium.”
Oftentimes, we hear athletes say God helped their team win, or helped give them the strength to have a good game. Does that mean God wanted the other side to lose?
“God loves each and every one of us,” said Magic guard J.J. Redick, a Christian. “Any time any one of us do anything, whether it’s making a public speech or playing a basketball game, or if you’re a carpenter and you make something, all those things that you do to use your special skills that God gave you is glorifying him.”
Then there are those who question athletes outspoken about their faith when they make a mistake, or are perceived to have done something that violates Christian tenets. Howard has taken some heat for having a baby out of wedlock, but he is not the only one to face criticism for behavior that does not mesh with Christian views.
One of the best-known examples is Falcons safety Eugene Robinson, who was arrested the day before the Super Bowl in Miami in 1999 for trying to pay for oral sex from a prostitute. The arrest came hours after he was presented with the Bart Starr Award from Athletes in Action, another Christian sports organization.
It is hard to tell where this debate will go. Many predict more athletes will speak openly about their faith, increasing Christianity’s role in sports. Some believe there is going to be a backlash and those in the sports community will get tired of hearing all the God talk.
It could depend on what happens in society.
“We are in a phase in history that I would call civil religion,” said Christopher Thomforde, president of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., and a former basketball player at Princeton. “The adherence to a conservative religious position is growing, but at the same time, cynical disposition is growing. I can see them both going side by side in a pretty vehement pattern for a while.”
For now, Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy seems to be the poster child for the conservative religious movement in sports. After beating the Chicago Bears and Coach Lovie Smith in the Super Bowl last year, Dungy was asked what the championship trophy meant to him.
“More than anything, I’ve said it before, Lovie Smith and I, not only the first two African-Americans, but Christian coaches showing that you can win doing it the Lord’s way. And we’re more proud of that.”
Nobody criticized him for his comments. His admirers view him as someone with good moral character, something many Christians believe is being eroded in this country. His book, Quiet Strength, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 straight weeks and has reached 1 million copies in print.
In the book, he wrote about how his faith has helped him to become the person he is. It is safe to say that fans probably bought that book because he is a good Christian, not because he is a good coach. To back that up, there is proof: Quiet Strength was the top-selling book in all Christian bookstores in August 2007 and November 2007.
Dungy and others have embraced religion because they say it has helped them find fulfillment or a greater understanding of what life has to offer.
Shawn Harper, a former NFL tackle with the Colts, travels the country as a motivational speaker, based largely on his faith and Christian conviction.
“I have spoken to a lot of Christian athletes, and you’re talking about a guy or girl who has it all. They have all the money, they have all the success, but they’re still feeling lonely and empty,” Harper said. “The next car is not going to do it, a bigger contract is not going to. After a while you realize this world has lied to me, there has to be something else, and that is the turning point with a lot of athletes.”
But if all the talk continues, there might be a sense of God fatigue, or an increasing skepticism of the marriage between religion and sport.
Even Reggie White, who did his part to lift the Christian movement in sports, started seeing some serious problems with religion and sports before he died in 2004. In an interview with NFL Films that aired shortly before his death, White said he felt used by the religious movement.
“Really, in many respects I’ve been prostituted,” White said.
“Most people who wanted me to speak at their churches only asked me to speak because I played football, not because I was this great religious guy or this theologian. . . . I got caught up in some of that until I got older and I got sick of it. I’ve been a preacher for 21 years, preaching what somebody wrote or what I heard somebody else say. I was not a student of Scripture. I came to the realization I’d become more of a motivational speaker than a teacher of the word.”
It takes more than just a few outspoken athletes and coaches to change the way religion and sports go together. Prior has a more jarring view.
“The public displays of religious faith will end in the NFL as soon as a Muslim player scores a touchdown and postures to Allah,” Prior said. “They’d probably stop the game. I don’t think 80,000 screaming fans are ready to see that.”
Probably not. But right now, there is no telling how this debate will end. Or whether it will ever end at all.