“God is not going to provide any leadership on this team. He couldn’t care less if we win or not.”
I recently had the pleasure of attending an NFL game at Chicago’s historic Soldier Field, with all the pageantry of America’s most popular sport on full display. While there I noticed something interesting during the course of the game. Immediately before kickoff, the majority of players casually jogged to the end zone and proudly took a knee. After a few moments in silent meditation, many of the players methodically traced a crucifix across their chests, or kissed their hands and pointed towards the sky. It was not as though a small segment of the players performed this pregame ritual, it was nearly all of them. After witnessing this, I began to think about the prominent role that Christianity occupies in many professional sports, most notably American football. To be completely honest, it made me very angry to realize that many professional athletes really think that God is on their side. People may not wish to acknowledge it, but implying a relationship between the Christian God and the arena of sports is ridiculous. Not only that, it is ideologically condemnable, and completely incompatible with an empathetic worldview. If these athletes were to take the time to think deeply about the consequences of their actions and statements, I think that they would come to better understand the important values of their theology.
The relationship between religion and pro sports has become more and more apparent in recent years. Mark Oppenheimer of Sports Illustrated recently published an article entitled “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” You can find this provocative title poised above an intentionally pious photo of Ray Lewis, one of the NFL’s most polarizing figures (and an outspoken Christian). In the article, Oppenheimer explores the obvious juxtapositions that exist between many features of pro-football and the traditions of Christianity. He points out that in addition to the obvious disrespect for the sanctity of Sundays that defines the NFL, that the violent and extravagant nature of the sport seem to conflict with many of the values inherent in America’s most dominant religion. He also notes that the lifestyles and personas of many of the NFL’s biggest names seem to be at odds with Christian morality. As anyone who watches ESPN will tell you, we constantly see and hear news of players getting into trouble with the law and openly flaunting their wealth, despite the fact that many of them cultivate Christian personas. While I agree with Oppenheimer’s points in the article, I couldn’t help but feel as though he was backing away from what really needed to be said. Every time a postgame interview mentions the importance of God, or Colin Kaepernick kisses his laughably ironic religious tattoos following a touchdown, we skirt the real issue at hand. No one wants to point out the absurdity of the connection, and the saddening reality that unites pro sports and theology. When these players thank God for their performance, their thought process is completely absent of how awful the world is for so many people.
After a big playoff win or a career-defining performance, we all watch as the best players take to the cameras to thank the big man upstairs for all their success. I’m sure many of you know that Tim Tebow rarely makes a television appearance where he fails to mention the words “faith” or “God” several times. But why is this such a farce? We can answer this question just by looking at the issue with a tinge of perspective. These players pray to God before they take the field and thank him readily following a good performance. Ergo, they believe God has something at stake in the game that they are playing. He cares who wins and who loses, who gets injured, he has some type of power over who succeeds and who does not. If someone gets hurt during a game, maybe it is because they didn’t pray beforehand, or perhaps they were even atheistic. The real problem is that it has become so commonplace for athletes thank God that we no longer think about what that really means.
This perspective is completely at odds with a reasonable and empathetic understanding of the world. Just consider for a moment any of the most horrible real-life situations that you can think of. Genocide, starvation, violent rape, torture, they will all lead us to the same conclusion. The Christian God is by definition an all-powerful, benevolent creator of the universe. This means that when Ray Lewis goes up in front of a camera he is sincerely expressing his belief that God, the alpha and the omega, has gone out of his way to help him get a sack while simultaneously failing to address the horrors of the world. At the same time that an NFL player is praising God for their great game, that same God is ignoring the death of thousands of children to starvation. He is allowing innocent people to be raped and murdered without remorse. They’ll say God works in mysterious ways, but to me that doesn’t serve as the comforting blanket of warmth that it does for other people. When I hear someone charismatically state that their God had something to do with a meaningless game of football my blood begins to boil. I struggle to think of the words to describe how insane that belief really is.