sports and religion

Sports and religion have always been uneasy bedfellows. Religion loves to borrow from sports, especially as fodder for sermons (“There is no waaaa-aaay that Jeeee-sus could ever be stopped short of the goal line!”); and sport loves to borrow from religion (The Hail Mary, The Holy Roller, Kamir Gbaja-Biamilia’s frequent references to God during his Pro Bowl interview, to name just three examples).

In real life, however, the mix is often problematic, if not disastrous. Consider, for example, the recent adventures of Kurt Warner, who apparently said, in a speech to a Baptist group, that he lost his starting job as the St. Louis Rams quarterback because of his faith — and now, because of those comments, may soon find himself a former Ram. (After a public scolding by coach Mike Martz, Warner backed off a bit from his claims, but the Baptist group apparently has his comments on tape.)

In the first of a two-part Writers’ Bloc, Robert Lipstye looks at the Warner controversy and considers the long and often sordid history of the relationship between sports and religion. Wednesday, the rest of the WB will reflect on the proper place of religion in sports, if any.

Sports, God & Religion | From Robert Lipsyte

So who do you really want on your team, a born-again Christian who’d rather read the Bible than the playbook, who thinks God is even bigger than Coach, or a psycho on parole who knows that if he doesn’t give up his body for you, he’ll be giving it up to the Offense in a cellblock at Oz?

This is not a trick question to cap your credit rating. There’s a real debate going on.

“I think God wants you to be a winner in life, and that spills over into athletics,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell told me a few years ago. “If kicking butts is part of it, that’s part of it. Jesus was no sissy. If he played football, you’d be slow getting up after he tackled you.”

Falwell’s version of muscular Christianity is part of the traditional American pep talk from a God who can be celebrated with material success, whether it’s selling cars or scoring touchdowns. If you say you believe and then you win, God must have been on your side. If you lose, maybe your faith wasn’t strong enough. Try harder.


Piety often does seem like just another performance enhancer, like bio-feedback, speed, steroids, fear, Wild Turkey. ”




On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh said recently that NFL owners have told him that players come out of rehab less competitive, because they have turned their life over to a higher power that isn’t wearing a whistle. This is the customary cant of people who are afraid, or at least suspicious, of active religion in sports. They twist serenity into a negative; those who accept Jesus, they say, will accept defeat as God’s will. They won’t worry about it.

Limbaugh, who used to be a sportscaster, was weighing in on Kurt Warner’s declaration, made at a Baptist meeting, that the St. Louis Rams coaching staff had benched him because of his religious beliefs. Responding to coach Mike Martz’s outrage, Warner backed off some, although the Baptists who recorded the speech did not.

This is not a new controversy. Because church and team both demand devotion, loyalty and trust, coaches have always been wary of the so-called God Squadders. Back in the ’80s, when locker rooms were often split between guys who went off to pray and guys who went off to party, managers and coaches would wonder, sotto voce, to sportswriters if the born-agains were “softer” than the druggies.

Even before that, the Yankees, who always carried their share of borderline alcoholics and numbnut whoremongers, sent private detectives to follow innocent second baseman Bobby Richardson to his YMCA ping-pong matches. The story was always told as a joke, but the truth was no joke — management was simply not comfortable with a player who was sober and reliable but contracted to a higher authority.

One of Our Era’s most relentlessly religious coaches, Joe Gibbs, seems to have gotten along very well with two of Our Era’s most free-spirited yet driven athletes, John Riggins and Tony Stewart. How could that be? They knew Joe was the Word?

In Warner’s case, the old charge of softness is laughable. As Jeff Gordon pointed out in a shrewd St. Louis Post-Dispatch online column, “God’s plan” for Warner “demands that he battle his guts out,” and his “ferocious drive has actually wounded his career,” because he so often plays hurt. Could coach Martz have been resentful of the way Warner often took control? Was Martz jealous of the He in the headset?

Religious experience is so varied, it’s hardly fair to stuff all publicly pious players into the same revival tent. Kurt Warner has said that he wants to do well so he can use his fame as a platform for God’s message. Reggie White, Green Bay’s Minister of Defense, has performed most aggressively on that platform, using it to attack gay marriages. Many athletes quietly pray not to make fools of themselves or inflict unnecessary harm. Others loudly thank Jesus only after they’ve won.

Stock car racers who have been raised evangelical Christians are suspicious of those expressive baseball and football players who they say are praying to “trinket Gods, false Gods,” merely to bring them better luck.

Piety often does seem like just another performance enhancer, like bio-feedback, speed, steroids, fear, Wild Turkey, which seems sensible to me. Winners find the edge wherever they can. My old friend, Professor William J. Baker of the University of Maine, the leading expert on religion in sports (he was the Passing Preacher as a quarterback at Furman) makes the case for evangelical Christianity as a reinforcement for sports.

“Both are win-loss mentalities,” he says. “In evangelical Christianity you are either saved or lost. You’ve gone to heaven or you’ve gone to hell, you win or you lose, and that’s what sport is all about.”

I’ve almost always found that the ostentatiously religious athletes tended to be nicer, if not always more fun, than the party animals. More than once, I’ve found myself asking them how they could both pray and hit so hard; invariably, they explained that God wanted them to do their best on the field. Some of them seemed to have really narrow, even frightened, attitudes toward women, particularly women reporters in the locker room. Others, like Steve Garvey, went out of their way to make sure women got the interviews they needed. Of course, Garvey liked women, which is less common than you might think in the bigs.

And then, of course, so many of the God Squadders turned out to be hypocrites, moaning in the chapel before the game, moaning in the lap-dance club afterward. I know I should be able to crank up some righteousness over that, but I just can’t, being something of a fan of victimless hypocrisies. At least hypocrites know what’s right, even if they can’t execute. And compared with the stats on jock rape and domestic abuse, hanging with hookers (so long as you pay afterward, Johnnies) seems downright responsible.

I guess I’m on God’s side.


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