FAITH IN SPORTS: ATHLETES AND THEIR RELIGION ON AND OFF THE FIELD
By Steve Hubbard
214 pp., $19.95
The place of prayer in sports, especially as it relates to winning and losing, is one that divides believers.
Even in an organization like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in which there is presumably much common ground, Tony Dungy says the topic is debated.
Mr. Dungy is head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and one of the few African-Americans leading an NFL team. He emerges as one of the more articulate and forthcoming Christians in "Faith in Sports: Athletes and Their Religion on and off the Field."
Dungy's view is that prayer never substitutes for the preparation required for athletic success. However, he sees room for divine intervention once all the hard work is done.
"I pray I will give every effort and when I've done that, I don't see anything wrong with praying for victory," he tells author Steve Hubbard, currently a contributing writer for Inside Sports magazine. Hubbard says he's no biblical scholar and does not explain where his own religious convictions lie.
Many of the athletes interviewed in this book clearly are of an evangelical Christian stripe. This is only natural given their numbers and willingness to make public professions. At times a reader may long to hear from those whose faith is more private. Still, Hubbard generally succeeds in giving a generally objective picture of religion's growing influence in sports circles.
Clearly, those who follow Islam are hard to miss with names that often announce their faith, such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, one of the more prominent and devout Muslims in the National Basketball Association, fasts during Ramadan.
It is another NBA center, however, whose faith inspired Hubbard's book. Hubbard observed San Antonio's David Robinson and his family while writing two books with them. He came away convinced that there's nothing shallow about Robinson's Christian beliefs, a view shared by Robinson's dad, who believes his son could become as influential as Billy Graham once he leaves basketball and turns to ministry.
Robinson and his born-again Christian lifestyle were the focus of a major story in Sports Illustrated two years ago. This news media attention is part of the greater acceptance Hubbard has seen in the sporting press, which has sometimes viewed believers suspiciously in the past.
Two factors have conjoined to bring about this change, Hubbard theorizes. One is that the money in sports is so great and the pressure so intense that a growing number of athletes recognize the need for faith. At the same time, media members see the trend and are more open to reporting their human-interest stories, partly because sportswriters "prefer talking with gentlemen rather than jerks," he writes.
For the most part, "Faith in Sports" focuses on male believers, but Hubbard also connects with some women, including basketball player Nancy Lieberman Cline, a Jew turned born-again Christian, and Cris Stevens, who heads up the Christian fellowship on the LPGA women's pro-golf tour.
With little fanfare, this group has sent players overseas to engage in evangelistic outreach, twice helping at orphanages in Romania. These golfers probably make far less than many millionaire athletes, yet Hubbard thinks they, like a growing number of athletes, take seriously the biblical call to be charitable.
Some superstars, such as Robinson, football players Reggie White and Barry Sanders, and golfer Loren Roberts, believe in tithing. White also believes in being paid a fair wage, which has led some to question whether being paid millions to play a game is consistent with Christian teachings. "I'm not trying to be greedy," White says. "I'm going to help other people with my money."
* Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff writer.