When athletes praise God at the Super Bowl and other sports

The problem isn’t the faith of believers like Drew Brees. It’s the media assumption that every person of faith adheres to a highly traditional version of Christianity.

“God is great.”

So said Drew Brees, the most valuable player in last Sunday’s Super Bowl, after leading the New Orleans Saints to an upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Such comments have become commonplace on American television, where athletes routinely thank God in postgame prayers and interviews.

Is this a problem? I think it is. And to see why, try to imagine if Brees had made a slightly different statement: “Allah is great.”

While some of us might not see anything wrong with that, would network television announcers have applauded Brees as a “man of faith,” as he is frequently called?

Would newspapers have published glowing profiles of the other devout members of the Saints, who played up their religious belief during the buildup to the Super Bowl – and thanked God after it?

You already know the answer. The problem here isn’t the players’ “faith”. It’s the not-so-subtle assumption that every person of faith adheres to the Christian faith – and to a highly traditional version of it, at that.

They don’t, of course. But that’s the impression you’d get from watching religious rituals at American sporting events, which inevitably assume a conservative Christian cast.

Why? The answer lies in the peculiar history of these rituals, which are much more recent than you might guess. For over a century, to be sure, Americans have promoted team sports as vehicles for Christian virtue and character. But loud, demonstrative prayers at athletic events didn’t start until the 1960s and ’70s, when Christianity faced new challenges from minority faiths.

Most notably, the Supreme Court barred group prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. So conservative Christians devised new ways to bootleg prayers – Christian prayers, of course – into the schools.

The most popular mechanism was the so-called “moment of silence,” which 23 states instituted after the Supreme Court rulings. Some school districts replaced their morning prayers with “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” which both invoked God’s blessing. Still others began to hold prayers outside normal school hours, especially at – you guessed it – football games.

“We have kicked the Bible out of schools, but coaches realize its importance in the locker room,” boasted one minister in St. Petersburg, Florida. Across the state in Miami, site of this year’s Super Bowl, players at Miami Senior High School attributed their 1966 national championship to team prayers.

“The Lord Jesus Christ can make a great athlete out of a good one and a winner out of a loser,” declared the squad’s all-city defensive end. “Wouldn’t you rather be a winner than a loser?”

The prayer-in-sports ritual would migrate upward over the next decade, from high schools to college and eventually to the pros.

The first NFL player to kneel in prayer after a touchdown – a common sight today – was Philadelphia Eagles running back Herb Lusk, following a 70-yard touchdown run in 1977. Fittingly, Lusk became a minister and now serves as the Eagles’ team chaplain. Most other NFL teams have chaplains, too, and most of them – like Lusk – are evangelical Christians.

So are an estimated 35 to 40 percent of professional football players. The rest come from other faith traditions, mostly Christian, and they usually don’t participate in group prayers. Nor do they make a fuss, which might threaten team cohesion.

But there are exceptions. In 2007, when 30 members of the Detroit Lions started praying after practice – and concluding with a shout, “One, two, three... JESUS!” – other players raised their eyebrows. “You can’t bring religion up in most workplaces; you can’t do a team prayer at the office,” explained one player, who didn’t participate in the prayer. “So this is something unique that we have to deal with.”

He’s right. The true victims of sports prayers are in the faith groups that get left out.

Consider the fate of three Muslim football players at New Mexico State University, where a new coach instituted the Lord’s Prayer after practices in 2005. When the Muslims chose to pray on their own, the coach repeatedly asked one of them what he thought of Al Qaeda. He eventually dismissed all three Muslims from the team, calling them “troublemakers.”

But the real trouble was the prayer, of course, not the players. They sued the university, which settled with them out of court.

I can imagine them, heads bowed after the settlement, saying “Allah is great.” But I can’t imagine them doing that before a big game, on prime-time TV, while the announcers commend them for their “faith.”

Can you?

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory”


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