In 1984, I was placed on the varsity basketball team as a high school sophomore – a team that held a daily Evangelical Christian prayer after practice. Even though it was a public school, we were forced to gather in a circle near center court and offer pleas to God that always ended “in Jesus’ name we pray,” although not all of us were Christians.
This intrusive ritual was student initiated and well intentioned, yet there was a high degree of coercion. As a scrawny 14 year old playing with muscle-bound eighteen-year-old men, I was too intimidated to speak up and challenge the appropriateness of such unconstitutional, sectarian prayers.
To get along, those like me, learned to go along and violate our consciences. Unfortunately, similar situations are happening every day and highlight why prayers and showy displays of team piety should immediately be excised – from grade school to the professional ranks. That means no more team prayer circles or Bible studies. Team chaplains should be dismissed, and faith should take a backseat to football and bibles to basketball.
Now, I’m not saying that individual athletes should refrain from expressions of religiosity in games. Let Tim Tebow do his “Tebowing,” if he ever again gets into an NFL game. Allow athletes to point to the sky if they actually believe God helped them score a touchdown or sack a quarterback. There is even room for Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to exonerate himself from a double murder he was allegedly involved in 13 years ago because, as he told interviewer Shannon Sharpe, it was God’s will.
SHARPE: “A couple of weeks ago, the family of the incident in 2000, and I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like this: While Ray Lewis is being celebrated by millions, two men tragically and brutally died in Atlanta. Ray Lewis knows more than Ray Lewis ever shared. What would you like to say to the family?”
LEWIS: “It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who he is. You see? And if our system, this is the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth.
Such unchristian views from the football faithful are not unique to Lewis. Sports Illustrated has an article this week, “In the Fields of The Lord,” where they interviewed Les Steckel, CEO of Christian Athletes, who was known for promoting cheap shots when he was an NFL coach. According to the article:
Les Steckel, a longtime NFL offensive assistant and the coach of the Vikings for one season, was a proponent of cut blocking, the dangerous tactic of aiming at an opponent’s knees downfield. When his players balked at cut blocking, he told them to man up. “I’d say, ‘Go cut ‘em,’” Steckel recalls, “and they’d say, ‘But they have a career like me.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, they’re trying to take your career away from you.’”
There is also the scriptural hypocrisy of injecting religion into pro sports. For example, the Bible clearly says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Yet, the SI article points out, “The [New York] Giants lot is filled with expensive cars and SUV’s.”
The larger problem, however, isn’t the glaring hypocrisy. It is that players may feel, as I did as a sophomore, compelled to worship or face consequences. Giants player/evangelist Justin Tuck, for instance, boasts that over half the team participates in prayers, a curiously high percentage of worshippers. It is easy to see how a non-religious player might feel pressure to join the prayer circle to please certain coaches who control his livelihood.
Indeed, pro sports are a hypercompetitive industry where a contract can mean millions of dollars and family security. Think about it — if you walked up to strangers on a street corner and offered them a million dollars to hold your hand and pray, you’d be amazed to find how many people were suddenly born again Christians. Don’t tell me that similar machinations and calculations aren’t occurring among players in pro sports every day.
This week, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo penned a beautiful op-ed for USA Today where he urged a gay player in pro sports to come out and be the LGBT community’s Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American Major League baseball player.
Just like Jackie, the breakthrough gay athlete will be a courageous individual going it alone in uncharted territory. But, also like Jackie, he will have backup — and hopefully more of it.
Surely, this historical breakthrough is impeded, to some extent, by the infiltration of outspoken Christian fundamentalists in pro sports. How comfortable would an out player be on the Giants?
There is a place where devout Christian players can pray on their own time as individuals – it’s called church. The stadium is no place for Scripture and prayer isn’t a team sport.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”