Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair

Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:  Religion and Alabama Politics

Covering the Bible Belt II:  A Freethinker's Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

Excommunication in Rochester

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

God in the Press Box

by Terry Rifkin

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Professional athletes are getting saved, and sports writers are getting annoyed. These days, it seems, the only place in the daily paper where you can find open season on religion is the sports page.

There can be no doubt that the number of athletes publicly testifying to their faith has drastically increased in the last few years. Nor that, as the players push faith in their faces, the writers have had to report it. When the Yankees won the 1996 World Series, for example, the New York Times quoted the team’s born-again star reliever, John Wetteland, saying, "Jesus Christ is my point man." All told, the number of sports stories dealing with religion has increased dramatically.

It is one thing for someone like Tennessee Oilers chaplain James Mitchell to say, "I’m not in the game-winning business. I’m in the soul-saving business." Increasingly, the athletes are wrapping not only themselves in religion but also their exploits in religious significance. After Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in February, home-run champion Mark McGwire told USA Today he would like to have let the pontiff know that "the Big Man upstairs had a reason and purpose for what happened last summer." Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham seized this year’s National Football Conference championship as a pulpit to proclaim that the world "might be experiencing ‘the birth pains’ of Armageddon," and proceeded to foretell an endless Vikings reign as football kings. When Minnesota went down to defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, Falcons safety Eugene "The Prophet" Robinson proclaimed that God had favored his side.

Such testimonies-along with the Bible study sessions, chapel services, and post-game group prayer-have all become an accepted part of the game today. At least they’ve been accepted by the players and many of the fans. "How about a little more hitting and a lot less sermonizing?" asked USA Today sports writer Jon Saraceno. "Personally I’m all for separation of church and football." When "The Prophet" was arrested in Miami for soliciting an undercover cop for oral sex the night before the Super Bowl, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey wrote, "[P]eople would feel far less vindictive about one man’s disgrace if we had not been subject to his ranting about divine intervention in a stupid football game." Misbehaving athletes are one thing; athlete-hypocrites, something else.

On February 21, the Los Angeles Times addressed the "separation of church and sport" issue in football writer Chris Dufresne’s 6,087-word special report, "Does God Care Who Wins?" "I think only God can answer that question," said Randall Cunningham. But as far as Dufresne was concerned, God does not care who wins. "If God truly wanted to send a messenger via sports," he wrote, "why didn’t he speak through Michael Jordan?"

Theology aside, Dufresne also took up the question of, as he put it, "the sudden stampede [of religion] into our living rooms." His theories ranged from religious players’ intense media coverage to increased salaries and scrutiny, to Jimmy Carter’s opening the door to the "born-again cause." Dufresne acknowledged that God has always "served as a spiritual partner in its [sports] myths," that a full stadium can and often is seen as a congregation. He quoted Whittier College religious studies professor Joe Price as saying that those elected to the Hall of Fame "are enshrined-it’s very religious." But how can the media and the public be sure that athletes are true believers and not just seekers after prime time, or worse?

In a sidebar, "When Athletes Don’t Practice What They Preach: Morals," Dufresne inquired into the moral lapses of such self-anointed exemplars as Eugene Robinson and heavy-weight champion Evander Holyfield. Robinson’s arrest for prostitution solicitation came just hours after he had received the Bart Starr Award for high moral character by "Athletes in Action," an Ohio-based Christian organization. Two days after his victory over Vaughn Bean last September, Holyfield admitted to fathering two more children outof wedlock-bringing his total to nine. Though both men have publicly apologized for their "immoral" actions, they will need more than words to regain the public’s trust, wrote Dufresne.

Not all journalists take so suspicious a stance towards the religious attitudes of the players. "It is easy to mock deeply held beliefs, religious or otherwise," writes Michael Bauman of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It is easier to do that than to understand." Bauman emphasized that religion was not a pose or a public relations stunt for Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Reggie White, an ordained minister who was widely criticized (in some quarters) for denouncing homosexuality. "White’s religion defined who he was, what he was, what he did, what he said," Bauman wrote.

New York Knicks’ pious point guard Charlie Ward received similar treatment from Newsday’s Greg Logan. "Some may be put off by Ward’s constant references to his religion, but no one can question his sincerity," Logan wrote. "Drawing from the deep pool of his faith, Ward has overcome a series of obstacles throughout his athletic career." And, writing in USA Today, former New York Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman-author of a well-received book on a socially active black church in Brooklyn-said, "I appreciate the show of religion-as a sign of humility from those with abundant cause for arrogance, as a moderating force in lives filled with worldly temptations."

But the meaning of religious commitment is a subject into which most sports writers do not too deeply delve. Dufresne offers a Letterman’s list of the top three things that "make sports journalists squirm": 3. chit-chat on deadline in the press box, 2. an urgent message to call the office, and 1. an athlete talking about religion. It’s not that most sports writers are irreligious, Dufresne claims, but that "the athlete’s agenda is often at conflict with the reporter trying to do his or her job." That job, or so they would argue, "is to report on the games they cover, not provide athletes a forum to express their views on God."

"We think [religion’s] place is in church," said Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, "not in the aftermath of two and one-half hours of pushing biting spitting slugging and cursing." This may represent not so much anti-religious bias as a visceral response to athletes’ use of religion to sanction the gritty business of competition and conquest.