Vol. 2, No. 1
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
Covering the Bible Belt III: Liaisons Religieuses
Excommunication in Rochester
No National Conspiracy
Religion on the Small Screen
|God in the
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 teams 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,
"Im not in the game-winning business. Im 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 years 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 theyve
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 Im 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 mans 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 Dufresnes 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
didnt 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
Carters 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-its 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 Dont 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. Robinsons 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 publics 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.
"Whites 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 Newsdays
Greg Logan. "Some may be put off by Wards 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
But the meaning of religious commitment is a subject into which most sports writers do
not too deeply delve. Dufresne offers a Lettermans 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. Its
not that most sports writers are irreligious, Dufresne claims, but that "the
athletes 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 [religions] 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.