FEBRUARY 7, 2002
Of Patriots and Saints
-- Jonathan Ebel
Those who watched Sunday's Super Bowl were treated to a seemingly miraculous game. After appearing to fall apart in the game's final two minutes, the New England Patriots, fourteen-point underdogs, defeated the St. Louis Rams on a last-second field goal. For once in a great many years the game helped viewers forget the halftime kitsch and the much anticipated, strangely uncreative array of commercials.
Woven into this year's tapestry of sport, show, and commercialism was an unusual attention to religion. Not since Sandy Koufax refused to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur, or Cassius Clay accepted Islam has the faith of athletes received as much coverage in the sports media. The reasons for the attention are many, but prominent among them are the role that Christianity plays in the lives of so many of the St. Louis Rams, and their readiness to talk so openly about their faith.
In the week before the Super Bowl the Chicago Tribune ran two stories, Melissa Isaacson's "Keeping the Faith" and Rick Morrissey's "Preaching Has Its Place, but It's Not Here," sparked by the public Christianity of the St. Louis Rams. ESPN Radio host Dan Patrick, usually given to standard sports talk-radio material, put his spin on the topic when he invited an agnostic player to talk about the dynamics of a religious locker room from a non-religious perspective. To their credit, these journalists and many more across the country waded into unfamiliar waters. They treated what they found there with varying degrees of success.
Rick Morrissey, lead writer of the Chicago Tribune's venerable "In the Wake of the News" column, handled the topic most clumsily complaining in column length that St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, the National Football League's Most Valuable Player, talks about God too much, and is unjustifiably disappointed when his message doesn't make its way into the sports page. "Many devout Christian athletes complain that whenever they refer to their religious beliefs during media interviews, their testimony often is edited out by heathen sportswriters wearing stained golf shirts." Morrissey continues, "There is a reason for this separation of church and sport: When people open up their sports section in the morning, they don't do it to read Warner's views on being born again." If Morrissey has in mind the notoriously hard to "church" 18-24 demographic, then he is probably right. But if, as he should hope, his readership extends beyond the sports-bar set, Morrissey might find quite a few more readers who, for many reasons --some surely not to Kurt Warner's liking -- take an interest in the role religion plays in the life of a successful team.
According to fellow Tribune columnist Melissa Isaacson, one such interested party, the New Orleans Saints football team, hired a "voodoo priestess to cast a spell on the Rams" before a playoff game last year. The Saints won the game, and Warner arrived in New Orleans this year with passages of scripture to "counteract any sorcery." St. Louis lost again.
ESPN Radio personality Dan Patrick devoted a segment of his program to discussing religion and professional football with New York Giants offensive lineman Glen Parker, an agnostic. His experiences were, generally, that prayer and openly religious acts including the attribution of victory to God did as much harm to the team as they did good. When a quarterback says that we won and he played well because God wanted him to, the lineman said, it makes all of us wonder what, exactly, we contributed to the effort.
What lessons on religion can we learn from the words and experiences of the spectacularly wealthy, super-athletic who dominate our television screens every weekend? Do we need Eugene Robinson, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, to show us that the Christian citizen by day might solicit a prostitute by night? Do we need defensive great and ordained minister Reggie White to show us that religious authority doesn't always come with clarity of thought on matters of race? Do we need players uncomfortable with public expressions of faith to demonstrate to us that religion can be an alienating influence? For that matter, ought we to ask Kurt Warner (who said, according to Isaacson, "I'm not saying He's picking sides . . . but I think He wants me to be successful because I'm going to glorify His name.") and his Christian teammates where God was as Adam Vinatieri's field goal sailed through the up-rights Sunday night?
The answer to each of these questions is "No." We shouldn't turn to Warner for theology any more than we turn to Augustine or Tillich for play-by-play. But given the extent to which athletes have come to dominate public consciousness, we do well to look closely at how religion functions among them. Their problems and triumphs, and religious sensitivities may be more publicized than ours, but they are certainly in the same ballpark.
-- Jonathan Ebel is the managing editor of Sightings, and a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.