Joseph L. Price
More than half of Americans believe that divine forces play a role in the outcome of sporting events (according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted prior to this year’s Super Bowl).
American sports fans are not alone in seeking God’s help. Shortly before the World Cup soccer competition began in Brazil, the Church of England issued a news release authorizing several prayers related to the games. For this year’s World Cup, the Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Nick Baines, who is described as a “die-hard Liverpool fan,” revised the set of prayers ecclesiastically embraced four years earlier for the World Cup events in South Africa.
The first of Bishop Leed’s prayers implores the Lord “who played the cosmos into being” to guard and guide the games’ participants so that they might enjoy “an experience of common humanity” and “generous sportsmanship.” One prayer requests support for the tournament’s thirty-two nations— especially for Brazil as the host nation; and another, intended for use by Anglicans immune to World Cup fever, petitions the Lord for patience with those who are possessed with futbol passion.
Two other prayers manifest national partisanship, beseeching blessings on the British team. While most of the prayers are brief, the shortest is specific to English fans and players. The two-word prayer, “Oh God…,” initially intended as a plea for England’s advance, effectively served (with different intonation) as a lament following England’s early exit from the competition.
In a manner akin to the Anglican news release, the Catholic News Agency reported on Pope Francis’s World Cup message. In a brief address telecast throughout Brazil on the eve of the games, the Pope focused on the value of sports, especially their challenge to overcome individuality, work as a team, and promote peace based on the experience of camaraderie. The Pope concluded with a prayer asking that the games “take place with complete serenity and tranquility, always with mutual respect, solidarity and brotherhood among men and women who recognize themselves as members of the same family.”
More spontaneous than either the Anglicans’ crafted prayers or the Pope’s telecast message are prayerful gestures by players, and petitions by futbol‘s global fans. One American professor writing for The New Republic’s World Cup blog reflected on his agnostic friends who implored God to support their favorite team, and he noted Neymar’s prayerful display—crossing himself—moments before scoring Brazil’s go-ahead goal on a penalty kick in the opening game. Identifying how prayer can even bring out the best in some fans, the blog also reported that one skeptical fan had gone to church specifically to pray for the safety of referees in World Cup cities filled with passionate Brazilians.
Prayerful petitions are not limited to futbol. Organizations, churches, players, and fans offered public prayers for their teams during the NBA season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the NCAA World Series.
Whereas some of the Church of England’s World Cup prayers exposed national pride, prayers can also betray sectarian partisanship. On the eve of the NBA playoffs, the New York Times featured a story about the Oklahoma City Thunder who precede all home games with an invocation, the only professional basketball team that maintains this practice. Seventy percent of Oklahoma residents, according to a Gallup Poll, identify themselves as Protestant Christians. Not surprisingly, although the team asks prayer leaders (including priests and rabbis) to deliver non-sectarian invocations, the prayers frequently resound with a Protestant tone.
Ministerial leaders, devout practitioners, and even agnostic fans often beseech God to intervene on behalf of their favorite teams, especially for championship events. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Catholic diocese in Montreal encouraged the faithful to support the Canadiens by lighting a virtual votive. And before the final game of the NCAA World Series, ESPN began its telecast with a shot of the Vanderbilt team huddled together with heads bowed. They then confidently took their places on the field, beating Virginia for the championship.
As a passionate sports fan I have often wished that prayers for my favorite teams or players might influence their performance; yet I do not believe that the Lord of heaven and earth really cares about the outcome of games on the field. What kind of ecumenical dilemma might God face if Notre Dame and Baylor should meet in a championship game?
Even so, it is possible that when participants experience the freedom and joy of genuine play in sports, their efforts can be understood as a kinesthetic form of prayer to the One who “played the cosmos into being.”
Sources and Further Reading:
“Church Releases World Cup Prayers including Prayers for England Team.” The Church of England. http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/06/church-releases-world-cup-prayers-including-prayers-for-england-team.aspx.
Hamilton, Graeme. “Montreal Canadiens Fans Paying Catholic Diocese $1 apiece to Light Virtual Candles for their Team.” National Post. April 21, 2014.http://sports.nationalpost.com/2014/04/21/montreal-canadiens-fans-paying-catholic-diocese-1-apiece-to-light-virtual-candles-for-their-team/.
Harris, Elise. “May the World Cup be a ‘feast of solidarity,’ Pope exhorts.” Catholic News Agency. June 12, 2014. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/may-the-world-cup-be-a-feast-of-solidarity-pope-exhorts-92547/.
Keh, Andrew. “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” New York Times. February 27, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/sports/basketball/praying-for-the-home-team-in-oklahoma-city.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.
Price, Joseph L. “Playing and Praying, Sport and Spirit: The Forms and Functions of Prayer in Sports.” International Journal of Sports and Religion I (2009): 55-80.
Stavans, Ilan. “God Uses the World Cup to Teach People Geography.” The New Republic. June 13, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118144/world-cup-soccer-and-god.
Survey. “Half of American Fans See Supernatural at Play in Sports.” Public Religion Research Institute. January, 16, 2014. http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/01/jaJune 13, 2014.n-2014-sports-poll/.
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon / flckr creative commons
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Author, Joseph L. Price, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is the Genevieve Shaul Connick Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College. He also serves as the series editor for the “Sports and Religion Series” published by Mercer University Press.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.