DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Loosen your Bible Belt a notch or two and sit a spell. This is going to be uncomfortable.
If, that is, you’re one of the flocking religious zealots convinced that Tim Tebow isn’t merely an improving NFL quarterback, but more so a Mile High messiah ordained by a higher order and whose passes are GPS’d by divine intervention.
Ain’t happening. Sorry.
But don’t take it from me. Listen to Ed Young, pastor of the Fellowship Church in Grapevine.
“I think God cares about sports in that he cares how athletes carry themselves and represent themselves, sure,” Young said this week. “But does he swoop down and affect the outcome of games? Of course not.”
In a bland world where we are craving something to believe in or, at the very least, race our pulse, you saw the idiocracy in the wake of Denver’s overtime win over the Steelers last week. Tebow passed for 316 yards. It was Broncos’ head honcho John Elway that earlier in the week told him to “pull the trigger.” And, of course, the mystical halo that formed over Mile High Stadium after the upset.
Nope. Nope. And nope. It wasn’t a sign that an advanced being signed off on a statistical performance that screamed John 3:16. Just more coincidence, stretched into some form of skewed significance.
“Tebow is great. He seems like a very grounded person and a man of faith and someone to look up to and admire,” Young said. “But if he’s this chosen one led by God on the field, how are we going to explain it when he falls short of winning the Super Bowl? If we start crediting God with his success yet blaming him for his failures, that’s a dangerous position to take.”
In our continuing obsession with injecting religion into sports, Ben Roethlisberger pointed to Heaven after a game-tying touchdown pass last week, trumped only when Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas with the 80-yard game-winner and then, of course, dropped to a knee for a quick prayer to thank God for hating the Steelers.
“God doesn’t care about the outcomes,” Young said. “I’m a huge sports fan and I was glued to the TV, but I’ve got to believe He has other things to worry about than an AFC Wild Card Game.”
When not busy crafting apparitions out of pancakes and tree trunks, God watches sports. Or does He/She/It?
God loves sports. You’ve heard of The Hail Mary, The Miracle on Ice, The Hand of God Goal, The Immaculate Reception, Amen Corner, Touchdown Jesus and the Angels winning a World Series?
God hates sports. You’ve seen stadiums more crowded than sanctuaries, major championships decided on supposedly Sabbath Sundays, God Shammgod unable to craft a career in the NBA, the hellacious losing experienced by the Methodists up on Mockingbird, the Duke Blue Devils owning March Madness and the New Jersey Devils winning a Stanley Cup?
Ambivalent sermons be damned, our obsession with molding sports and religion into compatible teammates has hatched an unwavering belief in divine intervention. Or at least divine attention. (The one about the hole in Cowboys Stadium’s roof so you-know-who can watch his favorite team is sacred scripture, right?)
God’s 11th Commandment: Thou shalt ask for prosperity, but not points?
Bible-belt athletes believe in a sovereign God powerful enough to orchestrate any outcome, but also that Roger Staubach’s shocking bomb in Minnesota, Franco Harris’ suspicious catch in Pittsburgh and Maradona’s sneaky goal in the World Cup weren’t direct calls from God’s praybook but merely heroic achievements by players maximizing athletic gifts from above.
For every pass-from-the-pulpit Super Bowl hero like Kurt Warner, there is inspirational cycling legend Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor who openly voices his distrust for organized religion, an uncertainty in God and a belief in training hard over praying hard. From Midnight Madness to Christmas morning, the games people play and the fans that watch them are directly affected by, at the very least, a divine influence. Some events, like Mesquite Rodeo and Texas Motor Speedway, commence their sports with prayer. And some athletes, influenced by religion to the point of appearing pious, prompt skeptics to doubt their credibility.
Shawn Bradley, who rarely took his children to Mavs home games because he didn’t want them to “watch dancers out there doing pelvic thrusts”, was roundly criticized during his career for a devotion to Bible over basketball. Former Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter, who taped Bible verses to his locker and routinely quoted scripture during interviews, was abruptly cut in training camp in 2004 and has been arrested multiple times on drug charges.
In a Valley Ranch interview once upon a time Carter told me, “God invented sports and he teaches us through them. What happens on and off the field is totally in his hands. Sometimes he teaches through winning, and other times through losing.”
While God’s blueprint can be fuzzy, one thing is perfectly clear: Today’s athletes are more expressive, and likewise their religion. Mainstream society has recently become snuggle buddies with morality, censoring edgy Super Bowl halftimes and green-lighting FCC fines aimed at muzzling Howard Stern while amplifying David Stern. So too, at least outwardly, are our sports stars finding the end zone of religion, evidenced by demonstrative gestures skyward and post-game, mid-field prayer circles.
“I’m not sure today’s athletes are more religious,” said Pat Summerall, the longtime voice of the NFL who dubbed his Southlake home “Amazin’ Grace.” “But I’m quite certain they’re more vocal about being religious.”
Is God a face-painting, pizza-munching patron with no more effect on a game than a rabbit’s foot? A hands-on puppeteer writing scripts by rooting for a particular team in a particular game? Or are sports a spiritually suspect quest, too trivial for the universe’s reverent referee to rule on?
Legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, a saint in a state where football often dwarfs religion, leaned toward a separation of God and gridiron by rarely leading his team in prayer.
“Because,” reasoned Royal, “I’m pretty sure the Lord is neutral about things like football.”
Despite all our attempts to integrate entities, it seems likely that God created “born-again” and bestowed upon us the free will to concoct “sudden-death”. He’s consumed with final judgments, not final scores.
“I understand how people are bothered by Tebow, how it seems he gets so much credit and how it seems an agenda is being pushed down their throats. I get that, I really do,” said Young. “But in a league where players score touchdowns and gyrate and get absorbed in self-adulation, I’m not sure how a Christian going to knee for a second is a big deal.”
In Jesus’ name we play, Amen.