After asking a player to lead the team in prayer, a varsity football coach at an Arizona public prep school recently received a two-week suspension. Coach Tommy Brittain’s punishment has become a rallying point for area Christians who view it as another example of secularism crowding out religion in the public square.
Conservative television and radio have fanned the flames of discontent, even though the question of whether or not coaches, chaplains, or any other adult may lead public school teams in prayer has long been a settled legal matter. Further challenges have come from atheist groups such as the American Humanist Society (AHS) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
Any football fan knows that religion on football fields and locker rooms is nothing new. Over a half-century before Philadelphia Eagle Heb Lusk kneeled on the field and sent up the first-ever end zone prayer during a 1977 NFL game, a brand of Christianity had already become a familiar fixture in football locker rooms. As far back as 1893, a journalist reported that following its victory over Yale in the great Thanksgiving Day game, the Princeton team, “naked and covered with mud and blood and perspiration,” stood in its locker to sing the Doxology “from the beginning to end as solemnly and seriously, as they ever did in their lives.” Today, prayer in professional football is as predictable as The Star Spangled Banner, so much so that heads are no longer turned when NFL teams meet at the center of the field for prayer after each game.
But religion inserted into games sponsored by public institutions is another matter, destined to raise questions about separation of church and state. Following a series of cases, a 2000 Supreme Court decision closed what many considered to have been the final loophole on the issue of prayer at football games. In Doe v. Santa Fe, the court found that even student-initiated, student led pre-game prayers aired over stadium loudspeakers were in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Yet some Christian coaches continue to pray with their teams in clear violation of the law, and when school principals or school boards enforce the law, Christian fans, players, and clergy bristle. In some cases protests have resulted in outright defiance, in other cases, cagey methods of sidestepping the rule.
Last month, cheerleaders at Tennessee’s Oneida High School—upset by the crackdown on an 80-year ritual of offering pregame prayers over the stadium loudspeaker—weren’t satisfied with the “moment of silence” that has taken its place and instead gathered on the field to shout the Lord’s Prayer while spectators joined in. Not as clever as the Alabama school which, following the 2000 Santa Fe decision, asked fans to bring portable radios to the game, telling them to turn up the volume while a minister said a prayer over a local station, but the cheerleaders’ defiance nevertheless landed them appearances on national cable television.
If such temerity is intended to shorten the arms of an overreaching legal system, it hasn’t worked. If anything, flouting the law has emboldened anti-prayer groups to launch even more vigorous assaults against football praying.
In recent weeks, for example, the FFRF spearheaded a clampdown on a Mooresville, North Carolina, football coach who prayed with his team, and the AHS threatened to sue a Gainesville, Georgia, high school for allowing its football coach to pray with the team and assigning work-out instructions emblazoned with Scripture citations. At Seminole High School in Florida, coaches have been singled out by FFRF for allowing players to “take a knee” during a game to pray for an injured teammate. It also was behind a recent complaint that led the Orange County, Florida school board to end the practice of allowing chaplains to pray with the high school football team. The most recent challenge from FRF and AHS has been leveled at Madison High School in Danielsville, Georgia, where it has long been the tradition for players to pause on their way to the field to touch a monument inscribed with bible verses, including Romans 8:31: “…If God be for us, who can be against us?” (KJV).
Lost in the barrage of protests from the Christian community has been this important question: Why should anyone, least of all Christians, consider prayer to be so vitally important at football games? Prayers have long been banned in classrooms and commencement ceremonies—environments where we might justifiably argue that prayer makes more sense. But nothing has gotten Christian dander up quite like laws that muzzle football coaches who want to pray.
Why football? Why do Christians consider it so important to insert prayer into a spectacle that borrows, as philosopher Kurt Eisner once put it, “the means from war and the mood from festivals?” Is there a rightful place for prayer in a spectacle that thrives on violence and, in so many ways, seems to mock a gospel urging us to “follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19)? Can the praying player really “have the mind of Christ” with a psyche inflamed by pregame speeches grossly exaggerating the importance of the game? Is there a legitimate place for prayer in a game in which expressions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control must be shelved until the game has ended?
Ethicist R.E.O. White reminds us that prayer is always morally conditioned. He suggests for example, that prayers for forgiveness are unlikely to be answered unless supplicants themselves are willing to forgive. So too prayers on the football field are morally conditioned. Petitions for protection from the ravages of the game—a universal ingredient of football prayers—are conditioned by the player’s obligation to take care of himself and to treat his body as a sacred vessel.
But asking God to protect you just before entering a fray shown to produce more than its share of snapped tendons, broken bones, wrecked joints, and concussed brains seem hopelessly misplaced if not outright disingenuous. And is there a more puzzling sight than players and coaches kneeling before a broken body on the field to ask God’s mercy and healing, and then resuming what it was that caused the injury as soon as the injured player has been carried from the field?
Should coaches and players pray before football games? Perhaps it all depends on what they pray for. Pray for peace? Not the way the game is played today. Pray that the Lord will help you “play to the best of your ability?” Not if that means you have to dampen God-given, psychological, fail-safe systems designed to protect you from injury. Pray to win? Only if you think God, in his infinite wisdom, wants to bring you the thrill of victory while bringing your opponents the agony of defeat. Pray for the Lord’s protection? Not unless you are willing to set limits on what your coach asks you to do with your body. Pray that God might be glorified by the game? Not unless the rules and strategies of the game are radically altered so that that overused platitude actually means something. Ask that the game will glorify God but only after it has been stripped of its bellicosity, purged of its brutality, and infused with a spirit that, far from challenging the best instincts of Christian, actually fosters spiritual growth.
I might venture one unqualified role for prayer in football although I doubt it ever would gain a foothold in a culture where clear thinking doesn’t have a chance against entrenched, unexamined traditions. Does it seem too radical, too idealistic, too traitorous to the ideals of the game to suggest that Christian football coaches, in the stillness of their offices, pray that football might one day be redeemed and restored to its created design? And after having prayed that prayer, maybe they should work to realize its vision.
Shirl James Hoffman is Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Baylor U Press, 2010).
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