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Prayer, Tebowing and the Super Bowl: The evolving relationship of sports and religion

It was early in the Little League season, but my 11-year-old son was off to a slow start. He had already struck out in this game, and was now batting with the bases loaded.

Standing along the first base line, I did something I had not done before during a game: I prayed for a specific result. Not that he would get a hit. Just that he would hit the ball, and not strike out.

He ended up hitting a home run over the centerfield fence – a rare feat for anyone at this field – and was mobbed by his teammates. The coach sent his younger son to retrieve the ball, and gave it to my son after the game, which his team won.

Should I have prayed about a kids’ baseball game? Did my prayer make a difference?

The success of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and his personal expressions of faith – including the addition of a prayer posture now known as Tebowing – has reignited conversation about the relationship between sports and religion.

Some secular commentators argue against any breach in what they would like to see as a wall separating faith from the playing field. Many religious folk fear too great an accommodation with big-time athletics can promote worship of false idols.

As Super Bowl XLVI approaches, however, research provides evidence that for both athlete and fan, prayer may serve to help them cope with the pressures of sports, and help them keep in perspective that, in the end, it is just a game.

Winning isn’t everything

Athletics and religion have a long history together. Sports first appeared in culture as cultic rituals.

The early Mayans, “like ancient Greek sprinters, Egyptian ball players and American Indian stickball players, regarded competitive games as depictions and celebrations of ultimate realities,” Shirl Hoffman of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro wrote in an article in “Word & World.”

In the United States, early Puritan wariness of the frivolity of play gave way to the notion of “muscular Christianity.” After the Second World War, athletics increasingly came to be seen as a platform for evangelists to urge consideration of a higher playing field. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action developed in the 1950s and 1960s.  Many religious groups today offer athletic programs as a way of inviting and integrating the faithful into their communities.

Concerns abound that the conflation of religion and sports promotes a “winning-at-all-costs” attitude, but some research suggests prayer has a greater purpose for many athletes.

  • In an in-depth study of nine former NCAA Division 1 Christian athletes, researchers from Samford University and the University of Tennessee found prayer helped the athletes cope with the stress of competition and provided a sense of self-worth and mission that transcended winning and losing. One participant said, “When I prayed, I felt more relaxed because I had a connection with God. I felt like whatever happened, happened. If I was successful, I was successful. If I failed, it’s not I failed. It’s not the end of the world.” Winning or losing was inconsequential to most of the athletes, the researchers wrote in an article on “The Experience of Christian Prayer in Sport” for the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.
  • Researchers also discovered a general antipathy to praying for wins in a separate study of 92 Division 1 softball players. The study found that athletes who spent individual time praying for teammates demonstrated higher levels of spirituality, but team prayer also helped participants feel more together, happier, calmer and more hopeful. “I think it lets people know they can put their trust in God and, whatever the outcome, it’s OK,” one participant said in the study also reported in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.
  • In groundbreaking interviews with 104 former or current NFL players, sociologist Eric Carter of Georgetown College found high levels of unhappiness and deviant behavior. What made a positive difference, the study found, was faith in God and access to a religious support system. Overall, 72 percent of the players who reported that they were happy with life also reported that religion was an important support mechanism.

After the game

You need not look beyond the riots in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup last year or instances of parents attacking coaches, referees or even other players at high school and youth league games to see how fan obsessions can escalate out of control. Movies such as the 1996 film “The Fan” with Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes and the 2009 “Big Fan” with Patton Oswalt illustrate the darker side of wrapping up too much of one’s self-identity and self-worth in the exploits of a favorite player or team.

But sports in perspective can also bring a lot of pleasure to individuals and help fans vicariously experience emotions of triumph and loss, the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” without giving over their souls to big-time sports.

Even in the early stage of research on religion and sports, there are indicators that prayer can help fans and players alike. 

In sports and war, “identification is facilitated by the clear differentiation of opposing sides, rules of engagement, a desire to determine a ‘winner’ and ‘loser,’ and denigration of the opponent,” Fred Mael and Blake Ashforth note in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour.

 But religion, they note, carries with it the potential for raising aspirations and promoting transcendent values such as care for others.

 In my own experience at that long-ago Little League game, what I can say my prayer accomplished was that it helped calm a nervous father.

Perhaps I was expressing what scholars might call an evolutionary-based desire to respond to someone in need with an act that offered support and helped alleviate my own feelings of helplessness. But it was a moment I will never forget.

After the game, I bought a little stand and mounted the ball to display in my son’s room. But it seemed to always end up buried in the closet along with piles of old baseball cards. When my son moved away after college, I held on to the ball.

Every time I look at the ball, it still gives me a warm feeling inside of a magical – perhaps even mystical – moment in time.

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