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‘God’ and the professional athlete

By George A. Ricker

With the National Football League about to kick off its 2006 season, I thought I would offer a few remarks on a genuine cultural phenomenon here in the United States.

One of the most interesting religious revelations of recent years has been the discovery by some in the U.S.A. that “God” takes a deep and abiding interest in the performance of professional athletes and the outcome of the games they play. This trend has been especially notable in professional football and basketball, where the Lord God Almighty has even taken a hand in directing the careers and the performance of some players.

‘God’ as manager

Some years ago, long before his untimely death in 2004 at the age of 43, Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers announced that he would not be retiring—rescinding a statement he had made a day earlier—because “God” had told him It wanted White, who was an ordained minister as well as football player, to honor the second year of a two-year commitment he had made to the Packers and continue playing—aching back and all.

I didn’t find it particularly surprising that “God” had given White those instructions. After all, according to White, it had been the Almighty who directed him to come to play for the Packers in the first place. I did find it a bit surprising that—given his intimate relationship with “God”—Reggie apparently had not consulted his Deity before making the premature announcement. Of course, it’s possible “God” may have changed Its mind. White hinted at the possibility when he said that year definitely would be his last—unless “God” told him to play another.

Fickle manager that It is, “God” ultimately told White to leave the Packers, but then had him return to pro football, after a one-year hiatus, to finish his career with a final year playing for the Carolina Panthers. “God” truly works in mysterious ways.

God the coach

Perhaps more surprising has been “God’s” level of involvement in the performance and careers of some players in the National Basketball Association. One would think It would have Its hands full, what with the responsibility for managing affairs in both the NFL and the Republican Party, not to mention other matters like plagues, famines, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and other, similar, “acts of God.” Evidently, like many fans, “God’s” interest in the NBA peaks during the playoffs.

This was made especially clear at the end of the fourth game of the first-round contest between the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks at the end of the 1997/98 season. Following the game, which was played on May 1 and saw the Hornets post a 3-1 series victory and advance to the second round of the playoffs in the NBA’s Eastern Division, Anthony Mason, power forward for the Hornets, offered a few remarks.

After thanking “God” for making all things possible, Mason said he had been “allowed” to perform well—Mason had just had one of the best games of his career and had, quite literally, dominated the second half. Later in the interview, he referred again to having been “allowed” to have such a good game. Clearly, the implication was that it was the Almighty that had given Its permission.

The Atlanta Hawks would have had no interest in “allowing” Mason to have the game he had. By the same token, the Hornets would have had no reason to discourage it. So if something “allowed” Mason to play well—taken in the context in which the remark was made—that something must have been the Deity.

Mixed results on ‘God’s’ squad

Presumably, then, Mason did not have a good game when his team played the Chicago Bulls the following Sunday—in the first game of the second round of the playoffs—because he was not “allowed” to. Evidently, the biblical saying “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” applies especially to the talents of professional football and basketball players and explains why some have terrific games one night and terrible games the next. It’s all according to “God’s” wishes—inexplicable though they may be.

This raises some interesting points. The first, and most obvious, is “what are team owners paying players all this money for?” Rather than investing millions in players’ salaries, wouldn’t it make more sense to give those millions to various religious organizations? Why pay players when, by their own admission, they can’t perform without “God’s” help anyway. It would make far more economic sense for the owners to pay the money directly to the source—and cut out the middle man or woman as the case may be.

Indeed, it’s a bit surprising that those players who keep reminding everyone how devout they are—usually after they’ve had a particularly good game—don’t include the Almighty in their contract negotiations. One would think they would consider splitting their salaries with “God,” since It’s apparently the only reason they are able to earn those millions anyway.

At the very least, “God” ought to get as much out of the contract as the players’ agents. After all, it’s not as though “God” doesn’t need the money. Tune in any televangelist, and you’ll quickly be reminded just how much cash it takes to be a successful Deity these days.

A ‘God’ clause?

I also find it surprising that the owners don’t insist on a “God Clause” in players’ contracts. That clause would require players to forgo their salaries for those games when “God” doesn’t “allow” them to play well.

Clearly, that’s something over which the owners have no control. They are paying for talent, not for the withholding of same. If a particular player has fallen out of favor with the Almighty for some reason, and thus is unable to perform, it seems only fair that owners should be able to dock them for it. Consider it like a “morals clause.” It should do wonders for the conduct of professional athletes. Besides, players who are doing what they do “for the Glory of God” ought not be concerned with such mundane matters as money anyway.

Apart from its potential impact on contract negotiations, “God’s” involvement also has profound implications for coaches. Before preparing lineups for a given contest, perhaps coaches should inquire which athletes think the Almighty is with them on a given night. After all, if “God” is really in charge of this whole thing anyway, it doesn’t make much sense to put players on the court who aren’t in tune with that reality.

A coach who doesn’t play “God’s squad” during the NBA or NFL playoffs is obviously courting potential disaster. One can only wonder how Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls managed to be so successful for all these years. Then again, maybe one shouldn’t wonder too much. After all, for many NBA aficionados Michael Jordan was “God.”

Chaplains for coaches

No doubt, coaches who are sensitive to the religiosity of their players will want to substitute prayer meetings for practice — or, at least, begin practices with prayer meetings. Since the Almighty is in charge of the athletes’ performance, a little sincere groveling could do wonders for a team’s prospects. And, of course, in this context the post of Team Chaplain becomes much more important. Indeed, it might be possible to replace the coaches with chaplains. What the heck, it’s all going to go according to God’s plan anyway. Why pay millions for Riley, Jackson or Brown, or for Cowher, Saban or Parcells when the Man (or whatever) Upstairs is the one calling the shots?

It’s also important for sports reporters and analysts to pay attention to this new phenomenon in professional sports. Inquiring minds will want to know whether their favorite team was pummeled because some players had not been “allowed” by the Almighty to play up to their potential.

But never mind the fans, think about the implications for the betting pool. Will the NBA or the NFL be up to the challenge of investigating the possibility that the Deity is responsible for shaving points in a playoff game by not “allowing” players to play well. It would be prudent for bookies, as well as players, to get right with God.

A holy copout?

Of course, most professional athletes do not make an ostentatious show of their religious beliefs. Most of them are willing to take the credit when they perform well and the blame when they don’t. Those who insist it’s all in God’s hands absolve themselves of any such responsibility.

It’s a great copout, but I don’t think it’s likely to carry much weight with fans or coaches.

I suspect they will adopt the somewhat heretical stance that if there really is a “God,” It’s probably too busy dealing with matters of substance to pay much attention to professional sports or the athletes who play them.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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