Is Prayer in Sports a Big Deal?

Prayers before Oklahoma City Thunder games are becoming a regular occurrence. (Garett Fisbeck/The New York Times)

Prayers before Oklahoma City Thunder games are becoming a regular occurrence. (Garett Fisbeck/The New York Times)

We’ve all seen it in one capacity or another. Whether in our own locker rooms or on reruns of Friday Night Lights, we’ve inevitably witnessed the scene in which a football team is led in prayer before the big game. Sometimes they’re led by the coach, while other times the coach has brought in an actual priest to lead the student athletes in holy supplication. In most instances, this is presented as a normal occurrence, questioned by none of the characters whatsoever. But when we pause to consider the multiple controversies that have arisen due to prayer in school, it comes as little surprise that prayer in sports have generated some controversy as well.

When prayer in sports is presented to us on television, it hinges on the audience’s acceptance of anything not questioned by the characters themselves. When the aforementioned scene rolls around in Friday Night Lights, we do not stop to question what we are seeing. Do the Dillon Panthers not have a single atheist running back or Jewish placekicker? Even if we assume they’re all Christian, are we supposed to accept that they follow the same denomination? The characters do not question it, so neither do we. But in the real world, the issue of prayer in sports tends to generate much more discussion.

The last two sections of this article will contain the bulk of said discussion, detailing some common arguments as to why we should or shouldn’t care about the use of prayer in sports (especially where student athletes are involved). This will be preceded with some major instances of prayer in sports, so as to set the backdrop for the debate. Before anything else, however, we’d like to start off with a few disclaimers.

Caveats and Talking Points

If you worry this discussion may offend you, don’t get mad at us. Instead, enjoy this photo of a Pomeranian teacup puppy in a little suit. You’re welcome. (Photo via ImgBuddy)

If you worry this discussion may offend you, don’t get mad at us. Instead, enjoy this photo of a Pomeranian teacup puppy in a little suit. You’re welcome. (Photo via ImgBuddy)

You may wonder why this article gets an entire section just for disclaimers. After all, it’s not like we’ve shied away from controversial issues in the past. On at least two separate occasions (Melissa Mayeux and Kim Ng come to mind), we’ve discussed whether or not women have a place in the athletic world. We’ve talked about whether or not kids deserve participation trophies. We’ve talked about the stigma against sports betting, and why we think it should just go away. We’ve even handled some high-profile controversies, such as those involving Pete Rose, Tom Brady, and the Washington Redskins. But prayer in sports is a bit different.

The reason that we consider prayer in sports to stand apart from the issues mentioned above is that it isn’t too cut and dry. Think about it. You either think women belong in baseball, or you don’t. You either support sports betting, or you don’t. You either think participation trophies are harmless fun, or that they’re single-handedly turning our children into little monsters full of unwarranted hopefulness and reckless entitlement. You either think Brady’s a cheater who deserves to be suspended, or you cheer for New England and prefer not to think about it. All of these issues are pretty straightforward.

But with prayer in sports, the issue becomes much more complicated. You might support prayer in theory, but lament the fact that your religion or denomination is not commonly represented in practice. You might not support prayer in sports, but believe that the issue has been greatly overblown by people who could simply choose not to participate. Maybe you support prayer itself, but believe that it should be a solitary action rather than an organized event. There may even be some people out there who don’t support prayer simply because they think that asking for divine intervention in a football game is unfair to the other team—even though the other team is probably praying for the power to crush your team into the ground.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that all of these beliefs are likely to be influenced by your opinions on religion itself, not to mention your views regarding the rights of students and/or professionals and what these rights entail. Is allowing organized prayer in sports offensive to the students who’d rather not participate, or is banning it an act of oppression against the students who get something out of it? You can never please everybody, but there are so many disparate views in this case that it’s probably possible to pick an outcome that won’t please anybody.

That’s why we’re going to be wearing kid gloves with this one. Unlike our article on the national anthem, in which we discussed whether or not the Star-Spangled Banner’s inclusion in sports was a necessity, we will not be assessing whether or not prayer adds anything to the world of athletic competition. Okay, that’s a lie. But we won’t be discussing whether or not prayer actually works, because that one’s a bit over our heads. Instead, our main focus is simply why we should or shouldn’t care about the issue. There are some strong arguments on all sides, so we’ll try to make sure that everyone is represented equally.

Instances of Prayer in Sports

If we’re going to establish a backdrop for this discussion, then we should note that the idea for this article did not come out of nowhere. In fact, it was more or less our response to reading about the defiance of Bremerton High assistant coach Joe Kennedy.

The Washington coach has been told by the school district to stop leading students in prayer. While the district does not control the beliefs of their staff, the superintendent would prefer that those beliefs not be expressed while on the clock. Kennedy responded by continuing to lead prayers anyway, and his fate at the school is as of yet uncertain. Our assumption is that the district plans on taking strong actions against him, since a law firm is speaking to Fox News in defense of Kennedy’s religious rights.

Most major instances of prayer in sports involve high school football teams, but they do not have a trademark on the practice. One particularly notable example at the collegiate level is the 2012 prayer led at Penn State in honor of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse victims. The prayer was for a good cause, pertaining to good will rather than competitive spirit. In fact, it wasn’t even led by a Penn State representative, but rather by Nebraska’s assistant coach. It was unlike most prayer in sports, not just because it was led by Penn State’s opponent, but also because it did not occur in the locker room. Instead, it was led at the 50-yard line in front of more than 100,000 fans. And as some have pointed out, parts of the prayer were strangely misguided. It referenced using football as a benchmark for little boys struggling with the definition of manhood, as if “football makes you a man” is the most important message to send the victims of sexual abuse.

Of course, Penn State has not been the only major forum for prayer in sports. Just last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder became the only NBA team strongly associated with prayer when they began leading prayers before every game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. They were pretty careful about how they did it, leaving words like “Jesus” out of the prayers in order to keep them non-denominational. They also showed some diversity in who was leading the prayers, utilizing a mixture of religious authority figures, even throwing Native American spiritual leaders into the mix alongside the usual priests and rabbis. Some would argue that this is exactly how prayer in sports should be handled, as no one in the crowd was technically left out. Unless, of course, they only happened to attend a single game. Either way, the point was to offer a moment of reflection rather than just a forum for religious worship.

In truth, the instances of prayer in sports are so numerous that we could not possibly list them all. The examples mentioned above are but a few. And it isn’t always a whole team. Tim Tebow is so well-known for his public displays of prayer that he has become something of a living meme. But there’s a difference between Tebowing (which is a public display, but still a solitary expression) and leading numerous people in prayer. As has been noted, the question that faces us is not whether people should be allowed to pray at all. No one is trying to take this right away. Instead, the question is whether or not religious expression has a place in the world of student or professional athletics, Tebowing notwithstanding.

Why We Should Be Outraged

There tends to be much more outrage about prayer in sports when performed at the high school level, as is the case with Bremerton assistant coach Joe Kennedy (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun)

There tends to be much more outrage about prayer in sports when performed at the high school level, as is the case with Bremerton assistant coach Joe Kennedy (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun)

There are a few different angles to take with this one, so we’ll take them one at a time. The first, as we have already mentioned, is that prayer in sports is not always inclusive. The Oklahoma City example is a rarity, in the sense that their prayers are more like brief inspirational speeches that simply happen to be led by figures of religious authority. Aside from that, you are not likely to encounter many public prayers that go out of their way to accommodate the beliefs of all in attendance. By favoring the religion of whoever happens to be leading the prayer, others are left ostracized. Yes, there is the argument that they can simply choose not to participate. But sports thrive on teamwork, so reminding teammates that they are not part of a select group may not be conducive to the cause.

Of course, we’re making the assumption that those who wish not to participate will actually make such a choice. A rather heated article by Huffington Post contributor Wayne Besen points out that it is easier for athletes to simply fake it and go along. Now, parts of this article are a little hyperbolic, based on the seemingly flawed assumption that pro athletes will fear for their jobs if they do not pray alongside their teammates. Besen also notes the issue of an unnamed gay football player who may be choosing to remain closeted so as not to become the target of fundamentalist teammates, an argument which hinges on the incredibly false belief that all Christians are prejudiced against homosexuals.

Still, Besen has a point that these types of misconceptions exist, and it makes sense that one might foster such beliefs when their environment is one in which prayers are spoken without accounting for the views of everyone involved. It may not be intentionally exclusionist, but the damage may still be done. Every person on a team knows that they and their teammates may have various ideological differences, but this isn’t something that should be on their mind when they take to the field. Religion is a divisive issue. Most who practice any religion at all are quite devoted to their faith, and even many atheists are quite dedicated to their beliefs. This can cause friction between players, which will make it difficult for them to work together.

Then, there is the legal issue. We mentioned that this subject is most commonly brought up in relation to high school football teams. And despite the fact that organized prayer in school has been ruled out by the Supreme Court, stories like that of Joe Kennedy tend to pop up with relative frequency. The law stems from the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This contains the Free Exercise Clause, which many interpret differently. Some believe that being led in organized prayer that conflicts with their own beliefs is a violation of this clause, while others believe that this clause should literally entitle free speech in all regards.

Either way, public universities are just as subject to this law as public high schools (private schools are a bit different). But since separation of church and state is hardly a foreign concept, many feel that the case should be open and shut. That said, the Supreme Court has allowed prayer in various public forums when they have met one of two conditions: 1) they must be nonsectarian, or 2) they must rotate among religions. Basically, prayer in sports should follow Oklahoma City’s model to meet most commonly accepted legal standards. Without meeting such standards, the controversy will likely continue. After all, many who feel outraged by prayer in sports, schools, or other public venues are less outraged by the prayer itself than by what they consider to be exclusionist practices. As noted by Forbes contributor Bob Cook, some exclusionists “might find a pregame Pagan prayer interesting and edifying.” Indeed.

The last point we’d like to make is that some religious purists consider public prayer to be an affront to what prayer means to them. By putting prayer on display, we rob it of its sanctity. The standard “moment of silence” allows people to pray on their own, or to simply engage in quiet reflection if prayer is not their thing. Many do not understand why we cannot embrace this practice in favor of one which takes a personal act of faith and turns it into a public event. Given human nature, such a solution still probably wouldn’t appease everybody. But it would come closer than any other solution we can imagine.

Why We Should Stop Caring

We’ll take the above arguments in reverse order here, starting with the notion that prayer should be kept to oneself. There is nothing wrong with this belief, but the real question is why we are so perturbed by others’ prayers that we should feel the need to complain about it. Tebow isn’t hurting anyone. His public displays shouldn’t bother anyone. Especially those who think that prayer should be kept private, because at least he’s generating conversations about prayer and what it means. Besides, there’s no harm in letting a player pray if they think it’s important to the strength of their abilities. Gene Hackman’s Coach Dale encounters this in Hoosiers, when Strap is Tebowing courtside long before Tebowing was a thing. Hackman simply leans over and tells him that “God wants you on the floor.” Two baskets later, Strap credits his abilities to his faith.

Next, let’s talk about the legal issue. There are probably some who read what we had to say about nonsectarian prayers and the use of the moment of silence, and immediately discredited it on the basis that the moment of silence is really meant as a moment of prayer. This same belief played a hand in Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, in which the plaintiff argued against not only religious prayers, but nonsectarian prayers and the moment of silence as well. The court found that any university events begun with nonsectarian prayers are, as a matter of common sense, accompanied by nonsectarian moments of silence. Yes, someone might use it to pray. But you can’t hear them, and they won’t know if you’re secretly using that time to mentally rewrite your grocery list.

Furthermore, the court in that case found that the laws concerning prayer in school are generally aimed at primary and secondary school students. The worry is that such students may feel coerced to participate in such prayers. Concerning mature adults, however, prayer in sports does not present as much of a dilemma. Sure, refusing to participate may heap unfortunate social consequences upon the objector. But no student or professional athlete is likely to be cut from their team due to refusal to participate in prayer. If they are, then they’ll make way more money from the subsequent lawsuit than they would have made on the team that year. Especially in the case of student athletes, who aren’t exactly bathing in dead presidents to begin with.

We didn’t talk about it much above, but we’d like to briefly mention the notion that prayer in sports is hypocritical. That by praying to win, we are essentially praying for someone else to lose. Not all prayers are made in this spirit, but there is certainly a fair number of them. George Carlin—who was never one to shy away from NSFW language or controversial statements—also talked about the fact that athletes exclusively thank God or Jesus for wins, not losses. One may argue that it’s not only hypocritical to pray for a win, but also highly arrogant to assume that your deity actually cares enough to influence the game. But again, why should we care if people do this? Because athletes are never arrogant unless they’re religious? Please.

Now, we come to the issue of exclusion. This is the major one, so you might be expecting a long argument. We will not give you one. We already mentioned the fact that adults are not coerced into prayer in sports, the way they may feel coerced in primary or secondary school. Yes, it may cause friction between them and some of their teammates. But if their teammates truly care about the game, then they’ll be able to set such things aside. If not, then they’ll probably be unhappy with the results. A team that can’t work together is bound to lose together. That lesson transcends religion or prayer, but rather pertains to the mutual respect that athletes must possess if they wish to be successful. Those who cannot respect others on the basis of how (or if) they pray are not exactly living up to their own moral standards anyway, so just leave them to it. It shouldn’t get you down.

Finally, we’d like to end by offering you one point of comfort. Even if you’re completely against prayer in sports, remember that there are more important issues out there. We mentioned Friday Night Lights earlier, and the pilot episode illustrates this point quite well. The pilot famously ends with a prayer, which many fans consider to be one of Coach Taylor’s most inspirational scenes in the series. No deity is mentioned, and the lesson applies to everyone on Earth. But before that, running back Smash Williams leads the students in prayer to honor quarterback Jason Street, who has just been paralyzed. If you were Street’s teammate, his classmate, one of his coaches…would you stop Smash in the middle of his prayer, simply because it wasn’t nonsectarian?

We doubt that you would. We aren’t saying that prayer in sports is never wrong or misguided. But it’s usually aimed at a common goal shared by all present. Just because you don’t like the words does not mean you can’t take a moment to reflect on their meaning. Remember what we quoted earlier, about how any prayer (be it Christian, Jewish, Pagan or other) can still be both instructional and inspirational. All it takes is an open mind.