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God and sport

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(In researching this piece, I have asked a number of people for their takes on the topic. The responses have been so thoughtfully crafted that I’m going to include parts of each of them in this Thursday’s post and possibly a Special Monday Edition. Did you like the capitals there?!)

Last weekend, Sunderland EPL soccer player Kieran Richardson dashed from his own defensive 6 yard line, received the ball 18 yards from his own goal and nailed a fierce strike that hit the back of the net.

His celebration involved removing his top (a mandatory yellow card!) and revealing a ‘I belong to Jesus t-shirt’, as you can see.

I’m not quite sure whether he thinks it’s his chiseled arms or the smug smile that’s going to lead people to Christ in that moment. I say both.

It’s brought about some discussion about religion in sport and what role, if any, it has in that arena.

It’s an area that makes this writer feel uncomfortable if it ever arises, not because I disagree with the player’s right to profess their beliefs, but I wonder what the broader public, most of whom do not agree with what they’re hearing, will think –

  • ‘Rubbish!’
  • ‘What, your God wanted your team to win more than mine?’
  • ‘Shut up and just play sport. Let the preachers preach.’

In many ways, it is too easy to jump on a player who acknowledges their faith, undermining their words with a sarcastic or negative response.

Especially in America.

Watch a player score a touchdown in the NFL and in a large % of cases, you will see a player kneel, bow his head and pray, in the end zone! Or, as they trot back to their bench, ball in hand, there’s the inevitable point to the sky above. Anyone who can read will know that many of these players lead unbelievably hedonistic lifestyles and these acts can reek of hypocrisy.

Disaster brings unity

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, in each NBA game that season, players concluded each game with a group prayer. There was little criticism for that. Rightly so.

But in the cold light of day, should these players be bringing these issues to light? Is there a place for it? The public is watching to support your team, admire your skills or to take in great competition. They don’t care about your personal beliefs.

Or do they?

‘I’m not a role model’ (raise your own kids)

Like it or not, the athletes and competitors we so admire are asked to be more than just athletic and to compete. Some players rebel against this. Charles Barkley, NBA superstar and member of the ’92 US Olympic Dream Team (best team ever) once remarked, ‘I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’!

But others see the $$ potential in being a ‘stand up guy’. Better citizenship or perceived good character = greater trust from the community which = bigger endorsements. Alas, as it was with Dennis Hopper as the bad guy in Speed (1!), it’s all about the money.

If that means professing a faith, especially in the lucrative US market, so be it. Cynical, I know.

A tweet from a NFL player after he dropped a match-winning pass!

At home

At the Australian level, it’s far more rare that a player will use his or her platform to push a religious agenda or to simply thank God. I distinctly remember Gavin Wanganeen doing it when he won the ’93 Brownlow Medal deservedly over Greg Williams, and then again in 2001 when Shaun Hart won the Norm Smith Medal (speech is 2.00 in) for best player afield in the Grand Final win over my Bombers.

Come to the present day, however, and on one hand, we have a sporting star in Anthony Mundine who has been converted to Islam, professes that the US Government brought the September 11 terrorist attacks on itself, while on the other we have Aaron Baddeley winning golf tournaments and thanking God for gifting him victory.

Tim Tebow. ('Hey God, thanks for the completed pass....')


But there are those for whom their religious beliefs are real, heartfelt and lived out consistently. As much as it hurt seeing Shaun Hart acknowledge Jesus after decimating my Bombers, I didn’t begrudge him thanking God. It’s at the core of who he is. And it took guts to do it. I didn’t think he was saying that God wanted his Lions to win anymore than my Bombers. Hart acknowledged God as his strength and saviour and that’s all there was to it.

Tim Tebow is a college superduperstar, now NFL quarterback and outspoken Christian. He’s also the most polarising athlete in America, now that the Kobe thing is forgotten. (Shhhhhh) The article link is a must-read. It’s compelling. It brings out the complexities of this issue 100 times better than I ever could. Here’s a snippet – ‘We live in a Christian nation, Tebow is a Christian warrior, non-Christians see themselves as ostracized, and Christians see themselves as eternally persecuted.’

And his reasoning for continuing to bring God into his ongoing public dialogue – ‘If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only tell your wife that you love her on the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and have the opportunity? That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ.’

(Hang on a sec – just reminding my wife that I love her…)

A team game

There, now that that’s done, the plethora of insights I have been given by various people over the last few days all seem to come down on the same side of the ledger, whether or not they profess a faith –

If it’s an acceptance speech and it’s part of who you are and the life journey you have been on, then no problem.

If it’s in the midst of a game or a comment related to you actually winning the contest and not just being blessed for the opportunity to do what they love for a living etc, then shut the hell up! Why? Because (1) It’s not going to lead people to Christ, and (2) It’s highly unlikely God gives two hoots whether you win a close game, score a touchdown or kick a goal. Can I also add (3) – You also look like a tool and you make 95.3% of Christians cringe beyond belief.

Some of the greatest characteristics of what Jesus espouses are available to individuals and teams in the sporting arena – courage, humility and sacrifice, to name just a few. These are available to believers and non-believers alike.

When individuals with particular beliefs choose to use the public forum to either humbly thank their creator or hijack the moment with a creative stunt, it gets tongues talking.

Just not in the direction you’d necessarily expect.


About petek8

Pete Evans has just finished going 12 months without watching any sport. The journey stemmed from a sense that the balance was out-of-whack with my time and my priorities. Everything seemed to revolve around creating enough time and space to fit in the last game, games, recap shows or space to surf the net for the latest numbers and analysis. The cycle never ends - one season leads into another, seasons overlap if you follow various sports and the media's insatiable appetite for a new 'story' means that even the greatest of achievements aren't heralded for more than 3 days. So I stepped away from the machine for awhile and intentionally engaging with the journey by writing about it.

2 responses »

  1. Personally I don’t understand pop culture. Why sports stars are held up as hero’s or admired beyond their ability really beats me. Therefore I rarely listen to what they have to say.

    For this reason I really like points 1, 2 and 3. Well said Evans.

  2. Well, it’s not like they have nothing to say, you do get the odd player that has something worthwhile to contribute in a public forum. Given, it can be rare that it’s valuable, I’ll grant you that… 🙂


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