2016-06-30

Cleveland Browns football fans must be feeling blessed these days. It was nothing less than divine intervention that brought them their sought-after new coach, Butch Davis.

While agonizing over his career decision to leave the head coaching job at the University of Miami to join the pros, Davis told a friend he intended to go home that night and "pray to God for guidance," according to the Miami Herald. The paper reported that, "Just after midnight, the answer came: Go to Cleveland to become an NFL coach."

Suddenly, theology (or mock theology) became the subject du jour on sports radio talk shows. Hank Goldberg, Miami's popular call-in host on WQAM, asked the day after the revelation, "Was there a burning bush outside Butch Davis' house last night?"

While Cleveland fans rejoiced, many University of Miami alumni and students lost faith--if not in God, in Coach Davis' heavenly rationale for leaving a job that offered $1.3 million for one that paid $3.5 million. But Davis claimed God's word as his excuse. While a loyal coach might seem tainted for dumping a job he had pledged only days before to keep for many years to come--assuring reporters he had no interest in the pros--surely a devout molder of youth and leader of men could not be blamed for breaking his word to obey the command of the Almighty. Did Abraham question God's instructions?

Hank Goldberg gleefully lowered his voice and gave his imitation of a sonorous message from on high to recreate the awesome event: "Go to Cleveland, Butch, and become an NFL coach!"


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Coach Davis' invocation of the Almighty in the realm of sports was hardly anything new, of course; in fact, it's part of a practice that is as commonplace as it is spurious, a trivialization of the sincere religious beliefs that many athletes profess.

Mason said he wanted to thank God, for God was responsible for Miami's triumph. What does that say about the other team?

After a recent Miami Heat victory, the all-star forward Anthony Mason was asked by a reporter to comment on how the team made a comeback to win. Mason said he wanted to thank God, for God was responsible for Miami's triumph. What does that say about the other team? Was God against the Boston Celtics? (Many Boston fans have thought so since the departure of Larry Bird and company.)

When Miami later lost to the lowly Chicago Bulls, did it mean God had turned against the Heat? Had Anthony Mason--or Coach Pat Riley--done something to call God's wrath down upon the team?

Sportswriters have begun to tire of athletes' religious zealotry, regardless of the faith, and the subject has become more an occasion for jeers than cheers. In commenting on another of the intense physical games between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, Miami Herald columnist Den LeBatard noted there was no way to defuse the rivalry, not even by "sending [Anthony] Mason to church or [Larry] Johnson to Mecca." (The Knicks' Larry Johnson is one of many pro-sports converts to Islam; Mason is a born-again Christian.)

There is no doubt that a religious orientation has been helpful to many athletes, including Mason, whose previous "bad boy" image of arrests for bar fights has been altered by a clean record off the court and the best play of his life through the current season. The sincere religious faith of athletes is a welcome influence in society, but what's troublesome is trying to sell it to the press and the public as a factor in success on the playing fields, courts, and diamonds where games are played. They are, after all, only games. Trying to claim "God is on your side" in a sporting event simply degrades and devalues serious belief.

A lot of "God in sports" talk comes from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FAC), which claims 500,000 students among its membership in 7,700 "huddles," or local chapters. The FAC has for 46 years had as its purpose to "present to athletes and coaches, and all whom they influence, the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, serving him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church." The FAC enrolls members from junior high school to the pros and is surely a positive influence in a world where drugs, booze, and every other temptation is set before those with athletic ability.

One night, by chance, I happened to hear a thoughtful and inspiring presentation to a group of young high school fans following a Miami Heat game by Keith Askins, then a player and FAC member. There were no false promises of winning through Jesus but a quiet talk about values and dedication. Such low-key, positive messages are all to the credit of the FAC, but sometimes its publicizing of religion in sports backfires.

In 1999, the organization presented the Christian Athlete of the Year Award to Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons on the eve of his team's appearance in the Super Bowl. That very night, he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Whether or not God was angry at Robinson for his behavior, his coach and teammates certainly were; some blamed the distraction of his arrest as a factor in the Falcons' loss the next day to the Denver Broncos.

Rather than proclaiming God as the reason for their victories (or, in the case of Butch Davis, their decisions), religious athletes and coaches might do well to heed the words of Jesus, in Matthew 6:5-6:

"And when thou prayest, thou should not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward." "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut the door, pray to the Father which is in secret; and the Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

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