HACKENSACK, N.J. More than 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl on TV, with another 78,000 packing MetLife Stadium, but will there be another set of eyes looking down on the Meadowlands? Could an Almighty fan be preparing to pull up a lounge chair a week from Sunday, take in the game and orchestrate the outcome?
More than 20 percent of Americans believe God has a say in who wins sporting events, according to a survey conducted this month by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Religion and sports, especially football, are deeply connected in American culture. Fans pray for victories, and many believe that players who pray are more likely to win. According to the institute’s poll, 48 percent of Americans believe athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success. That number jumps to 62 and 65 percent when asking white evangelical Protestants and minority Protestants, respectively.
So are the truly faithful rewarded with success on the field?
“It’s one of those tricky questions,” said former quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a devout Christian. “I believe God has your best interest in mind. How that correlates to winning and losing football games, I’m not fully sure.”
Warner won and lost a Super Bowl in his 12-year NFL career, during which he played for the Rams, Giants and Cardinals.
“Do I believe that as a son of God that my life is important to him? No question about it,” said Warner who was named Most Valuable Player when he led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl title in 2000. “Where do we draw that line between what’s important to him and what’s not? I believe it’s all important to him. But I don’t know how exactly that fits into winning and losing per se.”
We put the question to some members of the clergy: Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?
“No,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus Congregation Beth Tikvah. “And it’s not a question of God (having) bigger things on his plate. We live in a world where we have a religious understanding that God cares about everything, but the truth is we don’t believe that this is the kind of thing God needs to or should be getting involved with.
“The world plays out the way it does to its own laws and logic, so when you’re praying for your team to win, you’re praying for the way the world operates to be upset for your own rather small and limited personal need.”
The Rev. George McGovern of Oradell, N.J., an interdenominational Christian minister who is team chaplain for the Giants and Yankees, agrees.
“I don’t think so,” he said when posed the same question. “I hate to be his spokesman because he might care. I don’t know. He hasn’t revealed that to me. He might be a secret fan of one of the teams. …
“My thought is God is not nearly as concerned with the performance or the play on the field, as he is the hearts of the guys who are performing or playing on the field. What are their motives, effort, character, are they men of integrity? That kind of stuff is much more important to God than the scoreboard.”
But the effort that affects the scoreboard creates a gray area for some.
“My gut would say I don’t think so,” said the Rev. Warren Hall, director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University. “I do think what goes into it is what is the effort on behalf of who was playing. I think that is more so what makes an outcome happen. So if, therefore, you want to say that effort was a strength given to a team by God, then we’d say well, yeah, God was part of that outcome.”
Hall pointed out that people should remember that winning isn’t the only reward. Good can come from apparently negative circumstances. Losing can have its merits.
“Maybe I don’t know what that benefit is just yet, maybe it’s going to strengthen my character or maybe it’s going to motivate me to be better,” said Hall, who is teaching a course at Seton Hall on sports and spirituality. “I think we have to look a little more deeply.”
Most sports fans don’t think past wins and losses and some are uncomfortable with a player’s public profession of faith, Hall said. At the same time, the truly faithful can be disappointed by their teammates who don’t follow the life they proclaim.
“People are always watching,” said Warner. “People always want to see if what you say is backed up by how you live, especially when it comes to faith. … I guess that’s what disappointed me the most, when you say one thing and then you saw a completely different kind of living. Nobody is perfect. We all misrepresent our faith at times or even numerous times but to say something very forthright and act outright contradictory, I always thought that would hurt the cause.”
“I am not overly impressed when I see certain people who have not been paragons of virtuous or moral behavior doing some great athletic feat then praising God because it seems very contrived,” he said. “But if it’s an honorable person who’s behaved nicely and played by the rules kicks a field goal or scores a touchdown and at that moment acknowledges his creator, I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
For Christian athletes, there is a natural intersection of sports and religion, McGovern said.
“The sports culture almost puts an athlete or coach in a place where his heart can understand the Gospel because his heart is being shaped by the nature of sport – discipline, teamwork, respect for authority,” he said. “Those are three pillars of the religious life. … All the things that go into making an athlete a good athlete and a great athlete are the same ingredients that go into a man living a life of faith.”
McGovern believes the feelings associated with religious faith are particularly intense in the NFL, where the emotion, violence and possibility of serious injury are always so close to the surface. It’s a level of vulnerability that, he said, few others can understand.
“My guess is there are guys who build these skyscrapers and they stand on these girders and they’re 500 feet above the ground, I have a feeling they have some similar moments emotionally where they say, ‘God please keep my balance, God I don’t want to fall,’ “ he said. “When a human being is put in a very risky, dangerous situation, he tends to look up for help. That’s just the way we’re wired.”
McGovern and Warner caution that people not read too much into the fact that faith seems to be announced after a win — it is not often that a losing player begins a post-game interview by thanking God.
“When you thank God, I don’t think it’s necessarily always about ‘Thank you for making me win today’ as much as it is ‘Thank you for the gifts you’ve given me, the place you’ve put me in,’” said Warner. “But that is how people are going to read into it -- you win a game or make a play and say, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ (People) think why does Jesus care about him making that great play? I think a Christian or anyone expressing their faith is doing it in a bigger manner than just thank you for letting me make that play.”
That is particularly true in those postgame, on-field circles that involve both teams, he said.
“It’s thanking God for safety, for our gifts and allowing us to compete in this manner, for putting us in the position we had,” said Warner. “It’s about praying we can go out from that point forward and be representative of him, praying for the safety of the team traveling. Again, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about the big picture, helping us be representative of him through whatever capacity that is.
“I also think,” Warner continued, “it’s a great representative of what people see as two opposing sides coming together to say, ‘Hey winning or losing is not the most important thing.’”
The public testimony is predominantly a Christian action.
“Jews are not always known for wearing our religious hearts on our sleeves,” said Weiner. “Many Jews have a different sense of how necessary that is to do that in public.
“On the other hand, let’s take the Tim Tebow phenomenon,” he added. “A lot of people made fun of it, but here was a devout Christian, an honorable man, a world-class athlete — although he may have not had the success later in his career — at that moment, him choosing to acknowledge his creator as the source of his strength, his victory, his athletic feat? I may not see the need for it, but I don’t see anything wrong with it, and I think it demonstrated a certain piety which I think is admirable.
“For me, that’s a far cry from asking God for your team to win.”
That difference, Weiner warned, is the key — does God give a player the talent and strength to help his team to victory, gifts that the player expresses gratitude for, or did the player pray to win and God rewarded him with a confetti-filled victory and parade at Disney World? The latter is discomforting to Weiner.
“You’re coming dangerously close to making prayer and the religious experience silly, undignified and petty,” he said. “We don’t want to trivialize religious experience.”