Going long for Jesus

It's no accident that pro sports often resemble holy revival meetings. Devout athletes who praise God are coached by evangelical ministries with ties to the Christian right. But many players and fans feel left out of the huddle.

Published May 10, 2006 12:39PM (EDT)

Fans of the Philadelphia 76ers began to notice it this season. After the final buzzer, superstar Allen Iverson and several of his teammates -- more if Philadelphia has just pulled out an exciting victory -- circle at midcourt in thankful prayer, the players' long arms draped around one another. The Sixers' ritual mimics one that has been taking place in football for more than a decade, when bruised and bloodied players join hands on the 50-yard line after the fourth quarter and give thanks to Jesus for the opportunity to represent him on the grand stage of the National Football League. Baseball players don't pray around second base after the final out but seem to reserve their public thanks to God for post-game interviews. When he shut down the Yankees in Game 6 of the storied 2004 American League Championship Series, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling declared on national television, "Tonight was God's work on the mound."

Today, more pro athletes than ever are using their respective fields of play as pulpits to express, and promote, their faith. Unknown to many fans, though, there's often a "coach" behind the post-game prayers and testimonies. In the Sixers' case it's Kevin Harvey, the team's volunteer Christian chaplain and, by day, a staff member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the oldest and largest Christian sports organization in America. It was Harvey who first encouraged the players to hold the post-game prayers. "I look for ways to challenge the guys all the time -- everyday things they can do with the platform God has given them," he says. "So last season, I told them, 'Guys, I know God is doing good things on this team.' I brought up the way some teams in the NFL gather up after the game and give thanks to God for the opportunity to compete. The guys said they wanted to do it. So now, after all games, they circle up and pray."

Chaplains like Harvey are embedded, with rare exception, inside each of the nearly 100 teams in the Big Three major-league sports: baseball, football and basketball. Coming almost exclusively from the conservative end of the religious and cultural spectrum, the chaplains and their ministries are a main reason for the forceful presence of evangelical Christianity in professional sports. Indeed, it's no accident that fans today are witnessing public proclamations of Christian faith by players through seemingly nonstop religious gestures on and off the field. The players are coached in evangelism, in many cases from their days in high school, by the Kansas City-based FCA, Athletes in Action, based in Xenia, Ohio, and similar ministries. Both AIA and FCA have relationships with political powerhouses Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ International, which have long crusaded to infuse American society with conservative Christianity, and are perennial backers of the Republican Party.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which claims the Bible is "the only infallible, authoritative Word of God," strives to "see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of athletes and coaches." Similarly, AIA states that it "exists to boldly proclaim the love and truth of Jesus Christ to those uniquely impacted by sport." Houston Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who has worked with AIA, put it succinctly in an interview with Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. "The entire reason that I play baseball is so that I get a chance to speak about Christ," he said.

To promoters of sports-world Christianity, faith is a wholesome force that helps players curb the worst temptations in pro sports -- violence and greed, for starters. Chaplains of pro sports teams say their role is to offer prayer services and spiritual counseling to religious players, whose demanding schedules often prevent them from attending church. Today, by most estimates, anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of players on a team, sometimes more, participate in Christian Bible studies and prayer services held by team chaplains, a percentage that mirrors Americans who attend church weekly.

But the Christianizing of sports comes at a scarcely examined cost, both to fans who would prefer watching the game without a dose of in-your-face religion and, in the view of some critics, to religion itself. The problem is that the sports-world faith movement isn't only bringing religion to professional locker rooms but a potentially divisive brand of conservative Christianity, replete with a worldview shaped by an intolerance of gays and lesbians, women's rights and other religions. "Knowing there are people of other religions in the league, I don't know how fair it is" that evangelicals prevail in pro sports, says Etan Thomas, a center for the NBA's Washington Wizards, and author of a book of politically charged poetry, "More Than an Athlete." "I'm looking at it from the perspective of being a Christian myself, but not everyone's like that [Christian]."

Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, an atheist, says he has no objection to making religious counseling and services available to interested players. But Smith does object to evangelicals working through sports stars to spread their message. "I think it unfairly takes advantage of pro athletes," says Smith. "Spread religion on its own merits. Don't try to sell it with high-profile athletes."

Despite the fans and media members who have grown weary of players pointing to the sky after a big play and thanking God in interviews, the close relationship between church and sports is rarely questioned by teams or league executives. That's because the partnership between pro sports and conservative Christianity is born of mutual benefit, explains Shirl Hoffman, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a leading researcher on evangelical engagement in sports. Motivating the ministries, he says, is the desire to capitalize on the tremendous popularity of sports to promote the Christian message. The sports industry, in turn, benefits from the implied religious endorsement of the increasingly unholy enterprise of pro sports. Given the recent scandals involving steroids and domestic violence, sports organizations, worried about bottom lines, are grateful for the Christian glow.

"Pro sports have a lot to gain from the ministries in that they keep athletes on the right track, keep them from drugs and living lives that would diminish their competitiveness," Hoffman says. "Never before in the history of sports has there been such a need for professional sports to bolster what they would consider to be the wholesome character of sport. Nothing does that like religion."

At the time of its founding a half-century ago by a little-known Oklahoma football coach named Don McClanen, FCA received an early and vital endorsement from the legendary, and devoutly Christian, Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who brought Jackie Robinson into major league baseball. Today, FCA employs 650 people, and extends its tentacles into sports primarily through numerous summer camps and approximately 800 "huddles," or groups, that meet regularly at high schools and colleges. Many of todays pro stars were ardent huddle leaders and participants during their school careers, including Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Russ Ortiz, Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, and Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney, who often speaks at FCA events, has his own way of spreading the word, signing his autograph with a New Testament reference, "Romans 10:9." ("[I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.")

Throughout its history, FCA has established strong relationships with the Christian right and conservative political leaders. In 2003, it gave its annual Tom Landry Award to Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson. Dal Shealy, who served as FCA president and CEO for 13 years before retiring in early 2005, is listed by Source Watch as a member of the board of the Council for National Policy, a far-right organization, launched in part on the largesse of notorious right-wing magnate Joseph Coors, who also contributed to FCA. CNP's first president was Tim LaHaye, an anti-gay and anti-public education crusader best known today as the co-author of the mega-selling "Left Behind" series.

AIA also traces its origins to a religious right icon, the late evangelist Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ International, which fans out across college and high school campuses to draft students into a conservative Christian fold. Campus Crusade has long taken a hard stand against gays. The organization states on job applications that "a past, established lifestyle of homosexuality will most likely disqualify an applicant for staff." Bright was a founder of the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, which once stated in fundraising literature that the "radical homosexual agenda" was the principal threat to America.

Launched as an offshoot of Campus Crusade by ex-pro football player David Hannah, AIA has made particularly strong inroads into the NFL, and today provides chaplains for roughly half of the teams. AIA and FCA are joined on the ministry landscape by Baseball Chapel, which provides chaplains to all major and minor league baseball teams, and Pro Basketball Fellowship, which works in the NBA.

The ministries' influence on players is often emboldened by team coaches and owners, who welcome the Christian evangelicals into the clubhouse. Numerous pro coaches -- Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, and Avery Johnson of the Dallas Mavericks, for example -- are known for their piety. So too is Orlando Magic senior executive vice president Pat Williams, author of "How to Be Like Jesus." Other evangelicals in the ownership suite include Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns and Diamondbacks, Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, and Bob McNair of the Houston Texans. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist pastor, and limited partner of the Texans, was chosen by his friend George W. Bush to deliver the benediction at both of his inaugurations.

The sports ministries and their stars have indeed crossed into politics. Schilling was one of 24 current and ex-athletes who joined forces to endorse the reelection of President Bush in an open letter. Among the signatories were several players known for their strong, and conservative, Christian beliefs. They included NFL Hall of Fame members Roger Staubach, Anthony Muñoz and Steve Largent, a former Republican member of Congress. "The same qualities that make a great athlete," the letter said, "make a great President -- the determination to do what is right, regardless of the latest polls, the personal strength to bear the weight of the nation on your shoulders, and the faith that a higher power will direct the actions of good people."

Sixers chaplain Harvey, a former college basketball player and an FCA staffer by day, spends his free time ministering to the 76ers and volunteering in destitute Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. He soft-pedals aspects of the conservative Christian belief that repel many non-evangelicals. "If a player never comes to chapel, then, praise God, I'm still gonna be his friend. I'm not going to look down on him. I'm not going to judge him."

Yet, as demonstrated by an incident last fall involving baseball's Washington Nationals and their former chaplain, tolerance does not always prevail in the locker room. The controversy started with a Washington Post story about the team's volunteer Christian chaplain, Jon Moeller. An FBI agent by day, Moeller had been serving as the team's religious advisor under the auspices of Baseball Chapel. The story included a vignette about rookie outfielder Ryan Church, who expressed sadness his ex-girlfriend was going to hell because she was Jewish -- a conclusion apparently endorsed by Moeller.

As quoted in the Post, Church described his exchange with the chaplain this way: "I said, like, 'Jewish people, they don't believe in Jesus. Does that mean they're doomed?' Jon nodded, like, that's what it meant. My ex-girlfriend! I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don't know any better. It's up to us to spread the word.'" (The incident was a replay of 2001, when New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward was quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying that Jews had the blood of Jesus on their hands.)

The reaction from the D.C. Jewish community was swift. Two days after the appearance of the Post story, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue held a news conference at RFK Stadium to denounce Church's remarks and the apparent content of Moeller's teachings. He also met with Nationals president Tony Tavares, who on the same day suspended Moeller, pending the results of a team investigation into his work with the team. The Nationals issued an apology on Church's behalf. "We were so excited about the Nationals; we have a lot of die-hard baseball fans in our congregation," says Herzfeld. "That's why we felt so hurt [by Church's words]."

There was more fallout to come. In something of a first -- never in recent years had a top executive of a major sports league publicly questioned the evangelical Christian movement in pro sports -- baseball commissioner Bud Selig said his office would review the arrangement by which Baseball Chapel is the lone religious organization with access to all pro baseball clubhouses. "I was deeply offended by what happened with Ryan Church and Jon Moeller," Selig said in a letter to a rabbi who had voiced objections.

In view of the general reluctance of the ministries and pro leagues to discuss their relationship, it's probably not surprising that baseball has since gone silent about Selig's promise to review the league's relationship with Baseball Chapel. With the new season now underway, major league baseball has not said what, if anything, has come of Selig's review, and the league's media relations office ignored numerous requests for comment.

Baseball Chapel president Vince Nauss says Moeller has not returned as the Nationals' chaplain. "I recently made the decision to replace Jon after determining that his presence around the ballpark would tend to spark controversy and therefore limit his effectiveness to serve the team," Nauss says in an e-mail. He declined further comment.

Herzfeld believes the Nationals incident has shed light on some little-examined problems with evangelical Christianity in pro sports, notably the public mission of pro sports teams. Not only are stadiums often financed wholly or partly by tax dollars, but they represent cities and the people of widely varying backgrounds and faiths who populate them. At best, local teams can unite communities, no small achievement in a time when so much divides Americans. Herzfeld calls on those running major league sports to keep that in mind as they regulate clubhouse religious activity. He and others are asking: Don't players of other religious persuasions, or none, deserve an environment that respects their beliefs? "I don't object to players getting the spiritual nourishment they need," Herzfeld says. "And I don't think representatives of every religion need to be in the clubhouse. But because the team plays a public role, the religious message ought to be an inclusive one."

Former NFL player Anthony Prior is one of the most outspoken critics of Christian practice in pro football. Prior, a defensive back for the Jets, Vikings and Raiders from 1995 to 2000, has published a book, "The Slave Side of Sunday," that likens the experience of black pro footballers to slavery. He cites a deep racism in a system in which whites hold most of the administrative positions of power, and in which young black men burn out their bodies in short, physically brutal careers like so many plantation field workers.

Religion, Prior says, is one means by which players are inured to injustices and encouraged to swallow the status quo. "It's mind-boggling the way they push Christianity on players," says Prior. "It's packaged in a way to basically make players submissive."

Prior also questions popular religious practices in pro football that he believes border on the superstitious and silly. "How can you say Jesus helped you score that touchdown when the player you beat believes in Jesus too?" asks Prior. "You've embarrassed him in front of his fans. God answers your prayer and not his? Why pray for protection for your body? You can get seriously injured, even die, in a professional football game. But my philosophy has been that if you're scared to play, don't play."

In training camp, Prior adds, some marginal players vying for roster spots carry around their Bibles and attend religious services to impress management. If they're still on the roster after the final cuts, "then their Bible is nowhere to be found," Prior says. "Until they get injured, of course, and then the Bible is back in your hand."

Prior and others say evangelicals often drive a wedge between players on a team, with Bible study and chapel participants forming one camp and the outliers forming another. Former NBA player and Dennis Rodman sidekick Jack Haley has described such a dynamic affecting the San Antonio Spurs teams of the mid-1990s. The Christian faction was led by the fervent new convert and team superstar David Robinson; Haley and the decidedly unreligious Rodman headed up the other clique.

Esera Tuaolo, who played in the NFL for 10 years before retiring in 2000, says he was offended by team religious practice during his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose roster included a group of players participating in Champions for Christ, another evangelical sports ministry. As Tuaolo, a Christian, told Between the Lines, a Michigan weekly, the evangelicals formed a clique and displayed an intolerant attitude toward teammates who did not share their beliefs. "I went to a Bible study, and, lo and behold, it was about homosexuality," recalls Tuaolo, who came out as a gay man after his retirement. "I was thinking, 'Is this a sign?' That was what really turned me off."

"Evangelical Christianity is very exclusive in its claims," Hoffman says. "And that doesn't go down well in a society where you're not supposed to make judgments about someone else." In the evangelical mind-set, he adds, "the gospel is pretty cut-and-dried: There's a formula for going to heaven, and if you don't follow it, you're doomed."

Some promoters of the Christian movement in sports dismiss any notion that it divides teams and alienate fans. Williams, the Orlando Magic V.P., worked in baseball before becoming an NBA executive, and was instrumental in the formation of the chapel system in both baseball and basketball in the 1960s and '70s. It was Williams' Orlando team that used its first overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft to select outspoken Christian Dwight Howard, who came into the draft declaring his hope to one day see a cross on the NBA logo.

The media coverage of Howard's emergence, Williams says, unfairly dwelt on "how he was going to be disruptive and wave the Bible, how he wasn't interested in playing and that it was all about his religion, on what effect he was going to have on the locker room. I can tell you that if the biggest problem you've got with your top player is that he sings too loud at church, I think we'll take it."

Earl Smith, chaplain of the San Francisco Giants from 1998 to 2004, and currently the chaplain at San Quentin prison, says that he strives to be inclusive of all religions in consulting players. "I've had teams where we've had Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish players, and I believe the chaplain's role is to also help them," he says. "I may be the chaplain but my work goes beyond a particular faith."

Others say the experience of non-Christian pro athletes depends in part on the culture of a particular team. Robert Smith, the former Vikings running back, says team religious practices were never offensive to him during his time with Minnesota, from 1993 to 2000. Vikings leader Cris Carter, a devout Christian, voiced his religious exhortations in a friendly way that did not alienate his teammates, according to Smith. Then-coach Dennis Green brought in religious leaders whose messages and prayers were not explicitly or exclusively Christian. "Some players would make [religious] comments," recalls Smith, who retired at the relatively young age of 28 and expressed deep skepticism about pro sports culture in a subsequent book, "The Rest of the Iceberg." "With Cris Carter, it was more in a joking sense than overbearing. You know, 'You need to stay out of the nightclub and come to Bible study.' We had a diverse, interesting locker room, a lot of different philosophies and different types of characters. That's the way Denny designed it."

Pat Richie worked for AIA for 17 years and was team chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers from 1981 to 1998 and the San Francisco Giants from 1986 to 1998. Today he runs a consulting business, Sports Leadership Group. The first prayer meeting held on the 50 yard line at the end of a football game, in 1990, among players from the 49ers and the New York Giants, was Richie's idea. As for Christian players' causing resentment on a team, he offers, "I would say in the 25 years I've been involved in the NFL, I'm aware of about two instances where it was an issue. There's many more instances that I'm familiar with when one player is sleeping with another player's wife. The more dangerous thing is when a group of players don't feel like they're invited to chapel or Bible studies. The only time I've heard resentment among players is when someone was not invited."

Richie explains that chaplains are in the locker room to serve religious players and teams welcome them because they help keep the players content. "Most teams want to have their players' needs met," he says. "It's beneficial for them if marriages are strong, and players are involved in the community, usually through churches." Because they play better? "In anybody's work life -- a reporter, an architect -- if they're having difficulties in their marriage, or their personal life, and they're carrying around some of that baggage, it's going to affect their professional life. So if people's needs are met, their professional life can be better. They can play better if their marriage life is strong, they're not in the throes of divorce. If those things can be prevented or talked about, yes, a player can play better."

Do sports ministries, such as FCA and AIA, encourage the players to publicize their Christian faith in interviews and in the community? "They do want that," Richie says. "But they are very careful not to encourage somebody to do it who is very young in their faith. They don't want a player to go out and make statements about faith if he doesn't truly believe it, or is not that mature and could end up embarrassing himself later. Early on in sports ministry, a player would go to a church and get baptized, and the next day they'd have him out there talking about his faith. Then the next week a paternity suit is filed against him." Today, though, Richie says, sports ministries "will encourage people who are good" at talking about their faith to express their convictions in public.

Troy Polamalu, star defensive back for the 2006 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, may represent players who express their faith with maturity and a sense of perspective. He has told the media that his Christian belief helps him cope with the pressures and failures that are the lot of professional athletes. "Jesus brings peace to my life," Polamalu said in the run-up to this year's Super Bowl. "Whether I have a major injury that ends my career tomorrow, or I make a bad play and get criticized by everybody, that faith brings peace."

Yet more common in the week before the Super Bowl were assertions by religious members of the Steelers and Seahawks about the purpose of pro football as a means of promoting the Christian faith and advancing "His kingdom." "It's by the grace of God that I got an opportunity in this organization," said Steelers tight end Dan Kreider, "and that I have this opportunity to witness to people." As Seattle defensive back Michael Boulware put it: "It's about Jesus Christ ... and what he did on the cross. That's what I'm really here for -- to advance His kingdom, not just win a game."

Such confessions, testaments to the inroads made by the Christian sports ministries, may not square with legions of sports fans who plant themselves in front of their big screens to be entertained, not converted. But in religious America, contends sports and religious scholar Hoffman, a separation of church and sport is not in the playbook, as neither sports nor religion has much incentive to end a relationship that grants both of them an attractive public image.

In the end, it's unfortunate that Christian evangelism, at least the superficial form practiced by many players and chaplains, has become so rampant in sports, says a former pro athlete now involved in a Christian sports ministry. "Players who believe God helps them win miss the point of the rich tradition of the Christian faith," says the ex-player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from his ministry. "I think the problem with sports ministry is the problem with the American church in general. We look for celebrities to promote a brand name. In my understanding of the gospels, this is the antithesis of the method Jesus used while on earth."

By Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker, a Yardley, Pa., resident, is public relations director at Swarthmore College and a freelance writer.

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