First, I'd Like to Thank God: An Exploration of the Relationship Between Top Athletes and Faith

First, I'd Like to Thank God: An Exploration of the Relationship Between Top Athletes and Faith

by Simon Desmarais-Zalob


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491724583
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 182
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.42(d)

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First, I'd Like to Thank God

An Exploration of the Relationship between Top Athletes and Faith

By simon desmarais-zalob

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2014 simon desmarais-zalob
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-2458-3


What's God Got to Do with It?

Sometimes spirituality serves as a good sport psychologist.

After the Baltimore Ravens had just triumphed over the San Francisco 49ers to capture the Super Bowl XLVII trophy on February 3, 2013, CBS reporter Jim Nantz wanted a sound bite from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. He asked him to describe how it felt to retire as a champion.

Clutching the Lombardi Trophy, Lewis uttered, "It's simple: when God is for you, who can be against you?" between deep, labored breaths. "There's no greater way to go out as a champ." He would go on to invoke God many more times in his subsequent post–Super Bowl interviews. Lewis even cited God as the reason that he had had such a successful career, despite having been taken to trial on murder charges thirteen years earlier (Schenk).

Why did Lewis seem to believe God had played an especially prominent role in this, a mere sporting event in a world full of much more significant events? Generally speaking, we often hear athletes mentioning a higher power in explaining their amazing athletic feats. It seems as though many of the world's top athletes are guided by a belief in something greater than themselves.

On the other hand, we aren't accustomed to hearing water-cooler chatter along the lines of the following:

"You were on fire last month! What happened?"

"My faith—I just have to give credit to God for that last month. Without Him, I would have never sold that many shower curtain rings."

Employees in a corporate office do not freely proselytize in the manner that athletes do. The culture of sport, by comparison, hints that belief in a higher power may be not just accepted, but encouraged and freely discussed. We frequently see baseball players crossing themselves before an at bat and pointing to the sky after a home run, football players kneeling in prayer after a touchdown, and basketball players displaying prominent religious tattoos on their bodies. So why does this avid belief system seem so prevalent in sports?

One theory, suggested by the self-proclaimed "Greatest" boxer in the history of the sport, Muhammad Ali, is the belief that the Lord chooses his athletes. As Ali put it, when discussing his underdog status against George Foreman in a 1974 prizefight, "How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?" Some of the most fundamentalistic religious followers believe their religion to be the right one, and according to their beliefs, followers of all other religions are doomed to a lesser existence. But in a win-or-lose competition, something, or someone, has to give. There are myriad believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism who have proved themselves to be champion athletes. All these belief systems have core beliefs that conflict with each other, so we can go ahead and scrap the theory that any particular religion makes the best athletes—with all due respect to The Greatest.

Another idea is that those athletes who are blessed with a religious or spiritual upbringing have the advantage of a strict, disciplined lifestyle over those who were raised in secular households. While there is some evidence for this thought (Hawks et al.), we have seen many supposedly religious athletes who have been known to stray from the righteous path—and have maintained or returned to top form. For proof, see Buddhist Tiger Woods or Christian Michael Vick. No doubt, discipline is a helpful virtue for an athlete. But we can see here that being part of a religion does not necessarily translate to strict discipline in one's everyday life.

There is also the notion that religion provides individuals with a sense of community. This community atmosphere can imbue a person with the feeling that (s)he is needed, whatever role they may play in others' lives. This sense of belonging may translate into self-confidence. One's church group, synagogue, or mosque can provide members with a network of individuals who share the same belief system. It is generally accepted that the closer are our social ties, the more confident, happy, and successful we are. Motivation researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan cite relatedness—that is, our ability to feel socially connected with and accepted by others—along with autonomy and competence, as universal psychological needs. Without all three, Deci and Ryan (2000) find that we are susceptible to becoming unmotivated, unhappy, and less productive. The claim that a place of worship is needed for social connectedness, though, can be rebutted by the fact that there are many other means through which we may attain deep social connections: school, book clubs, chess clubs, tornado-chasing groups, and, well, team sports. There is a great deal of evidence for the benefits of the social aspect of religion, but religion is not the only way to become part of a social community.

A fourth theory posits that professional athletes are so talented that they must feel as if they are blessed by some greater force. This is the argument made by Eric A. Storch, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of South Florida, who has done considerable research on this subject. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), for instance, there are 450 players among the league's thirty teams. It is generally agreed that athletes in the NBA comprise the basketball world's cream of the crop. That means that an NBA player could reasonably think of himself as one of the 450 best performers in his field on this earth of seven billion. Anybody in the NBA would reasonably feel very fortunate—blessed, perhaps—to be counted among these 450 "chosen ones." Furthermore, he might feel as if he were touched by Midas himself ... or some other higher power. One of baseball's greatest relief pitchers, Mariano Rivera, once stated that his cut fastball, the pitch that helped turn him from a mediocre pitcher into a legendary one, was taught to him not by any coach, but by God himself (Olney). However, much more often than not, the faith in the lives of these athletes started before they became professionally successful in their sport. For every born-again Christian who credits faith in God as part of a successful career turnaround (such as Josh Hamilton), there are dozens of other athletes who have consistently followed a faith prior to finding success in sport (such as LeBron James).

Finally, there is the theory that belief in a divine force gives athletes a psychological edge over nonbelievers. There is a growing field of evidence suggesting this to be the case. As former table tennis Olympian and award-winning journalist Matthew Syed (2010) states, "[T]he stats [unequivocally state that] religious belief bolsters performance. And it does not matter which God you are praying to, so long as the belief is sincere." That is, as long as you strongly believe in that higher power—someone who unconditionally has your back through thick and thin—you will be safeguarded against feelings of failure. This is the point of view that I have found to be most convincing, and for which I will argue in this book.

Ray Lewis seems to embody such strong beliefs. He appears to be so pious in his Christian faith that he made sure to mention God numerous times following his final Super Bowl victory. These invocations of God are telling of the importance of religion in his life. (And yet, in his new role as NFL analyst on TV, you never hear Lewis giving thanks to a higher power.) Granted, many athletes may offer lip service to their faith and might not be altogether religious. To repeatedly invoke God on one of sports' biggest stages indicates a deeper level of piety. We will investigate whether this faith could have shaped Lewis, and other spiritual athletes like him, into the successful athletes that they have become.


When Did God Become a Yankees Fan?

The culture of sport has long been linked with religion.

Nowadays, after a typical NFL game, we often see players from both teams holding hands in a circle of solidarity, bowing their heads in unison. This prayer circle has become a quotidian postgame event. However, the culture of sport was intertwined with religion well before this ritual became an end-of-game procedure in professional football. The first Olympics held in ancient Greece took place at Olympia, a structure dedicated to a number of their gods. These games were dedicated to the god of the sky, Zeus (Greene). It was believed that Zeus took particular interest in athletic competitions, even taking sides for contests (Kush). So, at least one god actually did care (apparently) about who won and lost.

Although sport has likewise been associated with religion in the United States, faith made its way prominently into American sports culture in the 1940s, when the Reverend Billy Graham enlisted professional athletes to talk about their Christian faith in public (Plotz). Until that point, sport, especially football, had been considered a pagan activity. Christianity was "peaceful, charitable, and pious," as Sports Illustrated's Mark Oppenheimer (2013) put it. In the 1950s and 1960s, campus ministries started to encourage athletes to practice Christianity.

In 1964, the University of Notre Dame commissioned artist Millard Sheets to create an homage to its Catholic roots outside its Hesburgh Library. The resulting structure was a part-mural, part-mosaic 134-foot-high structure depicting Jesus with arms raised above his disciples, suggesting that he is the "great teacher" (King). The gesture, similar to a referee's touchdown signal, was embraced by Notre Dame's football faithful—which is how the structure became dubbed "Touchdown Jesus." This "football-ization" of a distinctly religious symbol typifies the high level of religion-sport crossover that has existed in the United States since the 1960s. Maybe baseball will have a Home Run Moses constructed at some point in the future.

The NBA rivals the NFL as one of the most openly religious sports leagues of the past few decades. Take their pregame chapel, a ritual similar to the football's prayer circle, which has been held before games since 1979 (Kaleed). Led by a team chaplain about forty-five minutes prior to tip-off, pregame chapel invites members of opposing teams to pray together. The purpose of this rite tends to revolve around resisting the sorts of temptations that seem to go hand in hand with being a tall, possibly dark, sometimes-handsome, rich, talented, and physically impressive NBA player. It's a lot harder to resist temptation when the world is basically kissing your feet.

* * *

To look at baseball's crossroad with religion, we need to go much further back than we did for basketball or football. In baseball's early days—the mid—nineteenth century—some Christian leaders would promote baseball as a sport that embodied the virtues of Christianity, while other religious figures opposed the sport because of its perceived negative effect on one's character (J. Price). By the end of the Civil War, congressional minister Henry Ward Beecher was on the baseball bandwagon, claiming that it promoted "muscular faith," and seeing sport as having positive virtues such as exercise, discipline, and teamwork. Meanwhile, the YMCA simultaneously began to promote sport as a virtue for Protestants, the idea being that they should "refresh and repair their bodies along with their souls," so the YMCA started to include baseball in its programs. When the National League was first formed in 1876, games were banned on Sundays in respect of the Sabbath—a violation was an offense punishable by arrest. In fact, in 1918, managers John McGraw and Christy Matthewson were arrested for having their teams play on Sunday. For those who know their baseball history, the gentlemanly Matthewson provoking an arrest would seem completely out of character. The arrest of the cantankerous McGraw, on the other hand, would just seem like part of his life's natural progression.

The idea of the religious Sunday ban went through its ups and downs. Its defenders included the influential baseball player-turned-evangelist-preacher Billy Sunday, who summed up baseball's anti-Christian values in Ten Commandment–like pronouncements, including claims that the sport promoted jealousy, indolence, and immorality. Despite such arguments, the ban on Sunday baseball was finally lifted prior to the Second World War.

Nonetheless, faith remained a force in baseball. Famous players such as Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson contributed to a Christianity-promoting publication called Faith Made Them Champions. Faith has played a role even for the sporadic Jewish baseball player. Notably, Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Ken Holtzman, and Shawn Green all opted to sit out on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

In 1974, just around the time that the NBA began its chapel services, Baseball Chapel arose. This nondenominational Christian ministry got its blessing from commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Its precursor is believed to have begun with Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who, in the late 1950s, held informal worship services in his team's hotels when they were on the road. By the year 2000, more than two hundred professional teams were participating in Baseball Chapel.

Never without controversy, the religion-and-sport crossover has continued to be rocky in the new millennium. When the Washington Nationals' Ryan Church, in 2005, asked his chapel leader, Jon Moeller, whether his ex-girlfriend would go to hell because she was a Jew and thus didn't believe in Jesus, Moeller responded affirmatively, prompting outcries from Jewish communities across the country. In addition, umpires have often been coerced into participating in these sessions, even if their faith has been at odds with Christianity (Chass). Clashing faiths have been the principal cause of many global conflicts, so it is expected that religion would be associated with its fair share of conflict within the world of sport.

* * *

One argument as to why athletes we see on SportsCenter always seem to mention God is that most play in the country whose currency states "In God We Trust," the United States. Indeed, the United States has been labeled the most religious country in the industrialized world, according to a survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation's Religion Monitor conducted in 2009 (M. H. Brown). The survey's results suggest that a staggering 89 percent of the American population is religious, while 62 percent of the population is highly religious. More specifically, 85 percent believe in God and in life after death. In comparison, 52 percent of the population in the United Kingdom, 54 percent in France, and 72 percent in Germany were deemed to be religious.

An earlier survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life supports the importance of religion in the United States. The forum's US Religious Landscape Survey found that 16.1 percent of Americans are unaffiliated in terms of organized religion (Pew Forum). However, among those unaffiliated respondents, only 1.6 percent labeled themselves as "atheist," 2.4 percent as "agnostic," and the remaining 12.1 percent as nothing in particular. Among the "nothing in particular" gang, 6.3 percent called themselves "secular unaffiliated," and 5.8 percent were "religious unaffiliated." This means that within the unaffiliated group, there are still 5.8 percent who consider themselves religious, resulting in 10.3 percent of the US population whom we might call the "nonreligious": atheist, agnostic, or secular unaffiliated. So to generalize, nine out of every ten Americans pray to someone. Or something. Or antelopes.

In comparing the views of different countries, there are surely going to be methodological issues. For instance, what one respondent might deem to be "highly religious" could be merely "religious" for another individual. In addition, different cultures might have different interpretations of the questionnaire. As an example, for some individuals in European regions such as France and the United Kingdom, the term "religious" might have more of a negative connotation attached to it. For instance, many Europeans deride the United States for its hyper-religious mind-set and its purported failure to separate church and state.


Excerpted from First, I'd Like to Thank God by simon desmarais-zalob. Copyright © 2014 simon desmarais-zalob. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
1 What's God Got to Do with It?, 1,
2 When Did God Become a Yankees Fan?, 6,
3 The Consequences of Tebowing, 14,
4 The Depressed Pro Athlete, 24,
5 White Men Can Jump, Occasionally, 34,
6 What's Your Proof?, 48,
7 Fans Watch and Players Pray, 58,
8 Is "Athlete" the Opposite of "Atheist"?, 82,
9 Did Einstein Ever Thank God?, 99,
10 Can I Quote You on That?, 109,
11 Last of All, 124,
Acknowledgments, 129,
Sources, 135,

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