Commentary: God and Man at Madison Square Garden

By Jay Weiner

No matter what the season, Almighty God always seems to be rooting for the winning side.

That's the way it is nowadays, what with athletes of all stripes asserting that the Holy Spirit was perched on their shoulder when: the free throw was made, the home run hit, the touchdown caught, the knockout punch delivered, or the checkered flag waved.

The merging of sports and religion isn't new: Notre Dame has been winning righteously for decades, with "Touchdown Jesus"--a mosaic on the library--overlooking its gridiron. But Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic school.

What is new is the way religion seems to be creeping into all sorts of sports--and this goes far beyond pregame prayers by high school football players. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, has donated more than $5 million to the Salt Lake Olympic Committee and will be a towering presence at the 2002 Winter Games. (In fact, critics are calling the Games the "Mo-lympics" because of the expected influence of the Mormons.) A Christian ministry, Motor Racing Outreach, is deeply involved in NASCAR. And a vocal fundamentalism is now roiling the NBA.

This ubiquitous relationship between praying and playing took an ugly turn when New York Knicks Charlie Ward and Allan Houston were recently quoted as reasserting the old-fashioned anti-Semitic mantra that the Jews killed Jesus. "They had his blood on their hands," Ward told The New York Times Magazine. "Then they spit in Jesus' face and hit him with their fists," added Houston. What's worse, such biased ignorance came in the context of a team Bible study class.

"That's the scary part," says University of Chicago Professor Emeritus and Lutheran theologian Martin E. Marty. "Christian Bible study is where the nuances have to come out. I can see why athletes might embrace forms of faith that issue everything in black and white. But the Bible is full of ambiguity. That seems to have been all wiped out in their world, where there has to be a winner and a loser."

CLEAR DANGER. The words of Ward and Houston certainly raise questions for fans. And the steady march of religion into professional sports should be cause for concern by Corporate America. For companies that subsidize teams via advertising and hand out endorsement deals to players, the danger is simple: The more religion in sports, the more chances for embarrassing and alienating incidents that turn off consumers or tar a brand name.

In a pluralistic society, just how much do we need to know about the beliefs of star athletes? Yes, it's refreshing to find a player who is articulate and stands for something besides a commercial logo and an outrageous contract. Just as refreshing, though, is a jock like Tiger Woods who avoids controversy while making a statement with simple, athletic grace. In the best of all worlds, athletes would be God-fearing, not God-trivializing, and would do good work off the field instead of blabbering about how the Lord helps them when the curveball cometh.

Let's be real: Sports reflect and reinforce the values and trends in society. And jocks have opinions just like bus drivers and sanitation workers. It's just that no one grows up wanting to be Ralph Kramden or Ed Norton.

Sports and athletes have power. That's why companies buy ads during televised games and naming rights to arenas. Religions recognize that power, too. As Billy Mauldin, CEO of Motor Racing Outreach, an auto racing ministry, told The Washington Post recently: "If [NASCAR driver] Dale Jarrett drinks Gatorade, [his fans] want to drink Gatorade. And if Dale Jarrett goes to church, they may think about why they're not going to church.... And that's especially true with younger people."

So what about Ward and Houston? Are they uninformed zealots, full-fledged anti-Semites, or simply pros whose intellectual and social development has been arrested by an ego-promoting but growth-stifling sports culture? Will their dated and prejudiced beliefs encourage young playground players, hypnotized by three-point shots, to adopt their two-bit views?

These are role models? God forbid.

Weiner follows sports from St. Paul, Minn.

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