FAITH EXCHANGE

God and the game

The Globe and Mail

Faith Exchange: God and the game (Reuters)

Pre-game ritual. Not a prayer. Need a miracle. Sporting mecca. Sacrifice play. Redemption story. Gotta have faith.

What do faith and sports have in common? Nothing – and yet everything, if you recognize the spiritual source material of the clichés above. Sports are a metaphor for life and, for many people, religion and life are intertwined. Consider these recent headlines:

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  • Cardinal-to-be dons Maple Leafs sweater at the Vatican
  • Catholic Church promotes praying for Canadiens
  • The gospel of Tim Tebow
  • Gisele Bundchen: ‘Pray For Tom Brady’

Guy Nicholson: Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss the intersection of religion and sports. Thanks for joining us today, everyone – this is a lighter topic than some of our others; I hope we can have a little fun with it.

It happens all the time – an athlete or fan asks for divine intervention, or gives thanks for it. Do you nod or wince?

Peter Stockland: If it is divine intervention, I wince. After all, who knows what colour jersey God is wearing on any given Sunday? Or any given day, for that matter. But if it is for divine guidance, I say “God bless.” If we are people of faith, we should always be guided by God in all that we do: sports, business, even journalism.

Sheema Khan: I nod, simply because pleading to the divine (at moments of need or crisis) is simply human, no matter how trivial the matter may seem to others. Within the purvey of Islamic teachings, no need is too small, no matter is too trivial, to call on the Lord of all things (great and small).

Sports is an arena where we have so much invested, yet have so little control. This is the paradox, perhaps. And, maybe, just maybe, since we fans realize that we have so little control over the outcome, we call on a higher power to assist. It’s our brief recognition of utter helplessness.

Lorna Dueck: I nod, and then I scrutinize, worried that my next response will be to wince. What are the motives, what is the theology of the player sporting his faith? It takes courage to bend a knee, repeatedly, on a national stage; it opens you up to all kinds of examination.

Howard Voss-Altman: As a rabbi, I wince. As a fan, I wince. After all, what could be more trivial to the Creator, the Eternal One, than a hockey or football game?

And yet, as the only unscripted, truly “reality” entertainment in our culture, sports has, in many ways, superseded our culture and, in doing so, become our religion. As a dedicated New York Giants fan (for the past 42 years), I revel in the near-religious rituals that surround each match: the pre-game show at precisely the same time, the national anthem, the opening kickoff, the inevitable excitement of two teams engaging in physical battle and, most of all, the surprising nature of the game itself. We truly do not know the outcome of the game and, in that reality, we discover mystery and drama.

Lorna Dueck: Rabbi, since you were with the winning team this year and all four of my evangelical quarterbacks’ teams (Denver, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Green Bay) did not make the Super Bowl, I concede you have a point. I, too, wince if players are praying for victory, but if they are praying because the power of sport celebrity humbles them into wanting to deflect attention to their Creator, then I cheer. The prayers I admire are ones of thankfulness, submission and humility. I think there is more of that than asking for a win.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, I certainly agree. However, I’ve always viewed the prayers from another point of view. Perhaps this is my rabbinic bias, but when I see players engaged in such prayer, I’ve wanted to believe that they are thanking God for their extraordinary size, speed, vision and agility. They have been blessed with talents that most of us can never even imagine, and I’ve always believed that most athletes – particularly the ones who visibly pray – are very grateful for what they have been given.

Peter Stockland: For the physical gifts, yes, Rabbi Voss-Altman, but I think also for the spiritual gift of being able to push beyond what even they as individuals believed they could do. And we must not forget that a huge part of sports is dealing with letdown – either from losing or from winning and then being reminded by daily life that what you just won has no practical meaning. Like faith, it is what you do because God gave it to you to do.

Howard Voss-Altman: Agreed.

Another question, perhaps: Why is it that we see many more football players pray than other professional athletes? Is it the nature of the battle, like war? Is it because they have come through the battle without life-threatening injuries? Are football players wired differently than other athletes?

Lorna Dueck: And why is it that chaplains are welcomed in all Canadian Football League locker rooms, even on staff in some? There are very few professions in Canada that, when it comes to the core deliverables, pull in chaplaincy help.

Peter Stockland: I am actually a long time Giants fan who underwent a conversion to the Patriots a couple of years ago. Talk about the agony in the garden – not once but twice!

Guy Nicholson: Conversion! Cliché opportunity missed.

Howard Voss-Altman: Really, Peter? How does that happen exactly? While I have certainly enjoyed rooting for various teams when the Giants have been eliminated, my fundamental loyalty remains the same.

Peter Stockland: It happened because my son was a Patriots fan and I was a Giants fan and, over time, he convinced me that the Pats were a better organization and I believed, obviously erroneously, that Eli Manning was brain dead. I am the convert I wish to kick.

I would also question whether sports and the life of faith are as far apart as your original premise suggests, Guy. Both require discipline, focus, attending to something far greater than the self. And the sheer physicality of particular sports can be akin to prayer, at least meditative prayer. As I runner, I use my runs for prayer all the time.

Sheema Khan: I think we should also look at the most universal game in the world: soccer. There, it is common to see displays of faith, especially after goals are scored. Also, it is common to hear soccer players thank God – more so than in North America. Of course, some invoke God for other reasons. Remember Diego Maradona’s famous “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup against England!

On another note, during the 1990s, Hakeem Olajuwon won the National Basketball Association’s MVP and led the Houston Rockets to two championships. He was also a devout Muslim and fasted during the regular season. His coach at the time remarked that his lifestyle (discipline, prayer, prohibition of alcohol) would probably allow him to play for many more years. Olajuwon inspired many youths (especially Muslims) to believe that one can excel at sports while maintaining one’s faith, and that it is important to be true to who you are, and what you believe in.

Guy Nicholson: You’ve touched on one of my intended questions for the group, Peter: What’s the most important thing sports and faith have in common?

Peter Stockland: I would say the requirement to be in the world but not of it. Both faith and sports demand the ability to detach without becoming out of touch. When you are training for something, the discipline required makes it all encompassing and it’s vital that you learn to deal with what the sportswriters, those kings of cliché, describe as “distractions.” The same is true of a life of faith. You can’t get (wait for it) knocked off the puck by a world that doesn’t understand meaning as you do.

Lorna Dueck: I think it’s discipline and community. There is no success in sport without that deliberateness of creating time to pursue victory, and there is no place to engage it without other like-minded participants. Faith also requires a community that affirms, “This is the goal, these are the rules, here’s how you win.” Not being an athlete, but rather one who drags my body to the gym because it’s the “temple of God,” I’m curious what the real athletes would say on this.

Howard Voss-Altman: For me, faith is often the irrational belief that, regardless of how dire the circumstances, the sheer amazement of our existence creates an optimism that cannot be shaken. And I think being a sports fan requires a similar optimism. There’s always the belief that, somehow, some way, the team is going to find a way to return to glory.

This year has been a particularly good example of such optimism. In addition to the Giants’ rather redemptive season, I am also a long-time St. Louis Cardinals fan. (My wife was born in St. Louis and we met there.) This was a team left for dead near the end of August. They made a remarkable comeback to get into the playoffs, and then, down to their last strike in the World Series, they came back not once but twice to win Game 6, and then finished it off with a win in Game 7. Right down to the end, as the famous theologian Tug McGraw once said, “You gotta believe.”

Guy Nicholson: It’s rare to see a waiter thanking God for that big tip during the lunchtime rush, or a taxi driver praying for fares while working overtime. Is that because it doesn’t happen, or because they don’t get asked about it at a press conference?

Peter Stockland: As far as I know, neither waiters nor taxi drivers have Madonna singing during their coffee breaks, either. But there have been cabbies in Montreal who have been disciplined for having too many religious symbols in their cars. If you drive in Montreal, you know why people would want to have religious symbols on hand. It’s the same faith impulse, but in a lower key.

Lorna Dueck: It is certainly because they don’t get asked about it, or they don’t have a platform for it. I have no doubt there are many Canadian waiters who say “Thank you, Jesus” when they survive a lunch rush and have a tip bonus. What’s been so interesting about this sports praying phenomena this winter was how talked about it became. Why it became a big deal and how it polarized commentary is what got interesting.

Peter Stockland: It’s true, Lorna. Athletes in Action and similar sports ministries have been around since Paul Henderson scored in the Summit Series. That was – yipes – 40 years ago.

Howard Voss-Altman: Perhaps if 100,000 people came to watch us work, or if we knew that millions more were watching at home, we might engage in a public demonstration of faith. Jews, by and large, do not engage in such demonstrations, because we are not commanded to spread the “good news.” But for others, it is absolutely essential to their religious lives, and it’s not surprising to see it when millions of viewers are watching.

Guy Nicholson: Speaking of spreading the good news … was “ Rainbow Man” with his iconic “John 3:16” sign an irritating publicity hound, an amusing distraction or a faithful servant?

Peter Stockland: Message for Rainbow Man: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Lorna Dueck: All three of those labels are relevant for the Rainbow Man, who flashed us the “John 3:16” card for what seemed like decades. I don’t know his background or his motivations, but I think people saw him in all those categories. Now, Tim Tebow has taken up the job of publicizing John 3:16 in his war paint.

Tim Tebow is a good role model for sport, he’s not a publicity hound (I have been working on getting an interview with him – his defence appears impenetrable) and I think he’s keenly aware of the struggle for Christian humility. His trademark tweet of “Mark 8:36” tells me he’s trying his best to be a faithful servant.

Guy Nicholson: Sheema wrote about the Summit Series in a recent column for The Globe. She talked about hockey as part of our collective identity as Canadians. Perhaps this identity element is a key area of overlap between faith and sports.

Howard Voss-Altman: I once gave a sermon that began with Stephen Harper’s statement that the Hockey Night in Canada theme song was “a national treasure.” It’s the sport that defines Canada and, to a great extent, one’s sense of Canadian identity.

Lorna Dueck: If what we’re dealing with is an identity element, which I think it is, then I wonder what it will take for some sports commentators and comedians to just let it exist as normal, instead of insisting it has no place in sport. For example, Jeremy Lin just quietly insists his Christian faith is the anchor for how he keeps his character in the NBA pressures. You can’t ignore that component of him, or his attendance at a Harvard Bible study group, in commentating on Lin’s career.

And then there is just the bizarre things that are hard to ignore – like how Tim Tebow pushed “John 3:16” into the top Google searches in January after it was reported that he had thrown for 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per completion against the Steelers, and when the winning touchdown pass was thrown, the national TV rating peaked at 31.6.

Howard Voss-Altman: There is a marvellous unifying element to sports in our culture. If Robert Putnam is correct (and I believe he is), and we are truly “bowling alone,” then professional sports has become one of the few cultural touchstones we genuinely share. When were we more Canadian than when the nation was celebrating Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal in the 2010 Olympics? The Super Bowl was watched by more than 100 million Americans and countless more around the world. As we no longer drink from the same cultural water cooler any more, sports enables us to share something in common with our neighbour.

Sheema Khan: Great point, Howard. As I wrote in my column, the news of Canada’s 2002 hockey gold-medal wins was spread in Mecca, following the hajj, to Canadian hajjis hockey fans. Imagine being connected to a national event, even outside the country. The Vancouver Games reminded me of September, 1972 – a time when Canadians all came together. Living in Quebec as a child, following the tumultuous years of 1970-71, it was wonderful to see French and English cheer Team Canada.

Peter Stockland: As far as the identity goes, though, I always think of the great Jerry Seinfeld line when he mocked fans who cry “We won, we won,” after a game. As he put it: “ No, they won. You watched.” I think one thing that happens when athletes are public about their faith is a certain discomfort that just being a cheerleader in life isn’t all there is. You actually have to engage, whether physically or spiritually.

Guy Nicholson: In your opinion, everyone, what have been the most shameful and the most uplifting intersections of religion and sport?

Peter Stockland: It’s going back a long way now, but I think the way Muhammad Ali was denigrated by the boxing world for his conversion to Islam was despicable. Of course, there was a lot else going on there, but even as a Christian kid at the time I felt the treatment of him was repulsive. As for glory moments … actually, I think the whole Tim Tebow story this year was very heartening in that he was mocked, but the mockery stopped, to a large extent, when he proved what he could actually do.

Lorna Dueck: Uplifting is to see sport heroes champion on justice or inclusion issues and give sacrificially to those causes – they are directing many eyes to needs that need to be cared for. Shameful are the salaries being paid in this area; it’s fundamentally wrong.

Howard Voss-Altman: I’m in agreement with Peter about Muhammad Ali. Another shameful intersection of religion and sports has been the national dedication of time and energy to sports, as opposed to all the other societal concerns that we have neglected. This is not the fault of sports. It is, instead, an indictment of a society that would prefer to spend its time analyzing the minutia of sports rather than analyzing gross economic inequities, government corruption or the absence of meaningful community. Of course, it is much easier to follow sports – they’ve become a 24/7 distraction for a society that finds it easier to have winners and losers rather than the shades of grey that accompany more complex issues. But that is neither an excuse nor a justification.

The most uplifting moments happen off the field: when a ritual is passed down from parent to child, when a truly spectacular play is made, the kind you’ll remember forever, and you can see it happen with a spouse or a child. The moment of sharing between the generations simply cannot be replicated in any other context.

Sheema Khan: The Globe reported last month about the efforts to exclude Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympics for its failure to include women on its national team.

While this inclusion is cultural, it is also justified by a particular interpretation of religious texts by Saudi religious authorities. Such interpretations form the basis of a society where a woman must have a male guardian from cradle to grave – she cannot apply for a bank account, she cannot apply to schools, get a job or travel without permission of a male guardian. This approach is particular to Saudi Arabia.

As the story points out, the precedent was in 2000, when Afghanistan was barred from participating in the Sydney Games due to the Taliban-led government practice of barring women from participating – again, based on a particular interpretation of religious texts. Mind you, women were not the only targets. In 2000, the Taliban arrested members of a visiting Pakistani men’s soccer team for wearing shorts that it said violated an “Islamic dress code.” Even the Saudi men’s soccer team wear shorts.

Lorna Dueck: I was shocked this week when the American sport machine did not crush what can’t help but be labelled faith hypocrisy for what just went on in Houston, where an Orthodox Jewish school team was nearly prevented from playing in its basketball playoffs because of a game scheduled during their Sabbath. This is a zone where games are not played on Sundays out of respect for Christian worship – I would have thought America’s vocal faith and sport culture would have easily adjusted to this Jewish concern but, sadly, not.

Guy Nicholson: Reminiscent of the situation faced by Jewish baseball stars Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, who were all roundly criticized for missing important games on Yom Kippur.

Howard Voss-Altman: Ah, but Sandy Koufax, in particular, will forever be revered in the Jewish community for putting his tradition ahead of baseball. It is one of the great moments in American Jewish history. That being said, the recent failed drug test by Ryan Braun [ since overturned]will go down as one of our most disappointing moments.

I was shocked by the case Lorna raises as well. There was never any doubt that the school could not play a game during the Sabbath and, in a state like Texas, where religion is treated with the utmost importance, I would have thought that such accommodations would have been easily made. The tournament’s organizers should have planned this well in advance. It was negligent at best, and downright discriminatory at worst.

Sheema Khan: You don’t have to go all the way to the U.S. We have had a number of instances where girls have been kicked off the soccer field in Quebec for wearing the hijab. Yes, there are safety concerns, and these should be taken seriously. Yet, there are “sports” hijabs, and ways of wearing them to ensure safety. I play soccer myself, and have been mindful of never wearing pins with a hijab. I have never had any problems playing recreationally. FIFA, however, is at a crossroads – it wants to encourage women to play soccer, but has sent mixed signals about the permissibility of wearing the hijab. (Although a resolution now looks promising.) Same for tae kwon do – one of the two world federations allows it, the other does not.

Sports provide a beautiful opportunity for healthy development in all aspects. Why deny someone the opportunity because of their religious beliefs?

Guy Nicholson: One more question. Hockey has the Devils, football has the Saints, and baseball has the Angels and Padres. (Sorry, Howard, the World Series champs just aren’t those kind of Cardinals.) If you owned a sports franchise, what religious-themed nickname would you propose?

Lorna Dueck: “The Monks.” Everything begins for me in getting quiet enough to hear God.

Peter Stockland: I would grab “Les Glorieux,” but alas it’s already taken and remains in place, despite the dismal year my hockey heart’s delight are having. How about “The Genuflects,” since all sports requires that we bow but not break?

Howard Voss-Altman: Perhaps, in the spirit of our holidays, I would name them “The Passovers.” After all, to be successful in any sport, one must “pass over” your opponent.

Sheema Khan: I would suggest “The Strivers,” because it reflects what so many athletes do. It encompasses perseverance, heart and sportsmanship. In Arabic, the term is mujahed, which is a popular team name in Muslim recreational sports leagues. The root, jahada, means to strive. It forms the root of that well-known but most misunderstood term jihad, which means “striving” and encompasses all of life’s struggles. Unfortunately, it has been pigeonholed to connote “holy war.”

Guy Nicholson: The non-religious moderator might borrow a nickname from a popular animated TV show: “ The Isotopes.”

That’s all the time we have today – thanks, panelists, for a fascinating and thoroughly different discussion.

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