The very public nature of quarterback Tim Tebow's faith, always visible on the football field when the Denver Broncos played a game, has prompted many observers to question the role of religion in sports.
Is Tebow sincere? Is God paying attention to the game, or playing favorites? Is it appropriate to pray so fervently and often when the television cameras are on? Does religious expression belong in professional sports?
Many athletes always have been religious, and sports generally has been interwoven with spirituality since the beginning of civilization.
The hunt, accompanied by prayerful thanksgiving, evolved into sport. Representations of Greek and Roman gods resembled athletes, and vice versa. The coliseum typically was located steps away from the temple.
So perhaps the issue is not whether the two should be separate, but how they can coexist in a secular and increasingly commercialized society.
Jesus said, "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:6).
But Jesus also taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer and encouraged them to share the Good News.
The Book of James says: "Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms" (James 5:13).
With the Super Bowl just passed, baseball's spring training set to start and the hockey and basketball seasons intensifying, religious expression during sports events is increasingly visible, and the nexus of religion and athletics once again has been making headlines.
'A delicate dance'
Daron Taylor, teaching pastor of St. Andrew's City Church and mission team member for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, has volunteered for three years as chaplain of the College of Charleston's men's basketball team.
Taylor said he applies his Christian views; the team has no Jews or Muslims and seems to appreciate his presence.
"It's a delicate dance, so to speak," he said. "I make myself available. As I've done that, there are certainly those guys who pursue me" for spiritual guidance or fulfillment.
Often, it's coaches who want to add a religious component to the team experience. Taylor was invited by head coach Bobby Cremins to contribute to the basketball team, he said. And when Mark Byington took over after Cremins recently stepped aside for health reasons, he told the chaplain that he wanted him around, "until I hear otherwise from players," Taylor said.
Some professional football coaches or team owners have made no bones about their Christian faith and often promote it publicly.
Former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs gave the keynote address at the 2009 prayer breakfast organized by the Charleston Leadership Foundation and spoke openly about his faith.
Public displays of religious faith, such as players on the football field making the sign of the cross when they score, do no harm, Gibbs said.
Everyone is responsible for himself and chooses the ways in which his beliefs are expressed. Overt religiosity "doesn't bother me at all," he said. "I kind of admire that. There's plenty of the opposite."
Legendary NFL coach Tom Landry was a Sunday school teacher and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
And increasingly, professional sports provides (or arranges for the provision of) opportunities for Christian worship. Chaplains such as Taylor will lead team members in prayer. Football players sometimes gather before a game for a brief worship session. And weekend services occasionally are offered to athletes in a chapel setting.
The combination of religion and sports has even spawned an organization called Athletes in Action Sports Ministry founded by Dave Hannah. Athletes in Action, an offshoot of the far-reaching Campus Crusade for Christ International, operates evangelistic ministries among professional sports teams and on college campuses, and mentors athletes, coaches and sport administrators.
For coaches, religion is a way to foster a sense of community. For chaplains and pastors, it's a way to nudge players closer to Christ, to show them that there's something greater than winning a game.
"Since 1966, AIA has committed to sharing a victory beyond competition that is found only in a relationship with Jesus Christ," the Athletes in Action website states.
"I tell basketball players two things they need to know," Taylor said. "That God loves you and, two, the world is not the way it's supposed to be, it's broken."
He avoids preaching, focusing instead on "just being available." He will say a quick prayer before the game, then recite the Lord's Prayer before the players hit the court.
"I never pray that we'll win," Taylor said. Rather, he asks God to protect the athletes from injury, grant them strength, make the team more unified.
It's more about character-building, he said.
"God is about drawing us to him to become more like him: just, fair, generous, loving, peaceful. Winning the Southern Conference can bring peace and joy, but it's temporary," Taylor said. "God uses wins and losses to draw us closer to him, to cause us to learn something about ourselves."
Ritual and purpose
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is a serious sports fan who listens to ESPN Radio during her daily commutes and roots fanatically for the St. Louis Cardinals, her home team.
Alexander said the high visibility of religious expression on the field or in the arena "is off-putting for me."
"I can appreciate an individual, an athlete, finding religion applicable to all aspects of life (including sports), but the idea that God's rooting for a team on the sidelines somewhere, I think even God would laugh at that."
But the mixture of sports and religion is perhaps inevitable, she said. They share similarities.
"Both have a certain degree of ritual," Alexander said. "Ritual is moving and inspirational, it generates excitement, and at times can be spiritual." Team sports and religion both attract large assemblies of people who tend to share a common purpose. "It links people together," she said.
Matt Scherer, team captain of the South Carolina Stingrays and a member of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, said his faith is not exactly the focus when he is on the ice, the puck is. But off the ice, he is unabashedly Christian.
Raised Presbyterian in a tight-knit family that maintained close ties to its Seattle church, Scherer attended Sunday services regularly and joined the youth group.
As a teenager, he played junior hockey in the U.S. Hockey League, spending three years away from home, in Iowa and Nebraska, where he attended a few Lutheran church services, but mostly did what teenagers do, he said. But he never veered too far from his Christian faith.
Nowadays, "I won't hesitate to share my testimony," he said. "I feel very fortunate in my life; I've never been in a place where I thought God wasn't going to take care of me."
During his first year with the Stingrays, Scherer was asked to speak publicly about his religious beliefs during "Faith and Fun Night" at the North Charleston Coliseum. He expected to say a few words in the pressroom before a few dozen people. Instead, he was positioned before more than 3,000 fans in the arena and talked for 15 minutes about finding God.
Being thrown into that situation made him feel a little uncomfortable, he said, "but I felt great about it afterwards."
For Scherer, religion is a way to express his love for God, no matter where he might be.
On weekends, Ike Bullard, a football coach at Fort Dorchester High School, gym teacher at Gregg Middle School in Summerville and a volunteer with Hockey Ministries International, shows up to lead a short service. The chapel service is voluntary, Scherer said.
"I usually grease the wheels on most of these guys, make them feel bad if they don't (attend)," Scherer said. "People need something more than hockey. What happens when you're done?"
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