Super Bowl Theology

by Nicholas Frankovich

Anyone who spends much time at the crowded intersection of sports and religion knows the taboo against praying to God for victory. You can pray that nobody gets hurt, that everybody performs up to his potential, that both teams in their effort to humiliate each other give glory to God. You can ask him to give courage and peace of mind to your favorite player, to heal his infant son in the intensive-care unit, and otherwise to promote the values of your inner church lady, who thinks it would have been wicked to pray for David to succeed as he did against Goliath, but never mind that. Be grateful for all that you can pray for. The list of acceptable game-related petitions is longer than a Hail Mary pass — the better to distract you from the conspicuous absence there of “Help my team win,” but never mind that either.

“Before every game, no matter what team I was on at the time, the coach would always ask the most devout player to say a prayer,” Fran Tarkenton, the Hall of Fame quarterback and son of a Pentecostal minister, recounted in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago. “The prayer was always pretty much the same thing: Let there not be any injuries, let everyone play a good game. No one ever asked to win the game, probably for fear that God would punish us for asking.”

In a poll conducted last month by the Public Religion Research Institute, 73 percent of respondents who said they were fans of particular teams answered “no” to the question “Have you ever prayed for God to help your team?” Of the 26 percent who answered “yes,” how many have ever prayed for God not just to “help your team,” which can mean anything, but specifically to help their team win, which is its reason for being, its telos? The poll is no help here, but from experience I’d venture that the answer is “not that many.”

No one expects the fan who doesn’t believe in prayer to suddenly change his mind about it at game time. What I find curious is the fan who believes that prayer is effectual, has a strong emotional stake in the outcome of a ball game, and refuses to pray for the outcome he thinks would be good. That’s a sign that he should examine — not abandon necessarily, but examine — whether he should even be desiring what he desires. So the eminently lucid Dominican friar Simon Tugwell argues in his classic Prayer in Practice (1974).

Tugwell recommends honesty. You may think that you should ask for world peace before you ask for Denver to win the Super Bowl, but don’t pretend to a more high-minded motivation for your prayers than you really possess. Jesus’ first public miracle was to replenish the wine supply at a wedding. It’s okay to feel the pressure of mundane wants and then to ask for help in satisfying them.

The primary sense of “pray” is simply to make a request. You see it a lot in Elizabethan English. Now, of course, we use “prayer” almost exclusively in a religious context, usually to refer to the business of petitioning God and, in the case of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, of asking saints to add their voices to ours as we make our requests known to him.

Sometimes we merely fill out a requisition form and call it a prayer. That is, we tell God in a clear sentence what we want and then go back to work, trusting that he gets it and appreciates that he and we are all too busy to stand on ceremony. That’s a kind of prayer but sketchy, a pale version of the full-dress form that entails hours of high-octane concentration, which is God’s way of letting us participate in his constant engagement with and intervention in human affairs. For him, to think it is to accomplish it, and so for us too, although only if we borrow his strength, and even then, being the broken creatures that we are, it’s strenuous work. I wrote about it here.

The tendency to shirk it is only natural, as is the tendency to rationalize the shirking. “Even as sports fans pray for God’s intervention, we know that it makes no sense to think that the Almighty would care about the results of a game,” Bob Smietana of the Religion Newswriters Association asserts in the Wall Street Journal. For corroboration of this pious sentiment, he cites a clergyman, “a die-hard Seattle Seahawks fan,” who says that “God doesn’t give a ‘holy rip’ who wins, even the Super Bowl.”

How would anyone know? Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? I could boast about my loyalty to the Cleveland Indians, for example, but I’m only a man, so on a cosmic scale my capacity for caring about them is, like my capacity for caring about anything, so limited as to be almost infinitesimal. God’s isn’t. Maybe down deep the “diehard” Seattle fan understands this and tries to cover for his weakness of will by projecting it onto God conceived in his own image: a responsible grownup who prudently rations his mental energy, taking care not to overspend on entertainment, travel and leisure, or sports.

For contrast, consider this profile of the football program at the Don Bosco Preparatory School in Ramsey, N.J. Ben McGrath describes a pregame pep talk by “Father Manny Gallo, a thirty-one-year-old theology teacher with a shaved head and a goatee. . . . He began by apologizing for the fact that, ‘because I’m a priest,’ he wouldn’t be able to say certain inspirational words. ‘Jesus Christ will teach you two things today,’ he said. ‘The first thing is, when Jesus was carrying that Cross, defeat was not on his mind. Victory was on his mind!’ The boys listened solemnly. ‘The second thing, gentlemen, that Jesus Christ can teach us is that weakness was not in his heart. So when you feel pain, when you feel like vomiting, when you feel nervous, when you feel that you can’t no more, think about that.’” He concluded by saying the Hail Mary.

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