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'Jocks for Jesus' : Evangelicals Score Points in Pro Sports

September 17, 1988|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Players say that chapels are disliked by some managers who feel that they are a distraction or blunt ballplayers' desire to win. But the Dodgers' Dave Anderson said, "That's totally ridiculous." Citing a teammate who attends chapel as an example, Anderson said.: "John Shelby is one of the most aggressive players I know."

And born-again athletes say they are not deterred from playing rough, if that is what the game calls for.

The Lakers, on the way to their second straight NBA championship this year, had a physically tough playoff series with the Utah Jazz. One of the roughest Laker players in that series was 6-foot, 9-inch forward A. C. Green, a lay preacher.

"Most people misunderstand Christians when they think they're basically . . . wimps or cowardly," Green explained in a post-game interview then. "It's not that way. On and off the court, I'm a very assertive, aggressive person."

When that intensity occasionally spills over into religious zeal, it can turn off even a 23-year veteran like Sutton, who describes himself as a Bible-believing Protestant Christian. "I don't want to be hit over the head with the Bible," he said. "I would rather see God living through someone's life, than to be dragged kicking and screaming into chapel."

The culturally conservative nature of evangelical beliefs showed up in March when Houston Astro pitcher Bob Knepper stirred a flap by saying that women should not be umpires because, "I believe that God's perspective is that women should not be in certain occupations." The Bible shows that "woman was created in a role of submission to the husband," he said.

Sutton, saying that he never heard that view from another Christian player, added that Knepper is conservative in philosophy but has a "very caring, wonderful" side that few know about. "I personally know more than 15 things Bob Knepper has done for needy kids and folks that have never been written about," Sutton said.

The exclusively evangelical Protestant approach of the sports ministries and chapels rarely produces complaints, most players indicated.

Some Avoid Services

Mormon baseball players such as the Angels' Wally Joyner, the Braves' Dale Murphy and the Cubs' Vance Law have attended chapel services. "Jehovah's Witnesses do not attend as a rule," said Van Crouch, chapel coordinator for the two Chicago baseball teams. Mike Davis, speaking of his years with the Oakland Athletics, said that Muslims and some Catholics avoid chapel.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles Manager Tommy Lasorda, a Catholic, has been "extremely helpful" with the Dodger chapel, Werhas said.

Lasorda has said he attends Sunday Mass as much as possible during the season, often with Catholic players such as Fernando Valenzuela. "If youngsters can see the manager of the Dodgers going to Holy Communion . . . it can be an incentive to them to realize how important it is to go to church," Lasorda told an interviewer for a Catholic magazine. In addition, a Mass is sometimes celebrated for the players on Sunday morning before a home game.

UCLA football coach Terry Donahue, known as a dutiful Catholic, permits both a Catholic Mass and a Protestant service conducted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on the morning before a game.

The pioneer sports ministry, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was begun in 1956 by both mainline, or mainstream, churches and evangelical groups, but it assumed a thoroughly evangelical character in later years. In the late 1950s, Campus Crusade for Christ's Athletes in Action became the first of many evangelical groups to cultivate a sports ministry.

Limited Visibility

Several reasons have been given to explain why the older, mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have had limited visibility in the sports world.

For one thing, the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches tend to urge anyone, including athletes, to attend a local church rather than to expect the kind of specialized ministry in which evangelical para-church groups excel.

The religious goals of mainline and conservative Protestantism also differ.

Whereas during the 1984 Olympics the bottom line for evangelicals was more converts, mainline Protestants in Los Angeles formed an interfaith chaplaincy with Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other clergy to serve the needs of athletes and coaches in those traditions.

"We worked as a team," said the Rev. Charles Doak, a longtime Presbyterian campus minister at UCLA,

Attention on Individuals

Doak said that evangelical religion may also be inherently the most appealing to athletes because of what he called its attention to the individual over the mainline churches' emphasis on community justice and shared responsibilities.

"The athlete is always threatened by removal or failure," Doak said.

It is made clear, however, by evangelical ministers and born-again players alike that they pray to perform up to their ability--not to win. "It's stupid to ask God to take sides," one minister said.

But that does not mean a light-hearted plea for victory goes unappreciated. Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles offered a prayer in verse for a Dodgers world championship in his invocation at the team's luncheon last April.

Mahony noted that the Dodgers "have the tools that they need/great pitching, good hitting/ strong defense and speed."

The verse concluded:

"To be the world champions

"Lord, this would be great!

"We look forward to the season of 1988."

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