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On NFL's biggest day, let's get an amen on silent prayer

Religious athletes have gone overboard with public displays.

February 01, 2009|KURT STREETER

I appreciate the prayers for what I now understand to be my hell-bound soul from readers appalled by God's recent letter in this space. Recall that the thrust of this little satirical note was my take that we've gone way overboard in sports with public, pious displays.

I'm not a big fan of the kind of grandstanding shout-outs to Jesus we'll almost certainly see today from members of the Super Bowl's winning team. Just once I'd like to see a player step to the microphone after a big game and say: "We lost! Hallelujah, God is good!"

Besides, if there is a God who cares, then I'm pretty sure God cares a lot more about starving kids in Sudan than he does about Kurt Warner's spirals or the pleadings of a Muslim soccer star lining up for a big kick at the World Cup. (Note that when it comes to sport I am against on-the-field, look-at-me piety from any religion.)

It's a complicated issue. Partly for reasons I will discuss below, we have a lot of very spiritual athletes. Many do much-needed work in the community. Many pray publicly for strength and humility. Great. I'd just like to see them make less a spectacle of their faith.

Let's face it, what this is very often about in the American context is pure and simple American evangelism, often of the fundamentalist variety. Played out as it often is on national TV, it's a missionary zeal that borders on being arrogant and divisive. The constant pointing to the sky, the kneeling at the goal posts, etc., in most cases are thinly veiled attempts by sports stars to reel in converts, and only seen as OK because the athletes are in almost all cases Christians, the religion of our majority.

Imagine if we suddenly had platoons of MVP running backs screaming "I love Allah!" or "Read the Torah!" or "Long live witches!" on live TV. This happens, and my letter-from-God critics start going all frothy mouthed and apoplectic.

I've got no quarrel with spirituality in athletics. As a former athlete of very small accomplishment, I understand. Eighteen years ago, when I was the world's 699th best tennis player -- a minor leaguer who usually played in front of a dozen fans and a few pigeons -- I'd sometimes go home, shut the doors, read my tattered Bible, and pray for strength and focus. Occasionally, it helped.

So I get it. Part of the reason so many athletes turn to God, or something like God, is this: Having a religious practice helps boost internal strength -- a prerequisite for consistent, strong performance in sports.

This view is backed by Michael McCullough, a psychology and religious studies professor at the University of Miami. McCullough and his colleague Brian Willoughby recently published some intriguing research on the psychological effects of religious practice. Their research found that consistent, methodical adherence to religious practice boosts mental and emotional self-control.

To an athlete, self-control is a potent elixir. Mastery of the self helps a 14-year-old swimmer wake at 4:30 each morning for grueling practices, the Olympics four years away. It helps an NFL lineman, wobbly after a long practice, find discipline enough to hit the weight room. It keeps a major league third baseman from spending all of his down time locked in hotel rooms with groupies.

"A big part of self control is control of emotions and appetites," McCullough told me recently over the phone. "Then there's the attention issue. The ability to compartmentalize whatever life's problems are. And the ability to focus attention very intently, like when a guy is shooting free throws in front of thousands of screaming fans."

There isn't a better example of this than the Lakers' Derek Fisher, who, when he played for Utah a few years ago, shuttled between hospitals, where he cared for his extremely ill daughter, and NBA playoff games, where he was a difference maker. You think Derek Fisher, a devout Christian who, gladly, doesn't feel an all-consuming need to shout about it on the basketball court, you think classy self-control.

More, the act of meditation -- or prayer -- has a measurable effect. The professor pointed out that brain scans show meditation activates a part of the brain just behind the forehead that controls concentration and self-awareness. The meditative athlete, he said, "wakes up a supervisory part of the brain. A part that says 'watch what you are doing, get focused, pay attention, don't get distracted.' "

Big-time sports stars face distraction in the extreme, and not always on the court or field. For many, everywhere there's a 22nd cousin prowling for a handout or a surgically enhanced wannabe starlet standing outside the locker room in a tube skirt. No wonder so many quarterbacks bury their heads in Bibles.

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