The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
It seems just like any other college basketball game. The gym is well filled with students and alumni, and a pep band is accompanying some pretty cheerleaders who wear pleated skirts and saddle shoes and wave pompons for the home team. The visitors are not well represented. They have taken the date for a guarantee of only $350, a fifth of what another team would demand. They are accompanied only by a handful of rooters and the word of God. The visitors have come to play and preach.
They are down four at the half. The home team, Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, departs for its locker room, there to rest and to drink in new strategies. The visitors, Athletes In Action, do not leave the floor. Instead, they retire to their bench and put on snappy sweat suits of immaculate white, with red and blue trim, the name of the organization embroidered above the numbers, USA below them. Athletes In Action stands for Christ and country alike, and its founder, Dave Hannah, not only desires that the players represent a God-fearing America but that they become the finest amateur team upon the earth. It is Hannah's view, and the prevailing one in these Christian precincts, that infidels will not listen to losers. The AIA wrestling team was the 1975 national champion. The most powerful AIA basketball unit, the one playing Loyola, beat one Top Ten college team last season and played others to the wire. It finished the year 30-7-8, all road games, and won the national AAU title. It hardly matters that God in His wisdom has not seen fit to bless AIA with any good big guards.
In a moment, four of the AIA players arise, and with their coach, Bill Oates, move to a microphone set up at the far end of the gym. Oates explains that his men will tell the crowd about "the most fantastic Individual the world has ever known." Dave Lower, a skinny substitute, leads off. The theme of his two-minute talk is that "God loves and accepts us just as we are." The fans—those who have not already shuffled out for Cokes—listen in grudging silence at first, but quickly grow dubious or bored with the pitch and begin to chatter among themselves. Soon, it is difficult to hear the message. Irv Kiffin, the best Athletes In Action player this evening, speaks next, reminding the listeners of Romans 6:23—"The wages of sin is death."
Tim Hall, a 6'8" forward who played at Colorado State, follows, but over the rising crowd murmurs his words are almost lost, and when the Loyola team comes back onto the floor, the first player dribbles right past the speakers and shoots a practice layup before, embarrassed, he realizes that he is intruding on something. Nonplussed, Hall goes on, informing the crowd that he has seen a goodly number of collegians "turn to alcohol, to hard drugs or simply to a carefree way of life." He says that he found Jesus Christ instead.
John Sears is the clean-up speaker. Each game a different set of AIA players "disciple," the most forceful and articulate being saved for last. Sears is in his third year with Athletes In Action. He is 26, married, and has two small children. On the court he is a front-line reserve of little distinction, but at 6'7", 215, he is lean and rugged, a magnificently handsome man, and at least now the women in the audience pay attention, if for the wrong reasons. Sears sums up and offers a prayer. Politely, heads are lowered, kind of. "Thank you, Jesus, for coming into my life," he says.
When the crowd looks up, Mike Gratzke, the assistant coach, has taken over the microphone. He asks the spectators to fill out comment cards. These are passed out by young volunteers who carry them (and, thoughtfully, pencils) in Kentucky Fried Chicken tubs. On the cards are boxes to check. For example, "I would like more information on how I can grow in my Christian faith." This knowledge is available and will be sent through the mail. Last year 125,000 people used these cards.
The second half begins and, despite having two starters out with ankle sprains, AIA catches Loyola and wins in the final three minutes. Maybe the fans would have listened to the message more attentively at halftime if AIA had been ahead then, too. "We need to win to command respect," John Sears says. But he goes on to emphasize that he could see some people watching him intently when he spoke; a few, he suggested, appeared so interested that he thought they might take Christ into their lives straightaway. He adds that the speakers are paid much better attention in the Midwest and South.
Dave Lower comes into the locker room and, truly excited, says that someone has just informed him that a man who watched AIA play tonight "saw Christ in every one of us." The players are obviously moved by this news. Coach Oates suggests they pray.
The men speak up, one by one; heads are bowed. The thoughts are genuine, spontaneous, even disarming. "Father," each begins. The first player thanks Him for the coach, for his guidance. Next, the coach thanks Him for the team, for its noble character. The manager asks His forgiveness for getting upset at an official's call. Another player prays that the injured ankles be quickly healed. Another prays that their halftime message was accepted. Another says, "And, Father, thank you for the win." It puts AIA at 11-4 for the year.
It is regularly said (if a bit too easily) that sport has become the religion of America. This is a glib appraisal, and probably no more accurate than Marx' equally facile assessment of religion, that it is "the opiate of the people." The claim that sport has developed into a national faith may be linked to the nagging awareness that something has happened to Sunday. With all the other cultural revolutions in the country, the Sunday revolution has been overlooked, but it has been as thoroughgoing as any.
Throughout American history, going back to Cotton Mather and beyond, Sunday was tightly structured and well defined as a day of peace: worship in the morning, then a heavy meal, leavened with the fellowship of the entire family, followed by rest and rumination. In Ragtime, the best-selling novel set at the turn of the century, E. L. Doctorow has selected Sunday to evoke the mood for the era. In his first paragraph, he writes, "On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door. Grandfather fell asleep on the divan in the parlor. The Little Boy in the sailor blouse sat on the screened porch and waved away the flies." Forty years later the Japanese chose Sunday as our soft underbelly. It became a Hollywood cliché to show the scene when the main characters learned of Pearl Harbor—the family was always in the living room, knitting, perusing the funny papers, playing dominoes and whatnot. Grandfather was dozing on the divan. Thus, for our first 300 years, was Sunday, the Lord's day.
If Pearl Harbor came now, in 1976, where would people learn of it? On the tennis court, at a bar watching Demolition Derby on CBS, at the arena? There is no time for the family or for lunch. Grandfather is in front of his Sony, with a take-out Whopper, French fries and a six-pack, screaming his fool head off because he gave 6½ and took the Oilers. After three centuries, Sunday changed overnight. Have we forgotten that until very recently baseball never dared play Sunday night games lest they conflict with vespers? Coincidence or not, the last great religious boom in America came in the mid-1950s, and the decline in church attendance, which set in thereafter, took place just as pro football, the Sunday game, became the passion of the land.
Now, the trip out of the house on Sunday is not to visit a church, but to see a game or to play one. At most Roman Catholic churches, where regular attendance traditionally is highest, convenient Saturday afternoon services are now featured so that communicants can get in a full 18 holes the next morning before returning home for the NBA Game of the Week. At Notre Dame these Saturday masses have become especially popular on game days, sort of the second half of a doubleheader.
So the churches have ceded Sunday to sports, to games. But we should not be deceived; that really is not a good indication of the popularity of religion or its place in the U.S. It is just that games defeated prayer in the battle for a day, and that should not come as a surprise, inasmuch as religion does not televise nearly as well as golf and only slightly better than ice hockey. It does not follow that since sport has won Sunday, we have embraced a form of temporal worship. Indeed, the more sport is proclaimed our religion, the more people in sport seem to be seeking religion. If anything, sport is less inspirational, less spiritual than ever before. Is God dead? Well, whatever His present status, the gods of sweat have definitely expired. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and the others in that pantheon were the subjects of childlike idolatry.
Donald Cutler, an Episcopal rector who is also a New York literary agent, says, "Sport in America is more secular than ever. The talk is of money, contracts, litigation. How do you worship something like that? Put your faith in a team that will be in another city next year? I grew up living and dying with the Pittsburgh Pirates, listening to recreated games on the radio. Sport had stability then, and one could dare to identify with teams and players. That's gone. The innocence is gone, the glory. There is nothing in the experience to lift us up, no heroes to idolize. Hank Aaron a hero? Roger Maris? Arnold Palmer was the last epic hero in sport, I suppose. Jack Nicklaus is merely a money-winner. That is what we have left: money-winners. And you do not worship those."
And yet, as the American reverence for the saints of sport declines, religion itself has increasingly become a handmaiden to sport. Clergymen are standing in line to cater to the spiritual needs of the deprived athletic elite, and the use of athletes as amateur evangelists is so widespread that it might be fairly described as a growth industry. "Jocks for Jesus" is what The Wittenburg Door, an acerbic contemporary religious magazine, derisively calls the movement. "Who gives these people authority but the pagan world in which we live?" asks the magazine, its cover adorned with an athletic supporter festooned with a cross. But Jocks for Jesus is booming. It is almost as if a new denomination had been created: Sportianity. While Christian churches struggle with problems of declining attendance, falling contributions and now even reduction in membership, Sportianity appears to be taking off.
Today every major league baseball and football team—all 50 of them—holds Sunday chapel services, home and away. Many teams have their own ministers. Pat Jantomaso, a Red Sox chapel speaker, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla. but joins the team virtually every Sunday on the road, says, "Many are caring for down-and-outers, but I decided to minister to up-and-outers." Sunday services are also held in sports as varied as stock-car racing and golf. In many cases, week-night Bible classes have been started up so that wives may participate.
Athletes In Action has 250 full-time staff men (domestic missionaries, really). Eight are assigned to large cities where their only job is to minister to the pro athletes. Athletes In Action deploys two proselyting basketball teams, two wrestling teams, plus squads in gymnastics, track and weight lifting. With the AIA teams, the major thrust is toward the colleges. Says Greg Hicks, a 1974 national AAU wrestling champion and an AIA assistant athletic director, "We believe in a real soft sell. As an athlete, I can get into a fraternity, a locker room, where nobody else would be permitted."
Sports Ambassadors is an overseas equivalent of the AIA. Since 1952, "in a world gone berserk with sports," it has sent basketball and baseball teams into more than 40 countries in Europe, the Orient, Africa and Central and South America, playing and preaching under the organization's name or Venture For Victory. A newcomer in the field is the basketball team known as News Release, which carries its pray-for-play ministry to Europe, even behind the Iron Curtain.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which is the patriarch of Sportianity, does not subsidize teams, but uses older athletes to bring younger ones to Christ, mainly at summer sports camps ($110 a week) and in high school group sessions known as "Huddles." The FCA's annual budget is $2.2 million, and its president, John Erickson, refers to it as a "para-church."
For years, some coaches who are not members have complained that the Fellowship—which bills itself as the "muscle and action" of Christianity—operates as a powerful lobby when one of its member coaches is up against an outsider for a job. As a result, there are coaches who feel that they have to protect themselves by signing on as FCA members. "It's like getting a union card," says one. "If you don't join, some coaches in the Fellowship will bad-mouth you with kids they're recruiting, tell 'em you're a drunk or your marriage is breaking up. I know, because kids I've recruited told me."
Another substantial organization, Pro Athletes Outreach, was founded largely as an intramural peace-keeping force because the giants of Sportianity, AIA and FCA, were squabbling so indecorously over enlisting the best missionary athletes. It was an outgrowth of Sports World Chaplaincy, Inc. but is now a thriving operation with an annual budget of $250,000, and it sends phalanxes of pros off on what it calls "speaking blitzes" of the U.S. The PAO stars also entertain with flag football games, tugs-of-war, wrist-wrestling and other fun games.
The movement has grown so that it has even spawned a think tank, the Institute for Athletic Perfection, which formulates dogma for athletic religion. Moreover, the presses of Sportianity are flooding the market with pamphlets, books, newsletters, magazines, even comic books and films (A Man & His Men, featuring Tom Landry.... "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the impact of a Christian life"). Athletes In Action sends out taped vignettes and interviews that have been played on more than 150 radio stations. It established a national television network for its top basketball team this past season, with John Wooden mike-side.
Sport and religion were not total strangers before all this began. Billy Sunday, the turn-of-the-century evangelist, was a reformed weak-hitting major league outfielder. Dr. James Naismith was a seminarian before he invented basketball at the YMCA. C. T. Studd, a millionaire British missionary, was the progenitor of groups like Athletes In Action. Studd was a great cricket player who agreed to make a tour of army garrisons in India if he could preach after his innings. And remember Deacon Dan Towler? The Vaulting Vicar, Bob Richards? The House of David baseball team? Other athletes went on to the ministry when their playing days were done: Albie Pearson, Donn Moomaw, Henry Carr. Bill Glass, the former All-Pro end, is now one of the nation's top evangelists. Jerry Lucas, whose previous enterprises included fast food and magic, has opened up Memory Ministries, a nonprofit organization that will instruct the nimble-minded, for a $20 fee, in memorizing all 89 chapters of the four Gospels. Lucas' new book, Remember The Word, has sold almost 60,000 copies.
But religion rarely intruded into sport in the past except in the occasional instance of a player who refused to perform on a holy day—Sandy Koufax was probably the most famous and most recent. Hank Greenberg was another. But Cassius Clay's conversion to the Black Muslims provoked a cause cél√®bre in sport. Later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found his life endangered when he was caught in the middle of an interdenominational Muslim war. Alvin Dark—"Preacher Dark" and "Sister Dark" to Charles Finley—lost his job as manager of Finley's A's in large part for taking to a pulpit and suggesting that his boss would go to hell if he didn't let Christ enter his heart. A few Muslims claim that certain Jewish basketball owners have blackballed some of them because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some teams, notably the 1974 Kansas City Chiefs, have been disrupted by overzealous God Squadders trying to push hellfire and brimstone on the whole team.
That religion should suddenly be a factor in sport while its influence elsewhere is declining is not the paradox it seems. Certain members of the religious community have quite openly set out to mine athletics. The belief in these ecclesiastical pockets is that athletes need special spiritual assistance, that they are especially vulnerable to preaching and, finally and most important, that they are ideal instruments to be used in bringing others into the fold. Addressing the Cincinnati Reds at chapel at Fenway Park during the World Series last October, the Rev. Billy Zeoli, the biggest individual star in Sportianity, told the players, "I hope you have a concept of how much you affect people, how they look up to you. Let me remind you that your national influence on youth is greater than that of any single pastor, priest or rabbi."
Arlis Priest, the head of Pro Athletes Outreach, is convinced that athletes can strongly influence moral and religious life in the United States. Among the sincere, dedicated men in athletic religion, surely none is more sincere or dedicated than Priest. Converted in a foxhole in France ("Every man I saw die talked about mother or God"), Priest is known as Uncle Arlis to the 90 or so NFL players who form the heart of his organization. Priest was a baseball aspirant before World War II, good enough to merit a Double A tryout; afterward, he was a successful real estate broker before giving his life over to the lay ministry. Now gray-haired and distinguished, he is a dead ringer for Harry Reasoner. At PAO headquarters near Phoenix, Priest speaks evenly, almost dispassionately, but there is conviction and emotion in what he says. He explains how athletes are crucial to saving America:
"We're losing. We've lost our perspective, turning to drugs, free sex—and did you know there are now 26,000 suicides a year? And here we are, more blessed than any nation in the history of the world. Do we really think we're that much smarter that we can turn away from God? Well, professional athletes can reach the people who want to find God, who want to be Christians, but don't know how to. Particularly the young people—they'll listen to athletes. Pros have the right background. Why, they're probably the most disciplined group of people left in this country. They're dedicated, they're taught to play as part of a team, and they're willing to pay the price. This is what we need in America.
"Two years from now I expect to have half the professional athletes as Christians. Yes, half. I will be disappointed if we don't have half. And then, as Romans 1:16 says, the power is in the Gospel, and it is the athletes in our society who can best carry that message."
Like Priest, virtually all the leaders in the Christian athletic movement are fundamentalist. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes In Action are studiously nondenominational, and even the individual stalwarts, ministers like Zeoli and Tom Skinner (who is associated with the Washington Redskins), avoid mentioning their particular church affiliation. Evangelistic Catholicism has been under steam for almost a decade, and this has helped bring Roman Catholic recruits from that wing of the church into Sportianity—Mike McCoy of the Green Bay Packers is one Catholic invariably cited. But the sense and thrust of the movement still comes from the Bible Belt.
The Bible is to be taken literally. The message is simple, all or nothing; there is no truck with intellectualizing, the appeal is gut. It does not seem surprising that football—authoritarian, even militaristic—is the sport at the heart of the movement. The pregame football chapel services are important not so much because they take place on the Sabbath, but because they take place on a game day, when the players are sky high and emotionally exposed. A pro star who once was active in Sportianity but left in disgust says, "Why do you think this simplistic type of religion appeals to athletes? Because you're talking to people who operate primarily with their bodies, not their minds."
Ray Hildebrand was a pop singer who had one big hit (Hey Paula) before he gave up show business to work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has had all the spotlights he ever wanted and so is not awed by hotshot athletes. As a matter of fact, the best way to preach to athletes, to hold their limited attention, is with show-biz flypaper. "The pros have got so much flash themselves," Hildebrand says, "that the only way you're going to impress them is to throw flash at them. You got to come on strong, joking, and then you give them what we call 'three points and a poem'—No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and a simple little rhyme to wrap it up for 'em." Hildebrand smiles and shakes his head at this foolishness. "Sometimes I'll even wear one of those silly shirts."
Being essentially fundamentalist, the movement draws its strength from the South and the rural areas of the nation where that type of theology has thrived. Despite its growth and clout, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has failed to make inroads into the more sophisticated areas of the nation. There are now 1,600 high school Huddles in the U.S., but only a dozen of these—.8% of the total—are located in the Northeast, where 15% of the population resides. The FCA is hardly more successful in California. The bulk of the Huddles are found in the South, Southwest and Midwest, and most of the stars who participate in the program were brought up in those areas, in white, middle-class environs.
The FCA has sought to broaden its reach but has failed, in large part because in the more urban (and allegedly liberal) sections of the nation, school officials often seem intimidated by laws concerned with the separation of church and state. Because it is a religious organization, the FCA has been denied access to some schools. Those in Sportianity consider this "discriminatory" and absurd—as preposterous as viewing registered Democrats and Republicans as agents of political prejudice. There have been instances when the PAO speaking caravan has been permitted into a school auditorium and allowed to address students, but only if the players promised not to use any names. Accordingly, they say things like: "My life was changed by"—and here they offer a longing look skyward—"by someone whose name I can't mention in school."
The fundamentalist sweep into sport is relatively new. Previously, only Roman Catholics exploited athletics, using football and basketball teams to attract students and funds and attention to parochial institutions that were broke and often academically inferior as well. The classic example is Notre Dame.
Father James Riehle, the chaplain of the Notre Dame athletic department, says, "Of course Catholic schools used athletics for prestige. Notre Dame would not be the great school it is today, the great academic institution, were it not for football. But the emphases have changed here. I think that now we realize the value of sport in more ways than just the financial, whereas I'm afraid once we didn't."
The famous upset of Army by Notre Dame in 1913, when Knute Rockne (a Protestant then, but who knew?) trundled out a secret weapon known as the forward pass, had broad religious implications. Football had been an upper-class WASP sport played by the moneyed few in the Northeast. They had adapted the game from English soccer. In contrast, baseball was an American original, and urban immigrants, who were predominantly Catholic, took to it precisely because it was all-American and was not at all British. Major league baseball was limited pretty much to those large cities with heavy Catholic populations, while college football thrived and became preeminent in the more homogeneous Protestant sections of the country, particularly the South and Southwest.
So the Irish of Notre Dame used football to move up in the academic community in the same way that the lace-curtain Irish used politics to ascend in society. The Notre Dame example was followed by other Catholic schools, but in 1976 only the Irish and Boston College remain in the football big time. Because Catholic colleges were chiefly located downtown, with limited physical and financial resources, they eventually were forced to drop football and concentrate on basketball.
The Catholic emphasis on this sport continues despite a more recent phenomenon—basketball's increasing domination by blacks. Since relatively few blacks are Roman Catholic, parochial schools have had to recruit outside the faith if they wished to remain competitive. Nowadays, at many schools the student body is 90% or more Catholic but the basketball squad is virtually non-Catholic. Catholic academicians do not see any hypocrisy in this policy, equating it with a state-supported school recruiting out-of-state players.
Because of this de-Catholicization of Catholic teams, it is now rare to see a player crossing himself before shooting a free throw. It may not be frivolous to suggest that this practice was responsible for a goodly share of the anti-Catholic sentiment in the land. Jack Kennedy might have won by a landslide in 1960 but for the fact that Catholics were, at that time, still crossing themselves before shooting free throws. No matter what devout reasons Catholics had for making the sign, non-Catholics (Protestants especially) were always convinced that, deep down, the free-throw shooter was asking God to curl it in for him.
Says Father Charles Riepe, rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore and president of John Carroll School, "It's much to the good that the practice has largely disappeared. We had one kid here a couple years ago, a very bright, sophisticated boy, too, who was crossing himself before foul shots. I took him aside and suggested, as nicely as possible, that it might be wise to drop that. If you want to cross yourself, I told him, it's the kind of thing you can do in private before a game—and really, once beforehand should be quite sufficient to cover all the eventualities in both halves. Besides, as I also told him," Father Riepe adds, laughing, "it looks awful when you do blow a free throw. Then it appears that God really does have it in for you and John Carroll."
The de-mythification of sport, leading to the demise of the hero, may be a major reason why fundamentalists have taken the ball from the Roman Catholics. In the palmy days of yore, when order reigned over innocent games, sport was uplifting and a glorious celebration, like the mass. Sport and the church both stood for authority; the reserve clause was no more to be challenged than meatless Fridays. Heroes were larger than life, canonized as athletic saints, a comfortable adjunct to the church's own hagiology. The Roman church has always been perturbed by sex, and for its male adolescents, joining a team was considered the next best thing to a vow of celibacy. As long as budding young ladies could be kept in what the sisters called "Mary-like" clothes, and growing boys could be kept shagging flies and shooting set shots, nobody would have time to think impure thoughts, much less do impure things to one another. Anyway, that was the idea.
Even today, arbitrary pregame football team rites are heavily laced with Catholic taboo and mysticism. Dr. William Arens, the anthropologist, compares these peculiar ceremonial group devotions to "the exotic rituals of a newly discovered tribe." The belief that sex should be avoided before a game, the determination to keep the players segregated (ideally, watching action movies), the participation in a final meal together (a shared communion of good red beef)—all this is highly analogous to churchly concepts.
Still, it is not football but organized baseball that has the most Roman Catholic trappings. With its grand traditions, its constancy, its statistical litany, baseball could be neatly comprehended by the church—and it was. The baseball hierarchy does not take civil government as its model, but has an ecclesiastical design, beginning with the commissioner-pope, who is elected by the owners-cardinals, right on down to the fans-parishioners—indeed, the word fan is derived from "fanatic." The Baseball Hall of Fame closely approximates a Catholic shrine, which, of course, is exactly what it is called.
How ever deep their involvement with athletics, Catholics have always looked upon them as a diversion, rather like Tuesday night Bingo in the parish hall. Certainly, sport was never viewed as any sort of vehicle for conversion; athletics had nothing to do with theology. Football made Notre Dame a top-notch school, but the fact that Notre Dame was Catholic was quite incidental. If an atheist wants to play on the team, fine, give him the ball and never mind what he does with his Sunday mornings; if the best coach we can get is Protestant and Ara Parseghian wants the job, hire him. To Catholics, sport might be important, but it was never churchy. The clearest embodiment of Catholic athletic philosophy was the late Father Tom Brennan of Notre Dame. A serious theologian, a man of intellect, he could also serve as pastor to young Irish athletes. He was a fine athlete himself and a whimsical man who enjoyed dry martinis, which would sometimes lead to his conducting telephone conversations (presumably imaginary) with the devil. Sport appealed to Father Brennan—its joy, its fellowship and just because it could be so exciting. He liked to sit on the Irish bench, and he did not always agree with the way officials saw matters. One night, in Evansville, he began riding a referee. He got on the poor fellow pretty hard, but the referee was reluctant to call a technical on a priest. In exasperation, he came over to Father Brennan, shook a finger at him and said, "Come on, Father, you call the Mass, and I'll call the game." Catholics still roar appreciatively at this tale.
In contrast to the Catholic attitude, the Sportians, humorless and persevering, appear to be attracted to sport as an evangelical device that can be used baldly and also because, as an institution, sport is going to hell just like the rest of the country. All the talk in sport is cynical—of money, money, money, drugs and camp followers, dissension and dissatisfaction. Sin! Today's best-known white athlete is Joe Namath, whose womanizing and drinking are broadly publicized. It is said that his celebrated example provided some of the impetus for the Sportian movement.
Sportians are out to save sport by saving athletes. Once they are converted, they are cast as neo-crusaders. The field is to be an altar, the game a sacrifice. Paul Neumann, a Sports Ambassadors official who was a first-rate NBA player for several years, says, "A Christian is always keyed up before a game because he knows he is playing for his real coach." Alvin Dark goes further, suggesting everything he does is for the glory of Jesus Christ. In the sermon in which he revealed Charlie Finley's fiery future, Dark also said, "The more we read the Bible, the more we begin to turn our lives over to the Lord. For example, I gave the Lord my golf game. When I dedicated my life...one of the first things I did was turn my golf game over to the Lord."
Jesus has been transformed, emerging anew as a holler guy, a hustler, a give-it-100-percenter. While students of the new religion glumly acknowledge that his only known athletic performance was throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, Jesus' sad, desperate last hours have become a kind of Super Bowl. Wes Neal, previously with AIA, left that organization to set up the Institute for Athletic Perfection in Prescott, Ariz. He has become an accepted theoretician for the movement; the pamphlets published by the institute are handed out by many Sportian groups.
The new image of Jesus, the blue-chipper, is set forth in a Neal tract entitled Total Release Performance, which refers to the brand of ball that Jesus played on the cross: "It was another situation that would reveal his WINNING character.... At any point Jesus could have turned back from His mission, but He was a WINNER!" TO prove that Jesus had guts, the physical effects of being crucified are described in gory detail. Apparently, this is to shame athletes into competing more intently, whatever their injuries, their limitations or frame of mind. The crucifixion becomes an athletic sacrament, and athletes are asked to be martyrs. Without equivocation, the Institute lists as "SIN" such things as "failure to reach maximum athletic potential" and "fear of an opponent."
Clearly, the trickiest thing in mixing religion with sport is the matter of asking God for victory. It is a no-no to do so, but, unfortunately, it is quite common for athletes to get carried away and to pray precisely for that. "He's just an overly enthusiastic baby Christian," Billy Zeoli, the inspirational chapel speaker, said after a pro football player came flat-out in pregame prayers and asked Jesus to give his team a win. "Please don't get on him." Zeoli, however, felt it was unnecessary to discuss the impropriety of a victory prayer with the player. The line can be a fine one. When Kermit Zarley, one of the outspoken Christians on the PGA tour, won the Canadian Open a few years ago, he credited his success to God for having found him a new driver. Now, if that was not quite like saying that God hit tee shots for Kermit Zarley, the implication was clear that Zarley won the Canadian Open because God hung around pro shops with him when he was hunting for new clubs. Regrettably, whatever Sportianity is trying to project, the public often has another impression. Most viewers believe that teams assembling for a televised prayer after a victory are Pharisees, thanking God, paying Him off for getting them another big one in the W column. A poll of young Christian athletes, teen-agers who have been specifically instructed by the movement, asked, "What does it mean to be a Christian athlete?" The response most often received was, "To have God on my side." Jesus, it seems, is coming across as the next best thing to a home-court advantage.
At the same time, no one in the movement advises athletes to pray for victory. On the contrary, the try ethic, epitomized by Christ's Total Release Performance at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, is almost universally taught. The message is virtually the same all over: try your hardest, and then, win or lose, you will not be in conflict with Christian tenets. The favorite scripture comes from Paul, who is heard so regularly that he has become rather like the Curt Gowdy of Sportianity—and not only because both tend to get windy. The essence of Paul's endorsement of competition and Total Release Performance is found in 1 Corinthians 9:24, which quotes him thus in a modern paraphrase text of the New Testament: "Surely you know that in a race all the runners take part in it, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize." Also cited regularly are Paul's familiar words from 2 Timothy 4:7: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." Unfortunately, Paul's most direct statement about athletics (1 Timothy 4:7-8) does not fit in Sportianity, so it is never quoted: "...exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little."
Malcolm Boyd, Episcopal priest and author of the best-seller Are You Running With Me, Jesus?, replies to the try ethic, "If you're into triumphalism as a theory, then it follows that the important thing to you is to win, even if you camouflage that by saying that you're merely trying. You feel that God is on your side. You may not pray those words, but you can't tell me it's not in your heart—whether it's Vietnam we're talking about or Ohio State.
"Who was that swimmer—you know, the Olympic guy? Yes, right—Mark Spitz. Isn't that funny how quickly we've forgotten him? I'll tell you why—I'll tell you when he lost all respect: at the very instant he reached his peak, when he crawled out of the water after his last gold medal and said he never wanted to swim again.
"What is the point of swimming, of doing anything, just for the sake of trying to win? Certainly, Jesus didn't want that, and it is audacious for these guys to say it. In Gethsemane, and there hanging on the cross, Jesus didn't ask to win. In fact, his thoughts turned to the needs of others.
"Besides, I've had enough of this trying nonsense. I've seen so many kids wounded by it. It is this kind of trying, the kind that this athletic religion teaches, which is killing off so many men, leaving widows. It is very dangerous right now to be trying harder. It is making us more machinelike instead of more human. We'd do better to learn how not to try so."
The Sportians stick close to a you-and-Jesus, one-on-one theology. "Don't allow your group to stray too far off course from the Christ theme," the FCA advises its leaders (Tip No. 5). Don Cutler disagrees with the movement's lack of social concern: "If the New Testament says anything, it is that this man poured Himself out for you, and now it is your responsibility to pour yourself out for others. It is not a question of His taking care of you, whatever—your having no obligations other than signing up for the big Christian team."
Sadly, lost in the shuffle, in the competition for dotted-line converts (sign here, raise your hand, send for literature), is sport itself. In the process of dozens of interviews with people in Sportianity, not one even remotely suggested any direct effort was being considered to improve the morality of athletics. An active churchman, who has long been involved in pro sport, says, "The trouble with these people is that they worship sport as much as they do Jesus. They are so thrilled to be working with hotshot stars that they can see nothing wrong with athletics. They don't want to. I'm afraid that it is not religion that has come into sport, but athletic groupies."
More than a decade ago a deeply religious pitcher named Allan Worthington protested that he would quit the Chicago White Sox unless the club stopped stealing opponents' signals by illegal means. Since that time players in all leagues have struck righteously for more money, more benefits, more power. But not until five months ago, when Bobby Hull refused to suit up for a hockey game in protest against the violence in his sport and in fear that someone might be killed, has a single player dared put himself publicly on the line against something he considered ethically remiss.
Sportianity casts stones at players like Joe Namath for personal behavior. Dave Hannah of Athletes In Action is still angry that Lance Rentzel was doing work in Sportianity at a time when he was having deep psychological disturbances; Hannah thinks that Rentzel was inconsiderate in bringing such bad sexual publicity to the movement. But no one in the movement—much less any organization—speaks out against the cheating in sport, against dirty play; no one attacks the evils of recruiting, racism or any of the many other well-known excesses and abuses. Sport owns Sunday now, and religion is content to lease a few minutes before the big games. Religion seems to have become a support force for athletics, like broadcasters, trainers, cheerleaders and ticket-sellers. John Morley, a British statesman, wrote, "Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat." As long as it can work the territory, Sportianity seems prepared to accept athletics as is, more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.
For two decades the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the most prominent organization in Sportianity, has depended on big-name athletes. Only now is it beginning to question the dubious implications of celebrity evangelism.