Some guys who preach to teams are awed by the athletes," the Rev. Billy Zeoli says. "Some are even in it for money, for free tickets, and that doesn't do us any good. Professional athletes are the fastest guys in the world to spot a phony."
Now that religion in sport—call it Sportianity—is booming, all major league baseball and football teams have Sunday chapel services, home and away, and by any standard Zeoli is the Most Valuable Preacher. (Trivia question: Who is the only man in history to be the first outsider embraced by both a winning Super Bowl coach and a winning World Series manager? Answer: the Rev. Billy Zeoli—by Tom Landry, Dallas, 1972, and by Sparky Anderson, Cincinnati, 1975.) Zeoli is also President Ford's personal pastor, and spends a lot of his time protesting that people make too much of a fuss about his being the President's pastor. Zeoli has good anticipation and if a fuss is not made, he sees one coming and protests in advance.
One of the reasons that "Z"—as many players call him—gets along so well with the athletes is that he has many of the same ego problems they do. He is a celebrity at the height of his powers, and, like a ballplayer on top, is threatened by hotshot kids on the way up. Explaining the operation of his company, Gospel Films, Z suddenly declares, "At any moment I can reach more people around the world than any other minister alive." For emphasis, he glances at his watch. "Well, except maybe Graham. I don't know what he's doing right now." This particular Sunday morning, Z is personally going to reach only the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets.
Many in religion do not cotton to Zeoli; some are simply jealous of his success. Players who do not attend chapel services sometimes snicker and call him Elmer Gantry behind his back. Z understands all this and accepts it. "I'm not trying to compete with anybody," he says. "I have enough problems with my personality, my chutzpah. But I pray to reach people that others aren't reaching. When I got into this, when I realized what I could do, I told God, 'Give me the chance to communicate with important people like athletes and I will promise You two things: that I will present the Gospel and that I will give You the credit. As a matter of fact, knowing me, I will give You the credit now, in advance.' "
May 2, 1976
Even though Z seems to enjoy the limelight and to relish being more controversial than humble clergy are supposed to be, his self-perspective and good humor are saving graces. Some of the most subdued, thoughtful types in Sportianity, people who should be his natural enemies, go out of their way to praise Zeoli. His methods seem to work, they say, so we must accept him at face value; everybody seems to have a favorite story of Z's converting a hard-nosed linebacker, transforming him into a veritable St. Francis of Assisi with a few well-aimed verses of Scripture. For all Zeoli's contradictions and insecurities, nobody who knows him doubts his earnestness.
Jim Hiskey, who formerly played on the golf tour along with his better-known brother Babe, helped start PGA chapel services and still organizes them, but he devotes most of his lay ministry to something called Cornerstone, near the University of Maryland campus. It is just a house where he, his wife and children and some visitors live. Young people can come for lunch or for a few weeks, to chat, to be counseled, for Bible studies or training in discipleship. Like many people in Sportianity, Hiskey sometimes seems concerned with box-office religion ("We drew 150 on the tour once when Graham spoke; we even got Palmer and Nicklaus to that service"), but he is kind and understated, and Cornerstone is a warm place, soulful, embracing—even, in the best sense, holy. Nobody is adding up names and numbers, giving out free Bibles or sign-up cards, dressing God in shoulder pads. In the summer and on winter weekends, to make some back-to-school money for his family, Hiskey works as a pro at the Hawk Valley Golf Club in Bowmansville, Pa.
"This is a decade of searching, of looking inward," Hiskey says. "In fact, there might be too much introspection. But in sport, people are less introspective. Stars especially have a high self-image. While a star's image may be distorted, he almost must feel this way about himself to have gotten where he is. I think Billy Zeoli has the kind of message that reaches those people better than most of the rest of us. He is a Christian entrepreneur, and flamboyant, that's for sure, but he has a big heart. There's no question Billy Zeoli has had an impact on some lives out there."
On the surface, Z is something of a caricature. Half Italian ("My emotional side"), half German ("My brains"), he wears long adolescent bangs that tumble in a sexy Veronica Lake lock over one eye. He dresses in flashy ensembles, the kind that nouveau pro athletes and guys in pick-up bars favor. This day, for the Bills and Jets, he has selected a deep open-necked shirt to go with a rust-colored three-piece suit that matches the Bible he carries (beat that, Graham).
If Zeoli has a prototype, it is not the complete, careful Graham but Dwight Moody, the 19th-century evangelist who broke through barriers to bring the message to America's industrialists. Unschooled and direct, Moody was sort of a businessmen's minister who thrived on being with fat cats, just as Zeoli plays that game with jocks. Moody indulged in food and became obese, while Zeoli, also a man of excess, has a passion for clothing and pop vernacular. Moody ate himself to death; conspicuous style could eventually do in Zeoli, professionally.
This winter morning in New York, Z's two sons are with him. Often when he travels, he takes members of his family; there are also a daughter, and a wife, Marilyn, with whom he is excruciatingly happy. Quickly, he volunteers that his and Mrs. Zeoli's spiritual life together is matched only by the physical delights they find in one another.
Z has barred photographers and a network TV crew from his service this day. He thinks the players would tab him as a phony if they saw him getting that kind of coverage. He and his coterie (some local Christians are along) go up to the assigned meeting room in the hotel where the Buffalo Bills are staying. There is excited speculation that O.J. may put in an appearance, but unfortunately only four players and a couple of assistant coaches—not a big name among them—show up, which leaves Zeoli visibly taken aback and, afterward, a bit petulant. At the service, though, he tailors his performance neatly for such an intimate group, cutting down on his more bombastic style, coming across rather like a life-insurance salesman instead of the used-car dealer that he often resembles before larger groups.
The essence of his message is the same. By his own proud admission, the Zeoli theology is brutally simple. "I am a total liberal when it comes to methods, but very conservative in theology," he says. As he tells the Bills, as he will tell the Jets, as he always says, Jesus was either the Son of God or a cuckoo—take it or leave it. God and man are separated by sin, which is labeled "The Problem." "The Answer" is to employ Jesus as the intermediary. So, there is "The Decision," and to avoid confusion Zeoli lays out the choices: "yes," "no," and "maybe." Taken as a whole, that is what Zeoli calls "God's Game Plan." The same theology appears throughout Sportianity. Zeoli considers it basic and obvious. A contrary view comes from an athlete who defected in disgust from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; he calls God's Game Plan a "franchised religion, the McDonald's of the spirit."
But Zeoli is not a philosopher; he is a preacher, and his favorite chapels are crowded ones, especially those filled by old friends. He is something of a walking, breathing St. Christopher medal for Sparky Anderson and the Reds in the off-season, and when he is in familiar territory he is a promiscuous hugger, renewing acquaintanceships with the most generous of embraces.
At Shea Stadium, with the Jets, he is in his element. Not only is this a team he knows well, but the club's policy is to invite friends and family to chapel. There are perhaps 20 Jet players on hand, but 60 or 70 worshipers, all told, jammed into an extra locker room, and Z's eyes dance.
He uses the God's Game Plan material that he had presented at the Bills' thé√¢tre intime, but for this SRO crowd he dresses it in brighter verbal fabric and provides snappy animation. Zeoli has hit upon a method of preaching in which every few minutes, cued by a kind of cyclical body-clock, he interrupts the message with a divertissement: a small humor, a studied action (he chucks his watch into the crowd at one point) or even a sudden acknowledgment of someone: "Hey, good to see you again." He breaks up any sustained thought with fluffy interludes. He says this is unintentional and, as spontaneous as he is, no doubt this is true, but the device is most effective—especially with a young audience, with that generation raised on TV, among whom commercial breaks are expected and concentration limited. Many old-time preachers bludgeoned parishioners into submission; time was no object. Apparently, modern pulpiteers must score with flicks and jabs.
Z keeps his hands moving, always the showman, never trusting just the message. He colors his speech with the street jargon he uses in conversation, and presumably even relies on it when he is counseling Betty and Jer. Jesus, the Jets are informed at one point, "cooled it." A passing mention of Plato produces this inquiry: "Is anyone here a philosophy cat?" The athletes tend to be "cats," except for blacks who are referred to as "dudes," or occasionally as "the brothers." To the casual observer, this display appears condescending, but, in fact, the cats and dudes seem to dig Z and are into his act.
Z thinks he has it all together, too. "When it comes to intensity," he says, shortly after his Jets sermon and following an obligatory courtesy call to Joe Namath, "a football team before a game gives you the most intense crowd you'll ever preach to. When I say pray—'Let us pray!'—you should see those cats." He drops his head like a rock to show how the players respond to his authority. "They're really up for it. Bob Hope couldn't come in there and relate to those guys in 20 minutes the way I did, could he?"
This question turns out to be not merely rhetorical, for when no direct answer is forthcoming, Z asks anxiously, "Could he? Could he?"
While most of the energy in Sportianity is devoted to using players and coaches as evangelists, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to ministering to the athletes themselves. The practice of holding chapel services originated in the late 1950s. Bill Glass, a Detroit Lions end, would assemble three or four like-minded teammates on road trips, and they would read the Bible together. Raymond Berry and Don Shinnick began a similar program with the Colts, and, in baseball, Richie Ashburn started services for the Cubs in the early '60s. Bobby Richardson of the Yankees brought chapel to the American League, and it was he who first escorted Billy Zeoli into a major league locker room.
And yet, as late as 1973, only about seven or eight baseball teams held regular chapel. The recent change has come about under the aegis of Baseball Chapel, an organization run by Watson Spoelstra of Detroit, after he retired from sportswriting and hard drinking. Baseball Chapel has a $25,000 annual budget, a big-name board of directors (including Commissioner Bowie Kuhn) and a biweekly newsletter that boasts a circulation of more than 1,000. There is no comparable pro football chapel clearinghouse (Pro Athletes Outreach is perhaps most involved), but services in the NFL are now an integral part of every team's weekly schedule.
Despite the success of Baseball Chapel, football is at the heart of the Sportian movement. Tom Landry, the Cowboys' coach who is president of the FCA national board, is the top jock in religion, and his assistant pastor, Roger Staubach, is probably the biggest name. Significantly, Pro Athletes Outreach has signed up many football players, but neither PAO nor any of the other Sportian organizations has made appreciable headway in basketball or hockey. Elvin Hayes of the Washington Bullets and Shelly Kannegiesser of the Los Angeles Kings are the best-known of a handful of converts in those two sports.
Wayne Smith, a vice-president of marketing for the Omni in Atlanta, the arena where the NBA Hawks play, is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the only NBA chaplain. It is his view, and the prevailing one in Sportianity, that pro basketball is not responsive to chapel services and religious involvement because of its frenetic schedule. Tom Skinner, the Redskins' chaplain, thinks that a football cleric could do just as well with a basketball team if he could take the job for a full season. Many basketball players, however, dispute these conclusions and maintain that it is hardly a matter of logistics. Instead, they argue that football and basketball players are distinctly different types.
Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks is the son of rural Pentecostal ministers (although with his full beard he looks rather like a Talmudic student). He is one of the few pros in any league interested in the generic subject of religion. Says Jackson, "The kind of simplistic religion that appeals to so many football players is largely based upon submission. There is no room for argument, for examination. This fits perfectly with the football mentality, where players are the cogs in a machine. Basketball players, on the other hand, are individualists, they have a higher ego sense. I don't think there are more than half a dozen fundamentalist Christians left in the NBA."
Jackson's opinion is buttressed by the Muslim population in pro sports. Virtually all are in basketball. In the NFL only Ahmad Rashad (the former Bobby Moore) is Muslim, and there are none in baseball (Willie Davis is a Buddhist). If Christians can't reach basketball players because of the schedule, why aren't Muslims similarly blocked?
The basketball players who turn to Islam offer much the same reasons other athletes do in accounting for their new devotion to Christ ("A void in my life," "Something bigger than me," etc.). Both groups are searching and/or disillusioned, young men looking for a spiritual anchor in their lives. It seems almost incidental, given their similar temperaments, that some went to Christ and others to Mohammed.
A major distinction besides doctrine is the method of indoctrination. Conversion to Islam is usually a long, thought-out move that requires a negative decision as well (renouncing Christianity). However, it is almost a point of pride with Christian athletes that they were converted quickly, in the blinding-light fashion of Saul on the way to Damascus. Moreover, Islam is more demanding, in terms of ritual and conduct. Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, who was the All-America Walt Hazzard at UCLA, the son of a Methodist minister and college president, says, "In Islam, you can't just go to church on Sunday and feel that will cool everything out. As a Muslim, I have no excuse, but these guys seem to think they're off the hook because Jesus died for them."
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, the first occasion before sunrise—but this and other requirements, such as fasting, can be adjusted for athletes when there is a conflict with their vocational responsibilities. Muslims are also obliged to tithe 2½% of their savings, but no conscious effort is made to use the famous Muslim athletes as evangelists. If only by their names, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the few other basketball-playing Muslims have given the impression to many whites that the Islamic religion has firmer roots in black America than in fact it does. In the public mind there also is no distinction between orthodox Muslims and the independent Black Muslim sect made famous first by Malcolm X and then by Muhammad Ali. In fact, Abdul-Jabbar refers to the heavyweight champion only as Cassius Clay, believing that the Black Muslim sect holds views contrary to Islam. Those Muslims who are black—as opposed to Black Muslims—are anxious to make it clear that theirs is not a racial religion.
"We've been badly stereotyped," says Abdul-Rahman, who is now a program evaluator for a college preparatory program at UCLA. "Those blacks among us are not out to join Islam to buck the slave thing. It has nothing to do with that. It is a return to a natural way of life, not an escape from the past or anything. I'm taking my name, Hazzard, back, as Jamaal [Wilkes, of the Golden State Warriors] kept his, to show respect for my father and my past. The whole Arabic thing bothers a lot of people. We are assumed to be anti-Semitic, when in fact Arabs are a Semitic people, too, so they could hardly be anti-Semitic. But I'm afraid there are people who haven't stopped fighting the Crusades."
Abdul-Rahman stays out of the controversy, but other Muslims and black Christian players wonder why a young man of his obvious coaching ability cannot find even an assistant's job in the pros. It is darkly suggested in some quarters that Jewish executives want to keep Arab types off their teams and out of their league. Why else, it is asked, did Phoenix have so much difficulty trading the brilliant Charlie Scott, whose Muslim name is Shadid Abdul-Alim? But, in fact, it was a Jew, Red Auerbach of Boston, who finally took Scott. A Jewish NBA executive explodes at the charge. "Just tell 'em they're crazy. Does anybody seriously think I'm going to start thinking about the Gaza Strip if I can get a good shot at a guy like Scott or Wilkes?" These accusations upset Jews even more because so many of them have been active in the management of pro basketball, the sport in which blacks have obtained their greatest opportunities. Basketball has always been considered the most Jewish of games, even though the last great Jewish college player was Art Heyman 15 years ago, and the last great Jewish pro was Dolph Schayes, who also played in the early '60s. Nonetheless, Jews continue to be a substantial force in pro basketball ownership, just as preppy WASPs dominate hockey.
Despite the publicity about black athletes being converted to Islam, the truth is that Christianity is growing faster among blacks in Africa than it is anywhere else in the world. Tom Skinner, who is the best-known black in Sportianity, says, "In this country we Christians have failed in communicating our beliefs to blacks. I don't mind saying that it is the thinking blacks who have turned to Islam. But I understand them. Black people often don't relate to Jesus Christ. We are presenting Him in the wrong light. Blacks see a man who is blond and blue-eyed, yet who comes from a country halfway between Africa and Asia, and they wonder who is putting them on. Besides, Christ seems docile, soft, even effeminate in his pictures, so that you have to work full time just to overcome that. If you can just get blacks to read the Scriptures, they'll see that He's gutsy, contemporary, radical—that He's got hair on His chest and dirt under His fingernails."
Though his father was a minister, Skinner became a homicidal gang leader in Harlem before turning to Jesus. He operates Tom Skinner Associates (Reaching Black America For Christ) out of a nicely furnished Brooklyn office. There are 36 employees and the budget now exceeds $1 million. Skinner played baseball and basketball at Wagner College, but it is to football, which he played in high school, that he has directed his sports ministry; he has been the Redskins' chaplain since 1971, and he devotes 17 long weekends each fall to being with the team. At other times he counsels city people of all classes from executives to "survivalists," those indigents just trying to get from sunup to sundown. As it does for many ministers, football holds a special fascination for Skinner. "Football is representative of what life is all about," he says. "It has goals, opposition, bad calls."
While all athletes have much the same reasons for turning to religion, football players, who live more intimately with violence and injury, seem most susceptible to the message. "I was a coach," says John Erickson, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes president. "When a player is injured, the first thing he says, every time, is: 'Coach, can I play again?' We can approach them, then, first to minister to their immediate needs, and then to talk to them about their lives."
Says Don Cutler, Episcopal rector and literary agent, "Certain kinds of religion prosper among people under stress. Of course, there's a lot of stress down on Wall Street too, but you don't see any chaplains down there. You also don't see clients physically sacking the broker. Mashing the quarterback—that doesn't bother the fans. It really is a little bit like the lions and the Christians. But for the players, people getting hurt does raise questions, because they may be the next ones injured. There is nothing in the symbolism of sport that helps them deal with that, so they turn to religion.
"The kind of religion that predominates in sport solves a personal need. There are no philosophical issues, nothing is cosmic. God is a bit larger than Pete Rozelle, and if you can just get in good with Him, then He might keep you from getting hurt and He might even get you a better contract. Anyway, what have you got to lose?"
Perhaps as important as what happens on the field is the egomania of big-time athletes. They have been spoiled rotten since they were nine or 10. Muslim or Baptist, Catholic or Jew, virtually every player who turns to religion cites how his very success, his accomplishment at a young age, required him to look beyond for something more. The classic story is about the surfer who finally found the perfect wave, and immediately turned to God when he discovered that the ride had not made him happy. "The very reason why it is worth talking to these cats," says Billy Zeoli, "is they do have everything at age 23—money, fame, a sense of achievement, women chasing them—and yet still they're so empty."
That emptiness is most often filled with women—"stadium lizards." Any clergyman who seeks employment in the pro locker room better understand that the bulk of his counseling will involve sex. "What else is there?" asks Arlis Priest of PAO. "Even the Christian guys are promiscuous," says Ray Hildebrand of FCA. "Players are pursued by these women," says Tom Skinner. "The temptations are constant. The average man can't even conceive of how many temptations, how often. I mean, he cannot conceive."
The chaplains point out that infidelity in itself is not usually the cause of athletes' failing marriages. Promiscuity is so prevalent that many wives resign themselves to it or blot out the obvious. Instead, pros are so overpowered by stadium lizards, so spoiled by their fawning attentions, that they lose the ability to relate to their wives as individuals. It is not that a pro cheats on his wife when he is away from her, it is that he assaults her dignity when he is with her. The wife cannot cater to the pro's insufferable demands and ego.
An inordinate number of conversions are accompanied by the admission that a marriage was failing, and that newfound religion is what saved it. The guilt among athletes is great; many confess past adulterous transgressions to their wives. Often Sportianity serves as a kind of sexual Alcoholics Anonymous. To be able to tell a stadium lizard, "My religion won't let me" or "Jesus is against this"—that sort of thing—takes the athlete off the hook when he is not strong enough to say no on his own.
Once a chaplain is accepted on a team—and this may take a season or more—the players often become almost compulsive in discussing their problems, marital or otherwise. Zeoli suspects this may be another manifestation of ego—that athletes do everything larger than life, even confess. Skinner adds, "You must keep in mind that athletes need someone to talk to in confidence. So many people take athletes, use them, repeat what an athlete tells them in order to prove their close friendship to others. To be able to talk to someone who really cares and yet can keep a secret is a great release for them."
As effective as ministerial counseling may be, pregame and postgame team prayers strike many as phony and a misuse of religion. Before a game most players are fired up, single-minded, possibly even zonked out on drugs, and when they pray, many admit that they are only going through the motions. Afterward, their only thoughts are on whether they won or lost. Says Malcolm Boyd, who is an author, social critic and Episcopal priest, "This sort of slick, stage-directed prayer alienates people from religion because anybody can see that it is as shoddy as anything else in the world. The gimmick use of prayer before a game for the purpose of getting psyched up, this use of prayer as dens ex machina—I find it simply immoral. To use God in this way—it isn't holy. Hell isn't a bunch of fires. I think that hell is when you're using anybody, even when you're trying to use God, as in this case."
A University of West Virginia Episcopal chaplain, the Rev. Michael Paine, attacked Mountaineer football coach James Carlen (now at Texas Tech) in 1966 for forcing his players in effect to "kneel in mock piety," and team prayer was briefly an issue in the state; The Charleston Gazette termed it "repugnant" and "unconstitutional." But Carlen moved on to a new gridiron pulpit, and team prayer has spread to become an unchallenged part of American sport.
More and more lay people are agreeing with priests like Boyd that game-day religion has become a hypocritical farce. Even at Notre Dame, where the spiritual function is well established, the use of pregame prayer is admittedly distorted and has lost its original purpose. On a game day the team meets for Mass at 8:30, the captains say the litany and kiss the cross, and then everyone on the team is given a medal chosen especially for the occasion. Father James Riehle, the Notre Dame athletic chaplain, volunteers that the medal is "something visible" that the players can take away, because he admits there is the good likelihood, in the emotions of a game, that the religious experience of the Mass will be overcome and missed altogether. Father Riehle has no pretensions about game-day Mass. "It is somewhat religious," he says, "but only that. It is somewhat symbolic, and I'm sure that some would even say somewhat superstitious. And they may be right. Primarily, it provides unity."
Team chaplains often become talismans, good-luck charms. Zeoli seemed to serve this purpose for the Reds in their championship run. John Shumate, the former Notre Dame basketball star who is not a Catholic, once would not let the team bus depart without the priest who was scheduled to go along on the trip as chaplain. He had a good game record, and Shumate was afraid the club would be jinxed without him. It is still the custom at Notre Dame for the team chaplains to be available to bless individual players before, at halftime and after football games. Now it usually is the non-Catholics who avail themselves of these ministrations; you never know what might click for you.
Game-day religion has become a sort of security blanket, something on the order of superstitions like not stepping on the foul lines or wearing the same tie when you are on a winning streak. "All of us who read the sports pages and listen to the wisdom of color announcers are aware of the rewards of getting up for a game," says Don Cutler. "The religious contribution is largely that of enthusiasm, of morale. I would imagine that the movement is strongest in the most violent sport, where people are asked to act with the highest disregard of personal safety. Specialty teams strike me as not being appreciably different from Kamikazes. In football especially, you need every kind of motivation and zeal. If the religious experience is working in these locker rooms, it is working not for the best of reasons. It's merely a function of melding together, of enthusiasm and team spirit. Faith healing is a similar kind of transaction."
The increased interest by religion in sport suggests that sport is now more important in our culture than it has been. Traditionally, religion has moved to where the action is, and in that sense athletics is to be complimented by these ecclesiastical attentions. These are certainly most agreeable times for religion to find a niche in sport. In the 1960s—years of war and division—the athletic philosophy of winning-is-everything was in the ascendancy. Football, the little war, was clearly the national game. Today, sport fills a much more esthetic function, and it is common for athletes to compare their sport to art. Basketball and tennis, balletic endeavors, have advanced to positions of eminence, and baseball, the rustic game, has been restored to grandeur. There is time now for godliness on the schedule. "If winning is everything," asks John Erickson of FCA, "then why play games?"
In the final analysis, sport has had a greater impact upon religion than the other way around. While athletics does not appear to have been improved by the religious blitzkrieg, the religious people who work that side of the street seem to have been colored by some of the worst attitudes found in sport. The temper of athletic religion is competitive, full of coaches and cheerleaders, with an overriding sense of wins and losses, stars and recruiting, game plans and dugout chatter. "Remember that religion can gain the whole world and lose its soul, just like a person," says Malcolm Boyd.
It might be a good idea right now to talk to the veteran GM in the sky about the possibility of a rebuilding year.