Prayer on the Playing Field

Team Prayer - Photo by Scott O'Neal

Team Prayer - Photo by Scott O'Neal

A number of years ago, while playing in our community’s men’s recreational soccer league, I resorted to “prayer” in the middle of a game where my team was getting a beating. I told the young fullback covering me that if he didn’t lay off and give me some room to shoot I would bow my head and ask the Lord to provide the ‘Twelfth Man’.  I was joking, of course, but prayer is nothing new to the playing fields of professional sports. If you follow the National Football League at all you will notice prayer huddles at the 50-yard line composed of players from both competing teams. Where did this all begin, and what are we to make of it?

According to Washington Post writer, Alan Goldenbach, the first “on field” prayer came from Philadelphia Eagles’ receiver, Herb Lusk, who is now a pastor in Philadelphia. On October 9, 1977, in front of over 48,000 fans, Lusk scored a touchdown and knelt in a quick prayer before returning to his teammates. That simple act has now evolved into a popular, if not somewhat controversial, practice among many different professional athletes in various sports. Many fans see it as a showy and inappropriate practice for the playing field. Why would something private and personal, like prayer, be laid out in the open for all to see? Who are we trying to impress, anyway? Isn’t that what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day?

As a pastor and sports enthusiast I have mixed feelings about prayer on the playing field. Ok, you can pick yourself off the ground now! Let me explain. If prayer is used to try to gain an advantage against the competition then I am completely against it. Quite honestly, I do not think the majority of professional athletes today who are praying are praying in this way. Attempting to use God to gain the upper hand is ridiculous and totally contrary to God’s ways.  The apostle Paul stated that “God shows no partiality” (Galatians 2:6). However, if the intent is to ask God to protect them from injury, and to watch over their mouths so that they don’t trash the officiating or belittle other players, etc., then I am all for it! When I play sports a major part of my pre-game ritual is to pray and ask the Lord to help me be a good sport and display a Christ-like character to my teammates and opponents. To God, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you act when you play the game. That’s where I want to score!

I think much of the controversy stems from the view that prayer is a private, personal matter and should be left in the locker room and off the playing field. Why inflict one’s personal convictions on a public audience that may or may not agree? We’ve all been nauseated by the Hollywood awards shows where various celebrities come on stage to present an award and they are wearing some ribbon for this cause or that. We may feel ambushed by these gestures. Are public displays of prayer on the sports field akin to this kind of passive manipulation? You can be the judge of that but for now players are asked, not forced, to participate in the prayer times. A player can choose to bow his head or turn his back, it’s his or her choice. So far I have not heard of any coaches benching players for skipping on-field prayer.

The issue of prayer on the playing field will likely be discussed and dissected by sports writers for years to come. For now it is something that is out there as a matter of choice for athletes. I do know that my friend, David Fisher, former chaplain of the Toronto Blue Jays, found quite a hearing with players who wanted him to pray for them. Of course, he wasn’t doing it under the lights or at the 50-yeard line, either. It all depends on where your comfort level is with prayer. God’s hearing is just as good in the clubhouse as it is on the field. I think Herb Lusk can attest to both!

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