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May. 6 2010 - 6:30 pm | 158 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Prayer and sports: An uncomfortable pairing of Biblical proportions

On the National Day of Prayer, let me state that I’m no fan of mixing sports and religion.

I don’t like Bible verses on eyeblack, Bible verses on banners, prayers over the loudspeaker, and prayers led by the coach in an optional ceremony that, really, you aren’t compelled to take part in, unless you want your ass nailed to bench like Jesus’ wrists. I was thrilled when the U.S. Supreme Court, no bastion of atheists, in 2009 refused to hear the appeal of a New Jersey high school football coach fighting his public school district so he could lead team prayers, especially because the court refused to swallow the glop served by friends of the court such as the American College Football Association:

There is a reason why persons are not typically moved to pray before playing monopoly, or bridge, or a round of golf with friends, but frequently are moved to pray immediately prior to or after playing a high school or college football game. It’s not just the violent nature of the sport and the ever-present possibility of serious and perhaps life-altering injury; it’s also the sense that these games are important signposts marking the road to becoming an adult.

I also will cheer when the rulings of that Supreme Court will be used to beat down a pandering bill passed in April in the Florida House that would would “bar schools from infringing on the First Amendment freedoms of teachers, staff or students unless they sign a written waiver of those rights,” basically a way to get around the ACLU’s victory over the Santa Rosa County (Fla.) School Board allowing its Christian fascists to run wild, practically requiring preaching at the public school.

For the record, technically speaking, I am Christian, having been baptized Catholic, confirmed Episcopalian, married Catholic, baptized my four kids Catholic, then jumped to the United Church of Christ. The latter denomination holds great appeal because I think it does what any religion can do best: evangelize not by loudly proclaiming how Godly you are, or how unGodly someone is, or how much you love Jesus you just can’t help but speak in tongues during a timeout in your high school basketball game. It emphasizes showing your spirit through, basically, being a good person and doing good things, and letting people catch on that maybe your faith has something to do with that.

No denomination or faith has a monopoly on that, of course. But that explains my mistrust of people and institutions that feel they must bash you over the head with their religion, demanding your participation and conversion lest ye be called a savia hata.

However, I (hopefully) am open-minded enough to realize that even when people are bringing forced prayer into places I don’t think it should go, sometimes the people who oppose them can be even bigger jackholes.

Case in point: a dispute over mixing prayer and youth baseball in Medford, Ore., where apparently it’s fairly common for coaches to end a Little League practice or game with a few words for The Man Upstairs. Given the Little League pledge — “I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always do my best.” — it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility for prayer to be involved.

As manager, I wouldn’t do it for my 7-year-old’s baseball team, not just because we’re not associated with Little League, and not just because we have at least one Muslim on the team, and not just because of my own prickly feelings about prayer and sport. It’s also because 6- and 7-year-old boys have about a 3-second attention span, so I would get only as far as “Oh God…” before someone told a fart joke.

Anyway, a Medford National Little League assistant coach, Mike E. Miles, didn’t cotton to the Jesusness of his manager Chris Palmer, who started with asking his players to take a knee after practice, then escalated from there. Miles told the Medford Mail Tribune that Palmer asked if anyone objected. But showing the youth sports political skill that got him on the league’s board, Miles told the paper, “As a parent and assistant coach, what do you say? ‘No, we don’t like Jesus or God’?” Miles’ antenna were particularly up because his daughter is on the baseball team — the only girl on the team.

As anyone associated with youth sports knows, reasonable people did not meet to discuss their differences to come to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Instead, Miles went to the board and called for Palmer to be fired. Instead, on May 2, a few days after his complaint, Miles was booted off the board, and he took his daughter off the team.

The board was full of Jesus people ready to smack down someone who wouldn’t pray on the field, right? Maybe. But Miles was making his own bed to shit in. From the Medford Mail Tribune:

The prayers continued. Miles remained silent — until Palmer questioned Miles’ integrity for teaching “cat and mouse” base-running techniques. Players are taught to feign injuries and stumble on the base paths in order to confuse the opponent — and score runs, Miles said.

“[Palmer] called me deceitful,” Miles said. “These are standard plays. Miles Field was named after my dad (Shorty Miles). He’s saying my father and the great coaches who taught me these plays are unethical. I went ballistic. I admit it.”

Palmer is right. And Miles is right. Palmer shouldn’t lead the team in prayer if everyone isn’t comfortable, and Miles shouldn’t teach 9-year-olds how to get an extra base by pretending to have a sudden knee energy.

If I may give myself permission to offer my own prayer, I pray these men see the error of their ways, and we can get back to sports with metaphysical conflict.


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  1. collapse expand

    Regarding the mixing of religion and sports, if it’s a private institution, then it’s up to those in charge. If it’s a public school, then there’s a First Amendment issue–otherwise, no.

    It’s that simple. Outside of those two contexts, there’s really no issue. I understand your annoyance at people pushing their religiosity on others, but guess what–I feel the same way about having sports shoved down my throat 24/7, whether it’s the news neglecting its local reportage to show yelling idiots with their faces painted in team colors or politicians and celebrities tossing out baseballs. What can I do about it? Nothing–it’s my problem. Ditto for those annoyed by aggressive expressions of religiosity–they have no valid ground on which to ask that those expressions be stopped or the volume lowered, *unless* it’s a First Amendment issue.

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    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

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