On God, Integrity and Sports

When I was a kid I watched my NY Giants, hold on to a short lead late in Superbowl XXV in 1991. They were up by 1 point, and with 8 seconds left the Bills had a chance to win the game by kicking a field goal. It’s awful to have your fate, or your team’s, clearly in the hands of your competitor. Those long waiting moments were horrible, but something made it much worse.

In the seconds before the Bills kicked the ball, the TV showed the Giants sidelines. A circle of players huddled together in prayer. Praying for what? I wondered. For the kicker to miss? Yes, indeed. At the time, I found this troubling. What kind of god would honor a prayer not only as selfish as this, but clearly at the expense of someone else?

To be hated forever for losing a game (e.g. Bill Buckner) which the kicker would be if he missed, is much worse than anything the Giant’s would feel, watching from the sidelines, as he kicked in the winning points and sealed their fate. And I wondered while waiting for the kick, what would happen if a similar number of equally faithful Bill’s players were praying just as piously on the other side of the field. Can you out pray someone? Is that really how prayer works? Or how an intelligent, attentive, loving god would make decisions about our fates? By counting prayers? And wouldn’t you have to consider, if this is prayer warfare, about what the other team’s prayer strategy was before kneeling down to pray for yours? A drop of logic makes all of this fade away into foolishness, as the machinery by which these specific acts effects life defies any reasonable person’s imagination.

As it turned out, Norwood, the Bill’s kicker, missed the kick. And as predicted, despite a great career he is best known for one kick that he missed. My Giants won the Superbowl. I was happy, for sure, but as much as I’d wanted this outcome all season, I felt there was something wrong. A win is not quite the same as the other team losing. Sometimes I’d rather have a solid loss than a rotten tasting win. But I’m weird – and Giant’s fans everywhere may disown me (watch this video of the missed kick to see what I mean). This game makes highlight reels as an amazing game, but it’s not for me. I put myself in the kicker’s shoes ever time. I don’t have a major problem with the idea of God, or some kinds of faith in God. I have an open mind and am open to many different kinds of ideas. But I do have a problem where the name of God is used to justify behavior that runs against ordinary natural human integrity.

Take for instance, the Golden Rule. I like the Golden Rule. It’s a core idea in nearly every religion, nation, culture or tribe, and I see it as a kind of integrity and basic ethics. I will treat others in the same way I wish to be treated (or as they wish to be treated). Many of the ten commandments and similiar moral codes in other cultures are specific implementations of the core theme of the Golden Rule. But to pray for victory, without considering that the people on the other side might also be fans of your flavor of god, or even if not fans of your flavor they are still people worthy of your respect, can not be a high integrity act. No one would want a competitor with God’s ear to ask for their failure. The whole idea makes God a possession – MY GOD. A god who is listening to help me and my needs. Rather than shared, OUR GOD. A god that has the collective interest of all life, or human life, in mind.

I know from history when anyone starts claiming sole dominion over spiritual territory and believes in VIP access to the deities the only place it’s sure to send us all is straight to hell (metaphoric or literal depending on what you believe). The only high integrity prayer, or act, I can imagine is to hope that the team that plays best, wins. To wish that everyone plays well. And that no one gets hurt. And like the Klingons and their wish for a noble death that in the end everyone can walk off the field proud that they played well, and hard, and gave it their best. That even if they lost they feel there’s nothing else they could have done – there is nobility in that. That to me, as a competitor, is the most noble outcome of all: everyone played well and was at their best.

A part of me would rather play well and lose, than embarrass myself with incompetence, and win anyway. To put the game winning shot in the hands of your opponent is, strictly speaking, a failure on it’s own. I have similiar questions of integrity when I see an athlete or award winning star point up the sky when they win, or score a touchdown. What exactly is this intended to mean? I’m a big fan of humility, and giving thanks to people, life, the universe at large, or anything really, but it’s not clear at all to me this is what’s happening. Would they point to the sky if they lost? Isn’t god, or whatever they’re pointing to, up there in all cases, regardless of the outcome? If they catch a winning touchdown pass, shouldn’t they point at least a little bit to the guy who threw them the ball? Or the coach who put them on the field? It seems a better demonstration of devotion, or faith, or humility, is what you do when there is no spotlight on you.

Or, as is often in life, you are not the center of attention for a big reward, and instead are in the muck with the rest of us, with plenty around you worth complaining and feeling disappointed about. What do you choose to do then? Who do you point to and what does that pointing mean? Or more precisely, how generous and humble are you in your treatment of others in and below your station then? It’s out of the spotlights and the glory where the real essence of people, whether you call it their spirit, soul or integrity, is found, and that’s the only place worth looking for it. When I’m able to remember this I can find heroes and saints worthy of emulation without needing someone else to point them out for me, or draw attention to themselves by pointing up to the sky.

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28 Responses to “On God, Integrity and Sports”

  1. Danny Wahlquist

    Scott, as usual, you show great insight into a difficult problem. We are all too selfish to consistently live lives that would please God in our own strength. We can no more live our lives in a way that pleases God, than we can save ourselves from our sin. I pray that you will find a godly friend who humbly follows God through Jesus Christ.

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  2. BP

    I completely agree with you, I’ve always thought it was ridiculous for someone to pray to “beat the snot out of the opposing team” – I’ve always tried to rationalize the touchdown display in my head though, as recognizing the uber-power for giving them the ability to catch the pass.

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  3. john busteed

    This applies not only to sports though that is a great place to illustrate this fact. Wars are another one…

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  4. Erin Gambucci

    Thank you for the wonderfully written and articulated article!!!

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  5. Mike Brown

    Scott – the most unsettling thing about this blog post? That you were a kid in 1991! Way to make me feel old :)

    Reply
  6. Martijn Linssen

    Thank you Scott, very true observations.

    I was raised with the image of God somewhat like described above, and couldn’t agree with it no matter how

    Accidentally (…) I ran into the Gospel of Thomas (http://bit.ly/273s0f) who gives a very different image. Quoting logion 3 here:

    3. Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.

    Compare that to Luke 17:21, King James Bible (http://bit.ly/7suZbo):

    Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

    This message I can correlate with non-monotheistic religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, or teachings like the Tao.

    I believe we can find the Kingdom in ourselves. Each day we decide whether we’ll live in hell (fear) or heaven (love) or anything in between

    The spotlight? That’s each of us

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  7. Shuje

    I’m from Argentina and the biggest sport here is the real football (what people in the US call soccer) but the passion here has you constantly wishing not only for the success of your team, but also for the failure of your biggest rival (whether they are playing you or not).

    I think the question is why do we place such importance on the game. If the game was played for fun instead of glory and money (sins of pride and greed), then that kick would have not had everyone praying at both sides.

    Oh… and I do not believe in God, but also I don’t believe in the absence of a God.

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  8. Josef

    Great post. I too am troubled by athletes who point to the sky to give their god credit for doing something like catching a ball. Almost 2 million people die every year from tuberculosis, about 1 million from malaria, diarrhea kills another million, etc. Presumably these people pray to their god to save their lives, in some cases the same one that the athletes point to. What kind of self-centered egotistical universe do these people live in to believe that their god would rather help them to become obscenely rich by playing a game than to save those millions of people? When discussing the overwhelming evidence that prayer is completely useless, the religion pushers will tell you this is a “difficult problem” and a “great mystery” that you will understand and accept once you succumb to their brainwashing. It’s not. It’s telling how they all use the same techniques that con artists do.

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  9. Angel

    I’ve actually overheard people praying that God divert a hurricane headed for their homestate (FL) & send it elsewhere. What gets me is this: you’re asking a supreme being to amend the laws of nature on your behalf, and instead of asking to weaken the hurricane, you ask for it’s destructive force to affect others. That really bugged me.

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  10. Jason Robb

    “It seems a better demonstration of devotion, or faith, or humility, is what you do when there is no spotlight on you.”

    Nice.

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  11. John

    Reminds me of a comedy sketch I saw in a club in Chicago years ago, where a victorious footballer was telling a journalist that his team had won with hard work and the help of the Lord Jesus Christ. The journalist’s next question was “What do you think your opponents, the Green Bay Packers, did to so anger the Lord our God?” Hilarious. Whatever your beliefs, self righteousness deserves to be lampooned at every opportunity.

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  12. Joel D Canfield

    Big +1 to Jason’s quote: “It seems a better demonstration of devotion, or faith, or humility, is what you do when there is no spotlight on you.”

    I have firm opinions about this whole concept, but I’ll just say, thanks for allowing yourself to use terminology which indicates logic and reason in what is essentially a spiritual discussion. (I’m a big fan of reasonable spirituality ;)

    In purely human terms, I’m reminded of someone who said that if the person you’re with is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, they’re not a nice person. Similar concept, I think. Easy to give credit and do good when you’re on top. Harder, yet more revealing of character, when it’s otherwise.

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  13. Gerard

    “And when you pray, do not be like he hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Gopel of Matthew, Ch. 6 verse 5-6

    I’m a Christian. Too often I do things to hear praise from men, and not to get praise from God. Thank you for this reminder to live and walk humbly.

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  14. Steven M Scotten

    I’m going to do some paraphrasing here, but I read an Abe Lincoln anecdote. At the close of a session planning for what was certain to be a vicious, bloody battle, one of Lincoln’s advisors (who, in the telling was a minister of some sort) suggested that before they adjourn that they take a moment to pray that God be on their side.

    Lincoln’s response: “Reverend, I have no doubt that the Almighty is on the side of right. If we are to pray here, let us pray that we are on his side.”

    I read this in a reputable source, though I have yet to see corroboration and I no longer have a copy of the book, so take a grain of salt regarding the authenticity of the anecdote. The meaning to the story has stuck with me and dovetails with your question and observations about integrity in one’s hopes and prayers.

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  15. Kathy

    Thanks, Scott (and I remember that SuperBowl – I had a dear friend who was a maniac Giants fan).

    Perhaps the tension you outline here about a God who favors one clan over another is the root cause of war, whether or not the conflict is rooted in “religion.” I say this because you have described a situation (prayer on the sidelines or in the locker room) that assumes a God who is willing to play favorites, an everyday occurrence that most people in the U.S. have probably never questioned.

    And to think you wrote this before the latest Pat Robertson soliloquy on Haiti and an earthquake punishment.

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  16. Craig

    Scott,

    Interesting post, which I enjoyed because it certainly falls outside your “normal” range of topics…and your range is wide. Still, I’m not sure if the post is really about integrity, God/god, spirituality, sports stars, etc.

    If you started a blog that had every example of less-than-integrous (like the Giants’ example…but is it really integrity?) you’d need more bandwith that Amazon uses. You’d still have to be careful; while there is a general consensus (I think), there is a range as to what people think integrity is. Ask Pat Robertson about the Haitians.

    I find the belief that everyone is playing with the cards they have at the time (i.e. people act within the boundaries of what they know/their level of “conciounes”) to be reassuring. Maybe the wide receiver that points up to the sky after a touchdown knows something I don’t, but being grateful I think is a good thing. Hopefully our parents and mentors teach us to respect things in addition to touchdown runs, goals, and home runs.

    And lastly, one of my favorite quotes:

    Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught. ~J.C. Watts

    Be good.

    Craig

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  17. JohnO

    Martijn,

    That is a particularly modern reading of the Gospel of Thomas. The author would disagree with your interpretation. What is now “inside” is the Gnosis – which is entirely external initially, and only accepted by a person; who, by nature, is evil (as material is evil).

    Scott,

    I don’t think this display of religion is meant to be logically defensible whatsoever. We forget that religion takes on many dimensions. And, perhaps, the primary one is experience (Schleiermacher). The recognition of a “higher power” is not so much a rational claim that a divine being has stepped through into the physical plane and altered events that otherwise would have come out differently. It is both an experiential and phenomenological claim. Both of these types of claims *are* in fact rationally defensible.

    The experiential claim that athletes are “helped” in their awe-inspiring plays actually mirror ancient muse claims (there was actually a TED talk about this ancient muse idea). The concept that an external force is (to whatever degree) responsible for filling an individual with the capacity to perform actually serves two purposes. First, to acknowledge some form of humility (in the ancient world these individuals did not make millions of dollars, nor a cult following, mind you), and second to secure the psyche for moments when the amazing was not possible.

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  18. JohnO

    Un-intended thought, or natural thought, is likely a better expression of a person. Is it not?

    Or should we expect a polished and nuanced answer from a politician when asked an unexpected question? Isn’t that why they are heavily coached?

    Any action made by a 250lb man in his prime age and athletic condition running 40 yds in 4.4 seconds throwing himself into the endzone past bigger men attempting to run through him like a truck – is by definition the heat of the moment. At that point there is no question of “humility” or “arrogance”, both of which are measured rational and intentional reactions.

    I understand the nature of the armchair critique. Just recognize that the world they live in on the field is incredibly different. Just like the world inside a church is incredibly different than the armchairs we might sit in and perceive it. People can in fact change so that their unintentional thoughts are not considered hostile by those outside of the moment.

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  19. Michael

    Mr. Berkun, your post is thoughtful and well written, and challenges our thinking in many ways. If I may add to these thoughts, I’d caution against judging these players (either the sideline pray-ers or the sky pointers)… it is a fact that we *do not* know what these players were thinking or doing. They may have been meditating, they may have been counting blades of grass, or they may have been praying that they glorify God through their thoughts and actions. Reserving judgement is not an easy thing to do (even now I’m having trouble as I recall the many players that point to the sky after a touchdown). Much of the time, a person making a judgement is only revealing how they would act in exactly the same situation. That said, let’s give the benefit of the doubt than cast a stone given the lack of overwhelming evidence with regard to these players’ malintentions.

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  20. Mike Nitabach

    Every fucking day you see winning athletes on teevee thanking god for their victories. I have yet to see a single losing athlete blame god for their losses. If god is responsible for making the winners win, then it is a matter of logical necessity that he is responsible for making the losers lose.

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  21. Ludaintulsa

    I’ve noticed that when it comes to sports, rational thinking often fails people, even (or maybe especially) spiritual people :) Very thought-provoking, Scott. As a follower of Christ, I strive for balance, maturity and compassion. I do not have a problem with people giving credit to God for their victories or success – how do you feel when people say “Mom, this is because of you!” or “Dad, thank you for everything!” It is the same concept. Everything I am or have or achieve is ultimately thanks to my Heavenly Father. Yes, as you said, God has the collective interest of all life, or human life, in mind. But He also has my life and my destiny in mind – and for that I am grateful.

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  22. Ricardo Duarte

    I feel the same when I see priests praying that the soldiers of his country win a war.
    It is unfair, inhumane and does not represent what God truly is. Thanks for the article.

    Reply

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