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Original Issue


Organized worship has no place at football games

Harry Truman oncesaid that when you hear someone praying real loud, that is the time to lock upthe smokehouse. Well, the praying was deafening during this NFL season.

It's the latestthing: Ringed by TV minicams, a dozen or so fervent Christian players from bothteams join at midfield after the game, drop to their knees, clasp hands, bowheads and pray. A stadium full of people and a national television audience arein attendance, whether they like it or not. You saw some New York Giants do itduring the postseason, with a delegation of Chicago Bears. And you saw a groupof Buffalo Bills do it with some Los Angeles Raiders after their AFCChampionship Game.

I have a Jewishfriend who is a big Giants fan, but these heaven huddles are getting to be toomuch for him. "I come to the game, and I root for the Giants, but thatdoesn't mean they have a right to shove their religion down my throat," hesays. "Why can't they do that somewhere else?"

Why can't they dothat somewhere else?

Howard Cross, theGiants' backup tight end and one of the team's Christians, says that doing itsomewhere else would blow the whole message. "It's a testimony," hesays. "We want people to notice. People hold athletes so high. We have themoney, and we have the press, and if we want, we have the girls. But we want toshow people that we need more than that. When we bow down, we're showing themthat we're looking for more than this world has to offer. Some people thinkit's weak, but some people say, 'Boy, I'm really touched by that.' And if wetouch one person, then it's worth it."

Personally, Ithink it's weak. I don't think your average fan goes to football games to betouched. I don't think that when he loads up the thermos and pays $10 to park,he's looking to get proselytized. The only conversions he cares about are extrapoints.

Sure, athletesare entitled to freedom of religion like anybody else. But let them exercise iton their own time. When Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who is not among themidfield huddlers, came off the field after New York's NFC championship winover the San Francisco 49ers, he ran to his locker, knelt in front of it andprayed. Fine. He was keeping it private. It wasn't his fault that a televisioncamera followed him. In fact, athletes have been crossing themselves before atbats and free throws for years, and I can live with those fleeting, more orless reflexive displays of faith.

What I resent areelaborately orchestrated 50-yard-line religious sales pitches. I believe in myGod as surely as you believe in yours, but I don't use my last paragraph tomention it, and my plumber doesn't inscribe it on his U joints. He simply fixesmy sink and lets me worry about going down the spiritual drain. When you signedup to be a Giants fan or a Bills fan or whatever, you never figured that theplayers were going to try to reroute your allegiance toward their own versionof the way God works.

Promotionalprayer is wholly inappropriate to a sporting event, even if, as the playerssay, they are offering thanks that athletes on both sides survived the gamewithout serious injury. But an outrageous Sunday service happened not after agame but during one. Two weeks ago, against the 49ers, Giants kicker Matt Bahrwas lining up a 42-yard field goal try with four seconds left. A successfulkick would put New York in the Super Bowl. During the timeout that preceded thekick, seven Giants knelt together and prayed hard for Bahr to split theuprights, which, as it turned out, he did.

Then a reallyoutrageous service was held at Sunday's Super Bowl, where a group of Giantsknelt and prayed as Bills kicker Scott Norwood attempted a 47-yarder, as timeran out, to win the game. Is praying for somebody to blow it very Christian?Does the Lord have something against Norwood?

Now, I don't knowabout your God, but I'm not sure mine has time to consider wind direction andtrajectory at NFL football games. It has been kind of a busy month.

I hope that theNFL will have the good sense to curtail these huddles—and, if not, thattelevision will have the sense to ignore them—for the simple reason thatimposing one's beliefs on a captive audience is wrong—irreligious, even. Itwould be just as inappropriate for Jewish players to conduct services at thefar hash mark or for Muslim players to place prayer rugs under a goalpost andface Mecca.

I can put up withathletes who, when asked for their views, start out by saying, "First, I'dlike to thank the Lord Jesus Christ." They have the right to reply toquestions as they see fit. But I object to these noisy "testimonies." Ialways figured God had time for you whether you were sitting in the front pewor the last.

Besides, justbecause you rant and rave about how tight you are with God, doesn't necessarilymean it's true. I'm reminded that in World War II, German soldiers had a phraseinscribed on their belt buckle: Gott mit uns. The translation: "God is withus."