Ray Lewis’ face is simply everywhere—on ESPN, of course, but also The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and before I forget, the Feb. 4edition of Sports Illustrated sitting on my desk. After all, he’s not just One-Time-Super-Bowl-Champion Ray Lewis but Two-Time-Super-Bowl-Champion Ray Lewis.
You may not have seen that SI cover photo (surprise, surprise, it’s Ray Lewis praying), but more importantly, the headline goes, “Does God Care Who Wins The Super Bowl?” –which is a good question come to think about it, seeing as football might be the most spiritually inclined sport out there.
After the Ravens defeated the Broncos in the playoffs, Lewis went on the show NFL Gameday Final and discussed how (and this is an overly reductive argument of a pretty good interview) God had helped the Ravens win the game.
Deion Sanders promptly responded, “I believe Tom Brady is praying, as well as Arian Foster in Houston.”
But God was not to be denied, and after beating Brady’s Patriots in the AFC Championship, Lewis went on to say, “For [God’s] will to happen this way, I could never ask for anything else.”
Now, God messing with the scoreboard is one of the oldest and most constantly discussed tropes in sports (TEBOW TEBOW TEBOW), and I’m sure you know all of the arguments (TEBOW TEBOW TEBOW TEBOW TEBOW). Even so, understanding this issue has never stopped most sports fans from resorting to religion when their sports teams suck.
I don’t mean to trash Ray Lewis’ religion at all; as a Christian, I often find myself praying at sporting events, blindly hoping that God will lend me a hand—whether in the incarnation of the LA Lakers, or the LA Dodgers or, more recently, the Stanford Cardinal. (God has been very kind to me.)
So is there fate in sports? The popular webcomic xkcd once compared sports to a “random number generator.” I think that that argument belongs in the dustbin. I certainly don’t think I am alone in this belief. According to a recent poll, 27 percent of Americans think that God personally influences who wins and loses football games. Twenty-seven percent of Americans think that God is like a spiritual Buffalo Wild Wings commercial.
Isn’t this a little ridiculous, you may ask, and you are right. Aren’t there Royals fans who believe in God? (I really don’t want to pick on Cleveland.) From personal experience, I know that yes, there are Christian Royals fans.
Despite what I just said, putting my rational thinker cap on, I don’t actually believe that God cares about the score of the football game. I am not part of the 27 percent, not that that stops me from muttering prayers to Jesus in the stands. (I draw the line at switching religions.)
Admittedly, I have never gone to a Stanford game in which the Cardinal has lost, but I don’t expect that to continue. If sports are a Biblical metaphor for life, then that is only true insofar as they teach us that bad things often happen to good people (a la Job, Adam and the Teacher from Ecclesiastes) and vice versa.
This last thought is an excellent lead-in to what may well be the greatest paragraph ever written in any language, tweeted by San Francisco native Stevie Johnson (for context, Johnson had just dropped a potential game-winning touchdown a few hours earlier): “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! I’LL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO.”
I just love the last part. “Thanks, though.”
So we’ve seen that yes, players do blame God when they screw up (small sample size, I know)—which is only the logical extension of Ray Lewis saying that God’s will was for him to win the Super Bowl. Knowing this, coming from the perspective of a sporting agnostic, is there a difference between believing that God makes victory possible and deciding that God makes victory certain?
When Matt Kemp points at the sky after a home run, is he thanking God for allowing him that achievement, or for personally making that ball go into the stands? Perhaps Lewis, Kemp and Co. are just being thankful for having their dream jobs.
It’s eminently possible that the average professional athlete is more religious—or at the very least publicly religious—than the average American. After all, sports seem to be the only arena outside of church in which public displays of religion are not only smiled upon, but actively institutionalized. We don’t see Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, making the sign of the cross after crushing some poor paralegal to the ground for not making enough coffee.
But maybe the correlation runs the other way—maybe religion is so utterly ubiquitous in sports because the culture of sports demands it. If you’ll do anything to help your team win, it only makes sense that you leave no stone unturned in your search for excellence.
Perhaps that is why we pray so fervently, louder and louder, firmer and clearer: not necessarily out of a sincere belief that faith is necessarily rewarded through sporting excellence, but more from some subconscious, primeval fear that it might be—the fear that maybe, as the ancient Greeks said, the dice of the gods are always loaded.
Winston Shi is the leader of a religious cult that makes stained glass windows depicting Tom Brady’s holiness. To see if you’re worthy of joining, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.