Football and prayer? They just don’t mix.
Tribune News Service May 2, 2022
My father was neither a constitutional scholar nor a theologian. In fact, with his high school education, he delivered letters for the post office for 44 years in our small south Texas hometown.
But he was also a lay preacher, and his deep knowledge of the Bible, combined with his homespun, country-boy common sense, provided him with the insight to note the irony of public prayer before every high school football game. The prayers invariably included a plea to the Almighty for the safety of the players, right before they took the field under the fervent directive to beat the hell out of the other team.
I thought about this last week as I listened to the oral argument before the Supreme Court in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. High school football coach Joseph Kennedy had been fired by the district after he insisted on leading postgame prayers at midfield. Kennedy is suing to get his job back.
It’s a complicated case: The court has to decide how to balance Kennedy’s right to religious expression against the district’s responsibility to comply with its constitutional obligation as a state entity to avoid endorsement of any particular religion.
It took our country a long time to appreciate this element of the Constitution. Back in the 1960s, when my father made his wry observation, a public prayer over a loudspeaker was a feature of every football game. It was invariably a Christian prayer, and there were few scruples about mentioning the name of Jesus.
The population of Victoria, Texas, in the 1960s probably included very few Muslims or Hindus. But B’Nai Israel was founded in Victoria in 1872 and still represented a prominent Jewish community a hundred years later. I don’t know if anyone ever asked the local Jews what they thought about using the voice and the facilities of the state to pray to God in the name of Jesus.
Fortunately, we’ve learned to understand the Constitution better, as well as to appreciate our multicultural society. But at the heart of my father’s objection was the essential conflict between a violent game such as football and a putatively peaceful religion such as Christianity.
My father’s old-time religion didn’t entirely take with me. These days I see the inside of a church only for weddings and funerals. But I know enough about Christianity to understand that it’s a religion that values humility, peace and compassion. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek” and “Love your enemies.” He said that if somebody smites you on one cheek, let him smite the other, as well.
These are not the values of football. The game is about violence, aggression, machismo, arrogance and winning at all costs, even at the expense of the physical health of your opponent. In fact, in my long-gone football-playing days, hurting your opponent was a highly valued part of the process.
You’re probably thinking, well, football is only a game. True, but football always touts itself as a character-building experience that teaches boys lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. One wonders what Jesus would think of the values that these lessons are based on.
The arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton aren’t clear about what Coach Kennedy is praying for. If it’s for the health and safety of his players, the Almighty is letting him down. Another principle of Christianity is the value of individuals. Modern football is a hierarchy that sends a comparatively few favored players to the National Football League while consuming thousands who are physically and mentally damaged by the process. How does that mesh with Christianity?
Christians are good at ignoring Bible verses they don’t like. Coach Kennedy might consider what Jesus said about praying in public: “Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Avoid the 50-yard line. Instead, go into your closet and shut the door.
Otherwise your prayer might seem arrogant, self-righteous and coercive. I’m betting that Jesus wouldn’t approve of that, either.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.