HACKENSACK, N.J. — More than 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl on TV, with another 78,000 packing MetLife Stadium, but will there be another set of eyes looking down on the Meadowlands? Could an Almighty fan be preparing to pull up a lounge chair a week from Sunday, take in the game and orchestrate the outcome?
More than 20 percent of Americans believe God has a say in who wins sporting events, according to a survey conducted this month by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Religion and sports, especially football, are deeply connected in American culture. Fans pray for victories, and many believe that players who pray are more likely to win. According to the institute’s poll, 48 percent of Americans believe athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success. That number jumps to 62 and 65 percent when asking white evangelical Protestants and minority Protestants, respectively.
So are the truly faithful rewarded with success on the field?
“It’s one of those tricky questions,” said former quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a devout Christian. “I believe God has your best interest in mind. How that correlates to winning and losing football games, I’m not fully sure.”
Iowa native Warner won and lost a Super Bowl in his 12-year NFL career, during which he played for the Rams, Giants and Cardinals.
“Do I believe as a son of God that my life is important to Him? No question about it,” said Warner, who was named Most Valuable Player when he led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl title in 2000. “Where do we draw that line between what’s important to Him and what’s not? I believe it’s all important to Him. But I don’t know how exactly that fits into winning and losing per se.”
We put the question to some clergy members: Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?
“I don’t think so,” said the Rev. George McGovern of Oradell, N.J., an interdenominational Christian minister who is team chaplain for the Giants and Yankees.
“I hate to be His spokesman, because He might care. I don’t know. He hasn’t revealed that to me. He might be a secret fan of one of the teams.
“My thought is God is not nearly as concerned with the performance or the play on the field as He is the hearts of the guys who are performing or playing on the field. What are their motives, effort, character? Are they men of integrity? That kind of stuff is much more important to God than the scoreboard.”
But the effort that affects the scoreboard creates a gray area for some.
“My gut would say ‘I don’t think so,’ ” said the Rev. Warren Hall, director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “I do think what goes into it is ‘What is the effort on behalf of who was playing?’ I think that is more so what makes an outcome happen. So if, therefore, you want to say that effort was a strength given to a team by God, then we’d say ‘Well, yeah, God was part of that outcome.’ ”
Hall pointed out that people should remember that winning isn’t the only reward. Good can come from apparently negative circumstances. Losing can have its merits.
“Maybe I don’t know what that benefit is just yet. Maybe it’s going to strengthen my character, or maybe it’s going to motivate me to be better,” said Hall, who is teaching a Seton Hall course on sports and spirituality. “I think we have to look a little more deeply.”
Most sports fans don’t think beyond wins and losses, and some are uncomfortable with a player’s public profession of faith, Hall said. At the same time, the truly faithful can be disappointed if teammates don’t follow the life they proclaim.
“I am not overly impressed when I see certain people who have not been paragons of virtuous or moral behavior doing some great athletic feat, then praising God, because it seems very contrived,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner. “But if an honorable person who’s behaved nicely and played by the rules kicks a field goal or scores a touchdown and at that moment acknowledges his creator, I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
For Christian athletes, there is a natural intersection of sports and religion, McGovern said.
“The sports culture almost puts an athlete or coach in a place where his heart can understand the Gospel because his heart is being shaped by the nature of sport: discipline, teamwork, respect for authority,” he said. “Those are three pillars of the religious life.
“All the things that go into making an athlete a good athlete and a great athlete are the same ingredients that go into a man living a life of faith,” he said.
McGovern and Warner caution people not to read too much into the fact that faith seems to be announced after a win. It is not often that a losing player begins a post-game interview by thanking God.
“When you thank God, I don’t think it’s necessarily always about ‘Thank you for making me win today’ as much as it is ‘Thank you for the gifts you’ve given me, the place you’ve put me in,’ ” Warner said. “But that is how people are going to read into it. You win a game or make a play and say ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ (People) think ‘Why does Jesus care about him making that great play?’ I think a Christian or anyone expressing their faith is doing it in a bigger manner than just ‘Thank you for letting me make that play.’ ”