Michael Jordan really could have walked onto the Hall of Fame stage and only said “Thank you” before walking away, and he still would’ve garnered headline news. John Stockton‘s speech was memorable because he showed more sense of humor in those 15-20 minutes than he did in 15-20 years in the NBA. Jerry Sloan‘s speech was notable for its resemblance to the way his teams play ball: a rough grind that drags on forever. And then C. Vivian Stringer simply commanded the stage: entertaining, inspiring, thoughtful, gracious and heartfelt.
Then there was David Robinson. His H.O.F. speech didn’t stand out as much as the others because, well, we already knew what we’d get from The Admiral. Always a better citizen than a basketball player, always a man of God first and foremost, he was predictably thankful and humble, and of course he talked about his faith.
Some think he may have talked about it too much. One of my boys texted me during Robinson’s speech: “Damn did DRob catch the Holy Ghost?” The following morning on DimeMag.com, one reader commented, “I didn’t realize that Robinson was so vocal with his Christianity. Dude seemed like a preacher at the end of his speech with his eyes closed and just laying it on us all.”
Whether it’s in long form, like Robinson’s speech, or a quick “I wanna give honor and glory to God” that an athlete drops post-game, publicly blending religion and sports I believe draws a gut reaction from all of us, though it’s been going on for so long that we don’t bother verbalizing it anymore. When somebody like David Robinson uses a public platform to talk about God at the same time he’s talking about sports, there is always a mixed reaction, even in the religious community. Some feel he’s elevating his faith as a duty and sharing his spiritual journey, and will applaud him for it. Other feel it’s trivializing God (or whatever deity you believe in) to imply God has anything to do with something as ultimately unimportant as sports.
Charles Barkley was the first athlete I remember actually saying “God wants us to win,” even if he was joking. (“I talked to him last night,” Barkley said before the ’93 Finals.) After that, others like Reggie White and Evander Holyfield took a more serious tone, either implying or declaring regularly that they succeeded because it was God’s want for them to succeed. (At least that’s how I read it back then.) And sometimes, it seemed, they were saying they succeeded because their team or themselves were closer to God than their opponent.
High school football was the first time I was personally exposed to crossing sports and religion. Before every game, our team doctor or one of the upperclassmen would lead a locker room prayer that was distinctly Christian. While I had a bit of a problem with going 100% Christian in a setting — a room full of young men still discovering themselves — where other faiths could be in practice, I wasn’t too bothered. During those times, we’d pray for health, strength, and the resolve to perform up to the best of our abilities. As a unit, we didn’t pray to win. But I know some players who did. And if we lost, I sometimes wondered if it affected those guys’ religious convictions at all.
The other day I was watching an ESPN Classic boxing match between Angel Manfredy — a walking contrast who often wore a Devil’s mask to the ring but also had the Virgin Mary and other religious tattoos on his body — and Courtney Burton, when one announcer brought up the two fighter’s respective faith. The other announcer relayed this old gym tale:
A fighter takes a knee to pray before a match. When he’s done, somebody in his corner asks, “Does that help?” The boxer responds, “Only if you can fight.”
What role, if any, do you believe God and religion plays in sports?