Religion uncovered on the gridiron

nfl995 lowerAnyone watching the aftermath of Sunday night’s amazing AFC Championship game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots couldn’t help but be struck by the religious overtones in the language. Everyone, that is, except for the media, which seem to have so far ignored the religious elements of the story. I know that every other athlete credits God for their victories and accomplishments, but in this case, the story runs deeper and is genuinely more significant.

First Colts owner Jim Irsay, upon receiving the conference championship trophy, said, “There’s a lot of glory up here with this trophy. As the humble leader of this organization, we’re giving all the glory to God.”

Now, a person anointing himself with the characteristic of humility is hardly humble, as one of my roommates noted last night (Disclosure: I was born and raised in Indianapolis and am a huge Colts fan of 10-plus years). But the Irsays are hardly the NFL’s favorite owners, and since the horseshoe of Irsay’s father is a horseshoe (I’ve seen it with my own eyes), it is striking that Irsay would be so quick to give credit to the Lord.

There has to be a bigger story here, because the religious references did not stop there. Anyone who has followed this blog for more than a year knows that we have been quick to note the media’s coverage of Colts head coach Tony Dungy, especially in the wake of his son’s untimely death.

But if you read The Washington Post Monday morning, the “special” time for Dungy and Lovie Smith, head coach of the Chicago Bears, the Colts’ opponent in this year’s Super Bowl, has little to do with religion (note that Post columnist Michael Wilbon, who has been weak covering Dungy’s faith in the past, contributed to the story).

In an attempt to set the record straight, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in a news conference Monday that the real story is that both coaches are “men of God.” Obama apparently gets religion:

“It’s a wonderful story,” Obama said at a news conference where he endorsed Mayor Richard Daley for reelection. “Obviously, to see two African-American coaches go to the Super Bowl when it has been historically difficult for black coaches to break into the NFL is terrific.

“But you know what makes it even better is that they are both men of humility, they are both men of God,” Obama said. “They never trash talk. They are not yellers and screamers on the sidelines. They are just a couple of class individuals.

“You can tell the loyalty and affection that their players have for them,” he said. “It is a wonderful story, not just for African-Americans but for all Americans to see men like that who are good fathers, who are good leaders, who do things the right way, succeed.”

We will see in the next two media-saturated weeks whether the football world decides to explore the faith issue in any depth. The story line between Smith and Dungy will likely be the lede, and it will be interesting to see what level of play their shared faith receives. For starters, here is Baptist Press:

MIAMI (BP) — Super Bowl XLI will feature two teams making their first super game appearance in two-plus decades, two Midwestern teams separated by only a couple hundred miles, but most importantly two coaches who are strong believers in Jesus Christ.

Head coaches Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and close friend and fellow Christian Lovie Smith of Chicago gave credit to God following their respective teams’ victories in the conference championships Jan. 21.

“The Lord set this up in a way that no one would believe it,” Dungy said following the Colts’ win over New England. “The Lord tested us a lot this year, but He set this up to get all the glory.”

There’s also the story of Peyton Manning. As nicely reported by’s Len Pasquarelli and seen by all of America in the final minutes of the game, Manning was either feeling sick or doing some heartfelt praying as his team’s future hung in the balance:

So how did Manning begin the game-winning drive in the Colts’ improbable 38-34 win over the New England Patriots here on Sunday night?

By seeking help from above.

“I said a little prayer there on that last drive,” Manning acknowledged of a possession that culminated in the winning 3-yard touchdown run by rookie tailback Joseph Addai with just one minute remaining. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to pray or not in those kinds of situations, but I did.”

Prayer answered, right? Well, kind of.

If you saw the game, you saw Manning bent over on the bench as the Patriots attempted a drive that could have ended Manning’s season. And in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star we’re told that Manning prays before every game. It’s part of his routine.

So as a Colts fan, I’d like to know how often Manning prays, particularly during games. And who does he pray to? While we’ve noted in the past that it’s not exactly conventional for people to pray for their teams to win, this is Manning’s job. I pray about my job. I’d like to venture that most Christians do as well. Why would Manning question whether it was right for him to pray about his job performance?

I don’t believe I have ever seen a word written on Manning’s personal faith, though he’s noted for his friendliness with themedia. Not that it’s any of our business if Manning wanted to keep it private, but his praying Sunday night gives a reporter a nice hook that should be explored.

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  • John McDougal

    Does God really give two craps about the Colts or the Bears winning a football game when there are real issues to be dealt with in the world? And if Dungy and Smith are both praying for victory, who exactly is God supposed to choose? Only one of them can win, remember.

  • Nobody Important

    In response to the previous comment, I suspect that God does not care about the Colts or the Bears winning in the same way that one of us would, but there is more than just a game going on here. Consider that to win a game, a team must pull together, build relationships, support each other, and cover for each other’s shortcomings. Ideally, to win is to feel joy and gratitude, to salute a worthy opponent, and to inspire others of the capacity for human achievement. Even for the losing team, there are lessons to be learned–humility, perseverance, forgiveness of oneself and one’s teammates, losing with honor and grace. For the spectators who see these people as role models, the actions on the field can be inspiring and serve as examples for how to treat others in the real world. Surely these are lessons that God would like us to learn, and perhaps God sometimes gives us such lessons to help us see His word in new ways.

  • lou dubin

    God could but im sure He does not influence the outcome of the football games…but
    He desires all be thankful for His grace and gift of our Lord Christ Jesus..
    Prayer is answered even if its no…and He hears those who call out to Him.
    God is omnipotent and omniscient… so if He wants to He can do anything…
    The important thing is that the story here is that the people on the team recognize that He is sovereign and so often athletes and people who are ” important in the world recognize that He is and He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him/

    Kudos to the coaches and the athletes who look up to the creator…and He is Christ Jesus, according to my BIBLE…

    It says ask seek and knock and it will be given to you …. He doesn’t choose sides, but He does give each of us the skills and when you mix that with faith I believe that is a winning combination

  • Brad

    I think that God cares about things that are important to people. From the Bible, we see that God gives good gifts to his children, as any father would. Doesn’t a father take interest in what his children are interested in?

    Sure, you can’t *prove* that there was any “supernatural help” for either of the teams… but I don’t think you can completely discount it just because it’s a game.

  • clemente

    why is it that religious people cherry-pick the events that god supposedly has a hand in. by definitition, would a god not have a hand in everything? so why sing the praises when a good thing happens once in a thousand, and convinently ignore the 999 other times when things went bad. thanks god for all the blessings i have, you are so great! never mind that 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

  • Trevor Dade

    What about those players that do not believe in god? Does he not give them the same supernatural help? And what I really don’t understand is why would god choose to assist a football team win the superbowl, yet somehow allow thousands of suffering children in hunger striken countries continue to starve and die?

  • tmatt

    I interviewed the late Tom Landry about this years ago, soon after he left the Dallas Cowboys. Landry did not believe that you pray for victory. He did think that you could pray for the strength not to be afraid and to do your best. He also urged his players to pray that both teams play their best and without injury.

    Got the same response from Dan Reeves. Ditto from John Wooden.

  • paul mutschler

    In a day when religious fundamentalism is politically incorrect because Christians are grouped in with radical Islam, it is refreshing to hear famous people publicly proclaim their faith in the Lord. Jesus and Muhammed had totally different approaches to their enemies. I am grateful to all who willingly and openly profess their faith in Christ; I believe it is Christ that has helped losing teams get through the disappointment and criticism that follows losses. Either way, win or lose, Christ stands willing to help with recovery or with humility.

  • Heather

    God tells us in his word to bring every thing to him in prayer

    Phl 4:6 Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
    It says everything, so it means everything. It is not for the purpose of informing God of your want or need, He already knows, it is for the purpose of bringing Him to the center of every aspect of your life. We are to give Him all the honor, Glory and praise for any blessings in our life because they are from Him.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Obama may or may not have heard Dungy’s comments in the press conference after the game. But they were an awful lot like what the coach said had to say on the same topic.

    When Dungy was asked for his thoughts about the significance of he and Smith being the first African-American coaches to take teams to the Super Bowl, he ackowledged its importance.

    But Dungy then immediately said that it was at least if not more significant that he and Smith coach as gentlemen and, specicifcally, as Christians–not using “swear words” or any kind of intimidation.

    (When he said that, my mind immediately turned to Bill Parcells who, as it turned out, resigned as coach of the Cowboys the following day.)

    To add another article on this topic, albeit one that is, much like the Baptist Press article linked to above, from the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis for which I work, The Criterion.

    This article, posted on our Web site yesterday, describes the experience of Father Peter Gallagher, chaplain of the team, as well as his thoughts about the religious nature of Irsay and Dungy’s comments and the faith-life of members of the team.

  • evagrius

    Only in the U.S. would people see sports as some “deep” metaphor for the religious life.
    It’s absurd to see sports as such a metaphor though it does have deep roots in Christianity, ( ascesis is originally a word implying training for sports events, monks were seen as “athletes of God”, etc;etc). It’s absurd now because these sports figures are not exactly leading a “humble” life.
    I can’t help but notice how powerful sports metaphors are in every culture.
    The Soviets often touted their sports “heroes” as proof of the superiority of the Communist way.

    I’d rather see more stories about real “heroes”, not athletically gifted individuals.

  • Hans

    To ease a bit of confusion here, I think it should be noted that Dungy didn’t at all thank God for the win, as though God put money on the Colts to cover the spread. Dungy thanked the Lord for giving them the strength needed to win, in the same way that former IU coach Mike Davis would thank God for the opportunity for the victory after games–thanksgivings that I think are substantially different than how they’re being characterized. For those asking about how coaches view God in times of defeat, I’m pretty sure that Dungy talked in the press conference after the game about how God had used heartbreaking defeats, such as last year’s loss to the Steelers, to build in them the strength they used to win Sunday’s game.

    I agree with Mr. Pulliam that I’d like to hear a bit more about the religious beliefs of Peyton Manning. In all my years following the Colts, I’ve never really heard this discussed. Perhaps now that he’s gotten to the SuperBowl, media folks will have to look for something else to write about him other than, “Will Peyton Manning ever get to the SuperBowl?”

  • steve wintermute

    Would irsay, smith and dungy still have given God the glory if their teams had lost?

  • evagrius

    Who is Peyton Manning and why is his faith important for people to know?

    Who are the Colts and how important are they to the life of the average person? Will they enable that person to have better shelter, food, clothing or medical care?

    Will the Colts winning or losing affect Baltimore to the point of wealth or penury?

    Put sports in the area where they belong- amusements.

    But don’t make sports a substitute for finding the virtuous life.

  • astorian

    I’m a Giants fan, and I thought it was sort of moving when I saw the Giants holding hands and praying for Matt Bahr to make the field goal that beat the 49ers in the NFC title game.

    But a week later, in the Super Bowl, the roles were reversed, and Scott Norwood was lined up with a chance to kick a game-sinning field goal for the Buffalo Bills. And this time, when the Giants were holding hands and praying again, it wasn’t so touching.

    Look, it’s one thing to pray for your guy to succeed, but isn’t it something else entirely to pray for the other guy to miss?

    I agree with those who say, “Come on, God has more important things to worry about than a game.” That said, it’s find by me if Peyton Manning occasionally said the famous Alan Shepard prayer (“Please, Lord, don’t let me f— up”) or even begged “Please, please, God, don’t let me blow another game to the Patriots.” That would be only human. But if he was on the sidelines praying, “Please, Lord, don’t let Brady complete another pass,” that would be bad taste and bad sportsmanship, at best. Maybe even blasphemous.

    Not that we sports fans can’t understand the feeling!

  • markAA

    There’s some serious bitterness expressed in this thread. In scripture, it’s clear God wants to be at the center of our lives, whether we’re sports figures or missionaries in impoverished foreign lands. Let the athletes pray for victory, opportunities or whatever; it’s not ours to judge whether the kind of prayer they said is OK. The fact that they are athletes praying about “just a sports event” or that they involved the Lord in any fashion isn’t going to offend the almighty and might just please Him.

    I’d even put forward the proposition that often the prayers we say might have negative side effects for others, unintended though they be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say them. For example, when I pray that my company is successful at a new product line, I’m de facto also praying that my competitors’ product lines won’t be as successful and that we’ll get new market share. I don’t explicitly MEAN that I want the others to fail, but the reality is that my firm’s success will mean that. I’m not evil for praying about it. So same for football players, if they’re praying for God’s help somehow in victory. Does it seem better to my puny mortal mind for them to pray for safety, opportunity, health, etc.? Sure. But we just can’t know whether that’s all we’re allowed to pray for in these circumstances.

    To the media: Yes, tell us more about personal religious beliefs. Everybody is on their own journey, spiritually, so hearing about where Peyton is today vs. last year vs. in college vs. growing with family would be very interesting if done well. And, does he get mobbed at church when he attends worship services??

  • MJBubba

    Maybe Payton was praying for the strength to bear up gracefully under the crushing media onslaught that he would face if they lost.

  • Dan

    This all goes to show that there are no atheists on the offensive line (or behind it or on the side lines).

  • evagrius

    I think it’s a rather strange view of prayer.

    One should pray for health, etc; not for oneself as such, but in order to be a proper person that is doing the will of God, i.e; doing good.

    Praying for “success” in business, sports, or other activities is peculiar, especially if that activity doesn’t really help anyone in essence, ( a new product for amusement is nice but if it doesn’t lead to better living ( helping one to better “see” God in all things etc;), just diversion, it’s rather useless. The same for sports- I haven’t seen any evidence that a victory by a city’s sports team has improved the life of that city).

    I think that type of prayer goes back further than Christianity, back to tribal gods and deities, ( you know, my god is better than yours-see we win, you lose).

  • markAA

    Remarkably, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, at least, that the Detroit Tigers’ great baseball summer of 1968 helped get the residents of that city — black and white — past the terrible urban riots and fires of 1967. If there was ever reason to want God to grant a victory to a team, it was the Tigers in 1968. Not saying that has much or anything to do with the Colts or Bears today, but just pointing it out as an interesting fact.

    Evagrius, I’m thinking you have the unusual view of prayer. God doesn’t say only pray about the items his followers have determined in their wisdom will only lead to directly doing his will or growing spiritually in him. He says bring it all, whatever is on our hearts. If believers sat around winnowing their prayers until they were sure that they were only praying for the neatly contained list of items sure not to be useless or hurt anyone else or potentially lead to possible troubles for others, it would be a fairly thin-blooded faith. How could we possibly know the full extent of the consequences of what we ultimately are praying for? It’s for God to sort out. And praying for something like a product, even one that might not save lives or transform souls, is far from diversion or useless. Products employ real people who need money to live. My product line of new picture-taking cell phones might be viewed as esoteric or not vital, but their success will put food on the table for thousands of people who might be out of work without it. Might God honor that prayer?

    I’m not trying to get personal here. Truly I’m not. And please forgive me if my tone comes off as nasty; that’s not intended.

    I’m just saying that if we attempt to confine our prayers only to issues in the spiritual realm (“Lord give us wisdom”), or ones that are so vague that they’re no longer concrete (“Lord help the hungry across the world”) we’re no longer praying our heart. There’s nothing unspiritual about praying “Lord, please help the team be succesful today” [especially if you're on the team] or “Lord, please help the new line of F150 trucks succeed at the Auto Show.”

    Sorry if this has gotten far afield of GetReligion’s goals.

  • Bryan

    I went to the Colts / Titans game in 2005 at the RCA dome. It was a great game (we — the Colts won!)

    I watched the Titans coach flip out, screaming. It was humourous, but also rather telling. Dungy was composed the whole time.

    I had a blast watching as we won, cheering with the crowd, getting into the game. But the best part for me was what happened _after_ the game. It was something the media never shows. I had no idea it happened — much less on a regular basis.

    After the game had ended, before the Colts went back to the locker room, more than 2/3rds the team and most of the coaching staff gathered on the 50 yard line, kneeled, and began praying. They were there for a good three or four minutes, it was unmistakable what was happening.

    I was grinning ear to ear.

    I know several of the Colts players were instrumental in planting a Christian church in the Carmel area, but I didn’t realize how pervasive the faith was amongst the team. Incredible. What a statement.

    You’ll never see it on ESPN, but it happened, and according to a friend of mine who had season tickets for the home games, it happens after every game, win or loose.

  • Maureen

    Personally, I agree that there’s nothing wrong with praying for your team, or for victory, or for whatever else. If God doesn’t approve or doesn’t care to answer affirmatively, then He won’t. If it occurs to you while you’re praying that maybe you’re getting a tad too attached to your sports, then that would be a hint _for you_, not a ban for everybody.

    That said, there are some folks who regard prayer as some kind of potential unfair advantage, or as essentially divisive.

    For example, people doing sport fighting in the Society for Creative Anachronism are on their honor not to pray about their fights, IIRC. Legend has it that this rule was instituted because some people were of religions where praying entailed spells and magical rituals, while others were of more traditional faiths; but they all were praying publically in an obnoxiously showy and intimidating manner. So everybody got shut down.
    (However, as is the manner of legends in the SCA, this info may be entirely incorrect.)

  • Texas Reader

    I could not agree more with Mark. Bring it to God and let him decide what’s important.

  • evagrius

    Fine, you can pray about anything, as long as it’s not wishing evil on others. Winning a game isn’t in that realm of course.

    But I’m not prone to have acts of visible prayer that are “showy”.

    Remember, the Lord said to “pray in secret”, right?

    Of course, that doesn’t include public prayer, in worhip.

    Everyone has a different notion of prayer.

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  • Jon Swerens

    Trying to wrest the thread back to the point of the blog…

    My wife and I watched the Colts-Pats game on TV up here in Fort Wayne (home of Super Bowl XLI!)

    After the game, the Fort Wayne affiliate switched to Indianapolis news station WISH for its post-game coverage, which included many, many press conferences and interviews. What was great was how the reporters just turned on the cameras and let the players and coaches speak about their faith in their own words.

    I wonder, do local media do better at allowing faith to shine through their stories than do the national media?

  • josh carlton

    I’m sure peple have seen this already, but here is the newest story about Smith and Dungy at ESPN. The religion ghost is fleshed out a little better, but we could do with more specifics about what they do to live their faith. For example, maybe we could hear more about Dungy’s work with the prison ministry, instead of just the passing reference.
    Here it is.

  • Texas Reader

    When did the He say to “pray in secret”?

  • RightOnPeachtree

    Here is an article on that talks a little about the faith of Dungy and Smith. Although I was surprised to see it, it was refreshing and welcome.

    “Dungy and Smith are Christian men who serve the Lord first and spend nearly as much time serving their communities. Doesn’t prevent them from winning. And often. In just three seasons Smith, last season’s Coach of the Year, has helped build the Bears into a league power. Dungy has won more regular season games than any coach since 1999. Where does color factor into that?

    After they won their conference championships, you heard Smith talk about his “being blessed” and Dungy give thanks to God. That isn’t just lip service with these guys. As Christians they believe it is their responsibility to let their light shine whenever they’re in the spotlight. Just as they have a game plan for each other come Super Bowl Sunday, both plan to use the global platform that the Super Bowl provides to speak words that could make an impact beyond football. At his oldest son James’ funeral last year, Dungy used the eulogy as an opportunity to teach lessons about manhood and fatherhood.”

  • Fr. Dcn. Raphael

    Can’t use sports as a metaphor for the Spiritual life? Better tell that to St. Paul!

  • evagrius

    When did the He say to “pray in secret”?

    “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

    “Can’t use sports as a metaphor for the Spiritual life? Better tell that to St. Paul!”

    I mentioned that ascesis is a term originally from training for the ancient games of Greece and Rome.
    But I don’t think St. Paul was much into the brutality of gladiators and chariot racers. Nor would, I think, look with favor on current sports.

    Let’s not forget how crippled these gentlemen become, all for our amusement.

  • Jon Swerens


    Just a fact check:

    “Will the Colts winning or losing affect Baltimore to the point of wealth or penury?”

    Actually, the question is, will the Colts affect Indianapolis? They’ve been Hoosiers for about 21 years. And yes, football fans in Baltimore are still seething about it.

    But beyond that, what do you say about media coverage of religion in sports? I know you want less of it, but do you think the press should cover it, as long as it exists?

  • evagrius

    Sorry, goes to show you how much I follow sports.

    Sure, newspapers should cover sports just as they cover entertainment. They should cover religion in sports just as they cover religion in entertainment.

  • Johnny Garberich

    I do feel that their is no reason to not give credit to God for all we have, but I thought it was out of line for Coach Dungy making a reference quote: that it was nice that there were two coach that represented God in the Super Bowl – was he making a statement that all the other 30 head coaches in the NFL are without faith or does he feel that he and Lovie Smith has a better handle on God than the other 30 coaches -(besides do we really feel God cares who wins or loses a football game) nothing wrong to give credit to God, but it is wrong to make a point that God only shines on his team – the problem in this country of ours isn’t that others need God, but that all of us and mostly self portraid Christian need him just as well