Ghost in Ravens’ pre-game rites

Now I KNOW how much GetReligion readers care about the often strange role that religious faith plays in American sports, including at the highest levels — such as the National Football League.

In this case, I really don’t care. I’m writing this post in honor of the late, great Cowboy coach Tom Landry, who was a Hall of Fame coach and a very complex man.

In a number of interviews through the years, including one with me, Landry used to talk a lot about God and he talked a lot about sports. He was convinced that far too many people approached sports AS a religion. He thought that was tragic.

Landry also got tired of reporters failing to understand that the most devout superstars — think Roger Staubach, in that Cowboys era — were the last people who would think that they should pray to win football games. They might pray for a safe game or for both teams to do their best. But pray for victory? Get real. Literally.

Now, I bring this up because The Baltimore Sun just ran a very interesting story about how the Raven’s players get ready on game day. That may sound like a simple subject, but it really isn’t. Some players need to calm down. Some need to get fired up. Some crank up their favorite music to stun level. One pro-bowl player likes to relax with a good book. Look for that detail in the story. And, it seems, many players spend a chunk of their Sunday morning in prayer.

Faith is a major part of this story. Check out this major chunk of this lengthy Sunday A1 report, focusing on secular and sacred rites at the team hotel:

In the hotel, there is a chapel set up in a conference room where the players hold a Bible study. It’s somewhat informal, according to Ray Lewis, one of the team’s most outspoken Christians. But because their jobs make it impossible to attend church on Sundays, it’s extremely important. Lewis still gets nervous before every game, and there is a calming effect to chapel he has a hard time putting into words. For years, he has been reading the same Bible verse before every game, Psalm 91:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty; I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

The Rev. Rod Hairston, the Ravens’ team chaplain, typically leads a discussion with a theme that ties into that day’s game, and players can take turns offering their thoughts about specific passages. “Most of us are trying to put things in perspective,” said Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. “It’s a chance to get away from madness and recognize what’s important.”

Often, players will simply share stories from their own lives — their hopes, their fears, their questions about faith.

“Sometimes the guys will just get in there and we’ll have discussions ourselves,” Lewis said. “It really opens it up to a totally different thought process when you see how we actually interact with each other.”

There’s more faith content later on, so much so that I’m convinced that the Sun team needed to recognize what was happening and dare to do a religion sidebar for the story. I came away with the impression that the main thing these men are praying about is safety (and I don’t mean “safety” as in a two-point sack in the opponent’s end zone).

Read this report for yourself, please.

But here is what hit me. Did you notice that sentence in which we are told that the team chaplain’s message usually focuses on “a theme that ties into that day’s game.” Now what does that make you think? God’s plan for the running game? What the scripture for the day has to say about passing plays that work against a two-deep zone defense? Here’s what we find out. Nothing.

When the players tell personal faith stories, what is that all about? When players talk about their favorite scriptures, would it help to know a few examples? What are their spiritual questions? Here in Baltimore, everyone knows about Lewis’ dance with prison and his road back to the pinnacle of NFL success. But what does that Bible verse have to do with it?

Once you’ve read the story, let me know whether you think that a Sun reporter actually attended one of the Bible studies in question. I would assume that he or she didn’t, with the chaplain citing the need for privacy. But surely it was possible to ask follow-up questions. I predict that the stories and the scriptures are not simplistic and stereotypical.

In other words, I predict that there was surprising content in those moments of study and prayer. It’s hard to know, just by reading the story.

Which is kind of the point.

The Sun team saw the ghost, but wasn’t all that interested in the content. This was a missed opportunity, methinks, in what was an interesting concept for a story.

PICTURE: Ray Lewis, entering the stadium.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    You guys are SOOOOO predictable.

  • Mike Hickerson

    I don’t think the reporter attended the Bible study. He describes what “typically” and “often” happens, and the tense sounds like these were reported to him, not observed at a specific time. If I had to guess, I’d say that the themes chosen by the chaplain probably relate to the ebb and flow of the football season (e.g. needing to come back from a defeat, persevering in the long slog of 16 games, what have you), but I would have like to have known the specifics of what the themes have been and how they are chosen. BTW, I think it’s fine that the reporter didn’t attend the study.

    Also, have players’s prayers about safety been affected by this season’s emphasis on concussions, the ongoing debates between players and owners about healthcare for retired players, and recent injuries like Eric LeGrand’s (the Rutgers player who was paralyzed in the middle of game)? It would have been interesting to hear from the chaplain or veteran players if they have noticed any changes in how players pray or what they pray for.

    P.S. I looks like there is a typo at the very beginning of the link to the Baltimore Sun.

  • tmatt


    Thanks. Got the link fixed.

    Wow, so MANY GR readers must have used that link and failed!

  • Jettboy

    One story I have never seen done is how religious players reconcile the game on a Sabbath. Do they see it as working like other people who might have to work on those days? Do they feel an spiritual remorse for playing? There are some strict Sabbath observing religions that some players are members of and it doesn’t always sit well with fellow congregants.

  • Jeff

    Want this story to go deeper? Ask these players how many of them have a sense of calling to be playing football, an inherently dangerous sport in many ways. Then ask why they are praying for safety. The apostle Paul, called to go to Jerusalem, was prophesied over, told that his going would lead to bondage. He did not pray against such binding; he went, knowing that his calling would likely lead to great difficulty. Talk about engaging “a totally different thought process”!

  • Maureen

    Why is it impossible for them to go to church on Sunday? Is it a team discipline thing? Are they afraid somebody’d conk ‘em over the head in the parking lot, or what?

    I mean, there’s usually tons of churches close to hotels. Why can they go to the conference room but not a church? Or why can’t the team or the league arrange ahead for spiritual visitation from ministers, priests, etc.?