Football and prayer story: touchdown or incomplete pass?

A Washington Post sports story caught my attention with this intriguing headline:

Faith and football collide on area public high school fields

The 1,800-word story, published this week, starts with a revealing anecdote:

Suitland football Coach Ed Shields called his team to the middle of the field after a mid-September practice and told the players the three-hour session was a waste. They would have to be better tomorrow, he screamed. Then he told them to pray, before storming off the field.

Every player took a knee, helmets off, sweat dripping, and each put a hand on another’s shoulder. The boys continued to bicker about football and how angry their coach was, and that’s when senior Steven Rivers came to the front.

“Stop talking!” Rivers shouted. A few players didn’t. Rivers looked at them. “You’re on this team, right?”

Eventually it was silent, and the players bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Rivers, who grew up in nearby Greenbelt, lowered his head, too.

As a Muslim, he’s not supposed to be saying a Christian prayer. But he’s a team leader and, as he sees it, if you play for Suitland, you kneel and pray before and after every practice, before and after every game.

“I’m not even supposed to be saying the prayer. But I do it for my team, because I’m a captain,” said Rivers, 17. “I say my own prayer.”

Shields said the prayer is not mandatory, but reciting it is rooted in the football culture at this public school in the heart of Prince George’s County.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this story.

On the one hand, I like that the Post quotes real people — players, coaches, school officials, the Christian mother of the Muslim player (whose father is Muslim). It would be easy for a story such as this to get bogged down in attorneys and legalese. And it is a high school sports story, after all.

On the other hand, the story feels rather shallow to me — seeming to string together a bunch of “high school sports and religion” tidbits without really connecting the dots.

This is the nut graf:

More than 13 years have passed since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored, student-led prayer at public high school athletic events, although students are still free to voluntarily worship. And they do. Hundreds of football players will pray on football fields across the Washington area this fall, no matter their religious creed. It will be the continuation of a tradition for some athletes, and for others, an introduction to a decision. One that might have more to do with team camaraderie than devotion.

After devoting a lot of ink to the Muslim player, the Post later quotes a few players (presumably Christians) involved in the praying:

Suitland defensive lineman William Beard has been praying on the football field since his pee-wee playing days in District Heights. He certainly wasn’t out of place in September when the team kneeled after practice and delivered the Lord’s Prayer, all in the shadow of the giant white cross atop the St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church that hovers a block away from the Rams’ stadium.

He believes in the leadership of Rivers, a player who has shown Beard how to grip and control the ball on the field, and a player who has sacrificed his own religious standing to be a part of the team’s prayer sessions every day.

“He’s a really good leader. He’s a big help,” Beard said. “I think [praying] can help us in the big game.”

There’s still work to do for Rivers, even though the Rams are 5-0. He was disappointed that some of his teammates were arguing before the prayer at practice last week. He’s convinced that kind of dysfunction could come back to haunt his team on the field.

“Prayer really reflects how we play and practice,” Rivers said.

The above reference to the Lord’s Prayer is the second time it’s mentioned in the story. I find myself wishing the writer had quoted exactly what the players say, as I assume not all readers know what is meant by that term. And not to be a wiseacre, but I’d also love to confirm that the reporter knows what he’s talking about.

Also, I find myself wishing the Post had provided more details on Beard and Rivers and their religious backgrounds and beliefs. Is the praying truly just a football tradition for these players? Or does their faith go deeper than that? And is there, in fact, any level of proselytizing occurring?

But it could be that my take on this particular story is completely wrong. It wouldn’t be the first interception I’ve thrown as a GetReligion contributor.

So, by all means, read the whole story and weigh in: Did the Post throw a touchdown or an incomplete pass?

Image via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Brett

    It looks to me almost like two different stories could have come from this. One ould explore how this kind of prayer is almost a talismanic kind of act (the way the NU Wildcats team of 1995 would sing “High Hopes” together after a practice) and look at whether or not a whole lot of public religious expressions in our society, like prayer before legislative sessions, Nativity scenes on public property, “God save this honorable court,” etc. have a role in which their content matters less than their existence and repetition. The other would focus on the church-state issue and its implications.

    But combined as they are, I also get a feeling of incompleteness after reading.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for playing along, Brett! Looks like you win the prize for commenting. Unfortunately, the prize is just my gratitude. :-)


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