Six weeks ago, on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I (like many other now-devastated Seattleites) watched Jermaine Kearse score a touchdown for the Seahawks in overtime, winning the NFC championship game. The game had been a total letdown until well into the fourth quarter and none of us could believe it–fans outside my apartment screamed in victory and someone down the street set off fireworks.
As I did a victory lap around my living room and watched the crowd of camera crews and TV anchors stream onto the field, something made me stop. The camera was on Russell Wilson, who knelt in the middle of the crowd and held hands with a few other Seahawks players. And up in the top left corner of the screen, I saw the shiny green knee of a Green Bay Packer.
That football players were praying at all surprised me; I’m a big-games-only fan, and I’d never come across this before. But more confusingly, they were players from both teams. Holding hands and praying under the supervision of a man dressed in black. The team…pastor?
A little research revealed that prayer in the NFL is a relatively new tradition. Deseret News, a newspaper touting “rigorous journalism for family- and faith-oriented audiences,” traced the history of post-game dual-team prayer circles to a match-up in 1990, when players from the Giants and the 49er’s took a knee together after the game. The move was orchestrated by the chaplains from both teams, and the plan was approved by players. The Giants prayed with every team after that for the rest of the season, including the Bills, who they beat in the Super Bowl.
Since then, the practice has spread to other teams, including the Seahawks, whose chaplain, Dr. Karl Payne, has been running Bible studies and providing counsel to the team since 1995. Payne even encouraged the Hawks to make a DVD about their faith last year, according to CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The football players who kneel after a game are Christian, and the public prayer circle is a hallmark of evangelical Christianity. Because of the clear affiliation and the unclear message a prayer circle sends, fans have questioned the motives of this move since it began. Are the players trying to convert spectators? Are they trying to fix their generally un-Christian image? Are they making a statement? What, exactly, are they trying to say? Religion is a taboo topic in polite company, and some fans took offense when the Giants started praying in public. In a Sports Illustrated column from 1991, one commentator asked “Why can’t they do that somewhere else?” There was even a question as to whether the players would be fined by the league for fraternizing or excessive celebration.
In fact, it’s become commonplace. The tradition of a post-game Christian prayer circle is largely off the radar for the media these days. Though not every fan loves watching the display of devotion, the NFL only appears to notice when a non-Christian prays. Husain Abdullah of the Kansas City Chiefs was fined for “engaging in celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground” after he knelt and prayed on the field. Though the NFL later apologized, the moment revealed an unsavory truth about our culture: not every religion is treated as equal.
Sports are a microcosm of American culture. Battles over civil rights, gay rights, and yes, even religious rights, are reflected and reflect what happens in the country at large. No one would deny the importance of players like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball, or Michael Sam, the first openly gay Dallas Cowboy. When Abdullah was penalized, players and fans showed their support on Twitter, eventually shaming the NFL into doing the same.
When I watched the dual-team prayer circle on Sunday, I couldn’t help but feel my heart warming a little bit. Aww, I thought. Look at the big football players holding hands. I understand why some people don’t like seeing other people praying in public like this; it makes them feel left out, or it makes them feel as though they are being preached to. In the case of the NFL, it might seem like a ruse to distract viewers from the cruelty and crimes of other players. Maybe it reminds us of those evangelizers in the street with megaphones, yelling at us to save ourselves from sin (like the guy who faithfully stands outside Safeco Field before every Mariners baseball game). Maybe it just seems silly: why would God care about a stupid football game, much less one particular team playing it? He didn’t love the Seahawks enough to give them a Super Bowl win.
But whether or not you agree with their gestures, football players have a massive platform. All eyes are on them, and what they choose to do with this attention affects the thousands of viewers who watch. Abdullah Hussain reminded the US that not everyone is Christian. His fans and fellow players reminded us that everyone deserves respect. Those players who get together in a prayer circle are willing to put their faith into the limelight, despite criticism, because they believe in something. They remind us that not everyone thinks religion should be private. Whether or not we agree, it’s hard not to respect someone willing to share their private beliefs with thousands of strangers.
When he was done praying, Russell Wilson stood up, pulled on an NFC champion t-shirt, and offered up a sort of explanation for his faith. On television screens across the country and on the Jumbotron in the house of Boom, Wilson said, “God is good all the time, man.” Tears streamed down his face.
I don’t believe God is good all the time. But if it were me, I don’t think I would have had the guts to say what I do believe.