Prayer and Football or, “Did God Cost the Saskatchewan Roughriders the 2009 Grey Cup?”

Prayer and Football or, “Did God Cost the Saskatchewan Roughriders the 2009 Grey Cup?” November 30, 2009

Yesterday my hometown team lost the championship game in the Canadian Football League in the most heart-wrenching way possible.  Overwhelming underdogs going into the game (the opposing Montreal Alouettes had finished the season 15-3, but could easily have been 17-1, had they not rested their all-star quarterback for one game and lost another on a blown call), my Roughriders did not trail until after the last second had ticked off the clock.  They did not trail for 60 minutes and they still lost.  Let me explain.

After taking a 17-3 lead into the half and a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter, things were looking good.  Even when Montreal started to rally (with the score now 27-11), it looked like too little, too late.  They needed two touchdowns and two two-point converts just to tie.  They got the first TD with the convert, but when they got the second, they could not convert.  My team had a two-point lead and the ball with just over a minute to go.  (With a 20-second time clock and only three downs, running out the clock was not an option.)  After a two-and-out deep in our own zone, we needed a great punt to keep them out of field goal range – and we got it.  Not only did our punter launch the ball, their returner bobbled the catch and they recovered again behind their own 35.  It would take a miracle for Montreal to win now.  Little did we know that God was an Alouette fan.

A couple plays later, with no time left on the clock, Als kicker Damon Duval had a chance to win the game from the 43-yard line.  The snap, the kick and . . . he’s wide right.  Riders win!  Riders win! Riders win!  The perennial underdog, the community-owned franchise, everyone’s second favorite team, the team that sells more merchandise than the rest of the league combined (in Saskatchewan every baby gets a stuffed Gainer Gopher when they’re born; my oldest got two), has won just their 4th championship in 100 years!  To put this in perspective, it’s only an 8-team league.  Everyone one of us will remember exactly where we were when this happened.

Well, at least that last sentence will stand.

Football is the most team of the team sports.  And in this most team of team sports, it is almost fitting that the flags flew on a team penalty.  Bill Buckner would be oddly jealous of how my Riders lost.  “Too many men, Saskatchewan.  10 yard penalty.  Repeat first down.”  Would you believe that Saskatchewan had been the least penalized team in the league this year?  Duval didn’t make the same mistake twice, and Montreal, as everyone had expected before kick-off, won the 2009 Grey Cup.

It is an odd sensation to watch the other team’s players thanking God so profusely for what feels to you like a kick in the groin.  All-star quarterback, and surefire first-ballot hall-of-famer, Anthony Calvillo insisted that the first order of business was to thank “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (as a Catholic theologian, I take some small solace in the fact that he said “our” instead of “my”).  Kicker Duval, who had shanked two punts in the first half and missed the first of his two last-second field goal attempts, told us that the “big guy upstairs” had other plans than for him be the goat.

And sitting in front of our TVs, devout (in both the sporting and religious sense) Rider fans were faced with the question, “Was it God’s will for our guys to lose?  And to lose like that?”

Football players (even coaches) are a notoriously religious bunch.  In no other sport do members of opposing squads meet for prayer after games.  In no other sport do we see so many televised team prayers.  Maybe it has something to do with the game’s strong roots in the American south.  I really don’t know.

What I do know is that team sports put God in an awful conundrum.  Surely he loves all involved and wants what is best for each.  But here we have created a scenario where what is best for one team is worst for the other.  What’s a deity to do?

I have been a part of many conversations that insist something like, “God has more important things to worry about.”  Why would he bother with Grey Cup, when there are children starving in Africa?  But this is quite anthropomorphic.  It’s not like Africa takes up all God’s time.  The Christian conviction is, rather, that God is actually deeply concerned with the most intimate details in the lives of each of his beloved creatures, and for many of those creatures, football is pretty important.  Some of us even count on it to feed our families.

Furthermore, if God is ignoring Grey Cup to work on Africa, why is it still such a bloody mess?  Did he take some time off to enjoy the game, or is he just incompetent?

All of the standard argumentation about God and sports seems to me to be based on false ideas about what (or who) God is, and how God relates to creation.  It goes back to standard Christian teaching about providence and prayer.

Catholics insist both that humans have free will and that God’s will will be done in spite of this.  No matter what we do, we can’t gum up the works.  Even Adam and Eve, with all their blundering, could not avoid winning for us so great a Savior.  Thomas Aquinas tells us that this is because God does not operate in the world by altering secondary causes but by granting to each secondary cause its potency.  As primary cause, God supports everything in existence as existing, but does not make kickers miss field goals, or players run onto the field when they shouldn’t.

Or, as Augustine puts it, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  God does not relate to creation in the same way in which the different parts of creation relate to each other.  When we treat God as simply one more actor in history, however powerful, we have stopped using the word ‘God’ in a meaningful way (except when discussing the Incarnation, when God actually was a creature and an actor in history in the manner to which we are accustomed).

The upshot is that the results of football games are the product of human free will working with the God-given raw material of existence.  They are not the result of divine interventions in the regular working out of physical laws, nor the result of some divine clouding of enemy minds.

So, given that God also wants what is best for the Riders and did nothing to alter the outcome of the game, is it all right for Anthony Calvillo to thank Our Lord when he wins a championship?

I think the answer depends on what he means to do by such thanking.  Let’s think about life in general.  Do you thank God that you got a job?  That you got into the school you always hoped for?  That you missed the plane that crashed?  I should hope that you do, but in each case someone else lost out.  If you got a job, someone else is still unemployed.  If you are going to Harvard, someone else got a rejection letter.  That plane wasn’t empty.  And when the Alouettes won the Cup, my Riders lost.

If the implication is that God dislikes the Roughriders (or that he really had it out for that other jerk who applied for the same job as you), such thanking is non-sense.  And that’s what it looks like to a Rider fan that just saw his team lose the biggest possible game in the worst possible way.  But of course this is not what Calvillo intends.  He is thanking God the same way as you or I when we get a job.  The difference is that the loser in our situation is invisible, not hunched on the sidelines or staring off in disbelief.

But praise and thanks are just half of prayer.  The other half involves what theologians call supplication.  In other words, asking for stuff.  How many of us have thrown up a real Hail Mary when the game is on the line?  I have.

We are constantly asking God for things that are much more trivial than to feed the starving children in Africa.  And we should.  We are told to pray without ceasing and to bring all our needs before the Lord.  We are assured that nothing is too small for God.  But how is God to respond when 5 of his children are praying for one job?  Or when two of his favorite teams are praying for the same championship?  (In the first example you can cop out and say he can make 5 jobs, but that doesn’t work in the second.  It is impossible, by definition, to have two champions.  That’s what makes boxing such a joke.)

I think that the answer begins when we recognize that praying (and supplication in particular) is more about acclimating ourselves to reality than getting what we think we need.  Every Christian prayer ends with “Amen,” that is, “Thy will be done.”  The fruit of prayer is the gift of being able to see reality from God’s perspective.  That is why there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer.  Even when God says “No,” as he logically must in the case of winning a sporting event, he is still answering – whether we choose to listen or not.

It is the Christian conviction that we must give thanks to God in all things.  We all know those saints in our lives that manage to do this.  The person who can thank God when they fall and break a hip.  The one who glorifies the Lord in their illness or unemployment.  The grieving parents who praise God that they were given just a month, or a day or an hour with their now dead child.  The conviction that all things work together for the good of those who love God, sometimes in ways that we cannot understand before Judgment Day, means that we must all learn to say with Job, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The real question is not whether Christian athletes can thank God for victory.  Of course they can.  And they should.  The real question is “How do we form people who will thank God in defeat?”

Maybe, just maybe, one Rider fan had a terrible weekend.  He had a huge fight with his wife.  He swore and yelled in front of his kids.  He lost his temper in public and embarrassed himself in front of his neighbors.  And he settled in for the game thinking, “At least one thing has to go right for me this weekend.”

And maybe, after watching his team lose in a way that the most devious (archrival) Blue Bomber fan could not have scripted, that fan came home and saw his sleeping children and thanked God for them.

Stranger things have happened.

God can make robes out of rags and grace will squeeze its way into the world through the slightest of cracks.  Losing the Grey Cup does not mean being out of God’s favor.  It might be the way that God shows his favor even to the losers.

At least that’s what I’ll tell myself until next year.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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