DOES GOD BELONG IN THE NFL? DOES KURT WARNER?


In Part II of the Writers' Bloc look at the intersection of sport and religion, several members of the WB -- including guest writer Bruce Deckert -- consider where religion fits in sports, if anywhere.

Warner's luck | From Ralph Wiley

Much like patriotism, religion is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Not that Kurt Warner is a scoundrel. He just plays one on certain TV, radio stations and pulpits in St. Louis.

Warner has been truly blessed in his football career. He should be thanking God for certain luxuries and the good fortune God has afforded to a man with all the abilities of a back-up: He has a Super Bowl ring, a multi-million dollar contract, two league MVP awards, an otherwordly QB rating, all basically handed to him on a silver platter when an uncomplaining workman named Trent Green was injured prior to the 1999 season and thus gave up the controls of a great extravagance of wide receivers named Bruce, Holt and Hakim, and an MVP of a running back named Marshall Faulk and a buffalo tackle named Orlando Pace. That's how Warner got in, and looked so good once he did. Even McNabb might have looked good with that.

Kurt Warner
Was Kurt Warner benched because of his strong religious convictions ... or his fumbling?

Warner had a run of luck. Joe Hardy, who did a deal with the Devil in "Damn Yankees," should have had such good luck. Warner was an Arena league QB, and last of five QBs on the Pack depth chart, lucky to be that high. But he persevered, no doubt through prayer, and was blessed, royally blessed, by God, good fortune, the Fates -- it took all of them to get him to the heights he attained, considering his abilities, or lack thereof.

Unless it was God disguised as Kurt Warner who has gone 0-7 with uncounted picks and fumbles in his last seven starts, Kurt Warner lost the QB job on his own to Marc Bulger. Now, instead of taking the true Christian way, and saying, as Marquis Grissom told John Schuerholz of the Braves, after Grissom, who'd helped the Atlanta Braves win their only world title, had been traded by Schuerholz, "Well ... thank you for letting me be an Atlanta Brave," Warner goes the way of the common egotistical Philistine, believing the position of starting quarterback for the Rams is his Divine Right. Only somebody tampering with the Will of God, and not using their own 20-20 vision, would ever take "His" job away from him.

It's always good to do a comparative religion study, as B-Lip has done, especially these days. But let's not miss the issue here. It's not about religion. It's about Kurt Warner.

Kurt the messenger | From Chuck Hirshberg

    "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."
    -- Proverbs 16:18M

    "I [am] living proof of the importance of having strong faith in God.... NFL experts have been trying to figure out the secret to my sudden success in the NFL. For me, it's easy and really has little to do with football ... Faith and family -- that is my formula for success."
    -- Kurt Warner, 1999

    "You know, Pride is a sin. Even if it's one that we tend to forgive."
    -- Elvis Costello

"Sermons ain't just for Sundays."

Who said that?

I said it. I, who am like unto a golden trumpet, set for angels' lips to blow! And Lord, even now, I feel a heavenly wind a-thrusting through my hinter-most parts!

Reader, don't you DARE touch the "BACK" button on your web browser! The HOLY SPIRIT commands you to heed the GREAT BLAST about to issue from my cheeks!

OK, I'm lying about the Holy Spirit. It's just me talkin'. But I still think you should read what I have to say about this Kurt Warner kerfuffle, because I know more about it than most folks.

See, I'm a professional journalist and, some years ago, professional duty required me to read every last page of Kurt Warner's memoir, "All Things Possible." It was an excruciating experience, a 258-page victory dance from a man drunk with self-delight and religious ecstasy. Believe me, the palaver of a professional athlete can be hard enough to tolerate if he thinks he's God's gift; but when he thinks he's not only God's gift, but His Messenger, too, it's enough to make you spit-up your Wheaties-and-milk. And, lo! Kurt Warner is such an athlete.

But before I sound an odiferous blast at that prideful quarterback, let me get really sincere on your ass for just a minute, and tell you a tiny bit about my religion. I believe that God, if She exists, has sent us many wonderful messengers, including Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer. But I just cannot find the faith within me to believe that Kurt Warner is one of those messengers. God may strike me dead for saying so, but that's a risk I'm prepared to take.

You know, the Lord has gifted us with many words to describe people who believe they are messengers of God, but are not. They are called "deluded" or "crazy" or "celebrities." But Kurt's case is especially advanced. Turns out, he was not only angry with his coaches for taking away his starting job, but also with the Lord of Hosts Himself. According to the Baptist Press, Warner was exasperated enough with his benching to demand of Jehovah: "God, how could You allow this to happen? I thought I was over the fact of being a backup."

Was this a sign that ... maybe God doesn't much care who starts at QB for the St. Louis Rams?

Of course not! It was all part of God's plan. You see, God wanted Kurt "to use this greater platform for Him." As Warner points out, a lesser man might have reacted to the indignity of a benching by deserting God. But not Kurt. His faith is made of stronger stuff than that! "If you can stand up for your faith when you're on top," he explains, "you can stand up for it now that you're at the bottom." Not everyone would consider getting paid millions to sit on an NFL bench "the bottom." But I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Am I being too hard on Kurt? Um ... yes. But like him, I find solace in scripture. This nugget is taken from the book of H. L. Mencken, atheist and Baltimore sports fan:

    "We must respect the other fellow's religion. But only to the extent that we respect his opinion that his wife is beautiful and his children are smart."
    --H.L. Mencken

Amen to that.

A convenient excuse? | From Tim Keown

I know a guy who says he doesn't make an important decision in his life until he prays long enough to get an answer from God. The amazing thing is, every decision he makes serves his own self-interest. In other words, God never disagrees with what he wanted to do in the first place, which makes it a pretty convenient relationship.

So here's Kurt Warner, saying his outspoken faith cost him his job. Not interceptions or fumbles or losses -- faith.

This strikes me as pretty convenient, too. Warner can shed the burden of performance and cast someone else (Mike Martz) in the role of the devil. In the end, what we have here, fellow believers, is just another obstacle to overcome. With God's help, anything is possible. (There aren't many sure things when it comes to faith, but I can almost guarantee one thing: When Warner gave his speech in a Houston church, the majority of the folks in the audience nodded and "mmm-hmm"ed in agreement. The struggle is part of the appeal.)

We're a little uncomfortable with religion in general, and even more so when religion and sports come together. It's an individual thing, and that goes triple for the guys who play our games. You could see that as hypocritical, given the way we've wrapped our sports in religious trappings -- the stadium as cathedral, the athlete as hero/saint, the fan as acolyte. It's logical to expect the athlete to skew things a little along the way, to see God as an entity that somehow cares about wins and losses.

A zealot is someone who redoubles his efforts after forgetting his goal. I wish I could credit the source of that brilliant line, but I googled to no avail. As Warner tries to work his way out of his self-inflicted mess, the message seems fitting.

An exchange | Eric Neel & Jim Caple

Eric Neel: I don't know exactly where religion belongs in sports, but I know where it doesn't belong: postgame interviews.

Sideline reporter: "What kind of adjustments did you guys make in the second half?"

Athlete: "I just thank my Lord and savior ..."

It's not that a fella shouldn't have convictions and shouldn't love his god, it's that he shouldn't cheapen those convictions and that love by pushing them like a wacky used car salesman.

Is anyone moved by these professions? I doubt it. The converted are already converted. The non-believers? They're just cringing, laughing, walking into the next room. If you believe in something, good for you.

If that belief fuels your competitive juices, more power to you. If you and I are having a conversation about how and why you take the risks and reach the heights that you do, and you tell me about your abiding faith, even if I'm an atheist or an agnostic, even if I can't imagine feeling what you feel, I respect your commitment and your spirit.

But if you lean into a mic in the frenzied aftermath of a football game and think this is the time and the place to "testify," you look like a clown, and all you hold dear, all you want me to take seriously, comes off nutty, frivolous and cultish.

Jim Caple: But if you truly believe, and if your religion instructs you to spread the word, why should you avoid expressing yourself when you have the same forum for which advertisers pay millions of dollars to spread the word about beer, SUVs and Viagra? It isn't cheapening your convictions; it's just using the world's most powerful medium to get a message across to millions. If you reach one person out of a 30 million TV audience or one person in a 12-person chapel, what does it matter? If you don't like hearing their message, do what everyone else does anyway. Change the channel and watch a Simpson's rerun instead.

Eric Neel: Because you end up looking like the folks spreading the word about beer, SUVs and Viagra. Because you make faith a commodity rather than a conviction. And because you get the same jaded, cynical response from your viewers that the beer pitchmen get from theirs.

Jim Caple: But don't those guys sell a lot of beer, SUVs and Viagra? Faith is only a conviction if you have it. These athletes are simply offering it up a possibility for the masses.

Eric Neel: True, but in a context that makes it seem less like a possibility and more like a pitch.

Religion and sports? Of course | From Bruce Deckert

OK, WBers, but you still haven't answered the question: Does religion have a place in sports?

Let's answer with further questions: Does blue have a place in the sky? Does dirt have a place in the ground? Does water have a place in the ocean?

And one more: Do human beings have a place in sports? Because if you want to remove religion from sports, you'll need to ban humans from playing.

Before anyone looks for a link to send those what-on-earth-are-you-thinking e-mails, let's define terms (then you can send your e-mails).

First, we must define religion.

In a postmodern society, we tend to think of religion as an approach to life that involves faith in God. Therefore, those who practice Judaism, Christianity, Islam or another established faith are considered religious people. This does jibe with one of the definitions for religion in my Webster's Desk Dictionary: "an institutionalized system of religious beliefs and worship."

But there's another definition of religion that is both more accurate and more inclusive: Religion is that which a human being ultimately values. Or, as another Webster's entry says, religion is "something a person believes in devotedly."

And everybody is devoted to something.

At a superficial glance, an atheist appears to be nonreligious. But even atheists are devoted to something or someone they value more than anything else in life -- a spouse or a bank account or, perhaps, the Yankees. By this definition, Dennis Rodman is as religious as Kurt Warner, because everyone is religious.

So the interweaving of religion and sports is inescapable -- and it holds true for every athlete, coach and fan.

You might dislike such an inclusive view of religion, preferring the narrower definition instead. Even so, it's impossible for athletes who profess faith in God to separate religion and sports. Athletes who believe in God see life as based on and permeated by God's presence. So to debate whether such an athlete's religion has a place in sports is like debating whether a swimmer should compete while in the water.

In fact, all athletes carry their values and belief systems -- their religions -- with them when they step between the lines. There's no escaping it, because (as some philosophers have noted) the nature of human nature is to worship.

The only question is: What or whom will we worship?