Coach God

When did The Man Upstairs start caring so much about sports?

At games' end, the Cleveland Rockers don't collect at half-court to bow in prayer. If they did, team chaplain Alice Simpson says she'd join them -- despite orders from management: "I was told, 'Alice, you will never go down and do that.'"

Apparently, the Rockers' front office mistrusts such a public display of reverence, as pervasive as it is. Half-court and midfield prayers have become a sports ritual, on par with taking it one game at a time. Knees bend and hands clasp as players thank the Big Headset in the Sky.

While postgame prayer circles are a relatively recent phenomenon, sports and religion have a long history together. The YMCA preached salvation through sound bodies. As a young evangelist, Billy Graham invited athletes to speak at his tent revivals. Notre Dame, Sandy Koufax, and Muhammad Ali came to manifest jockstrapped forms of their respective faiths.

God has come a long way since Chariots of Fire. Now, athletes not only have His blessing to play on the Sabbath, they glorify Him by intercepting passes. When contracts are signed and trophies exchanged, it's almost a given that the good Lord will get credit. Sportswriters don't blink when athletes testify to Jesus's power. Even Allen Iverson wears a What Would Jesus Do? bracelet.

This is not by accident. In the '50s and '60s, evangelical parachurches, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, began providing believing athletes a support system. Muscular Christianity got chic. Winners could be witnesses. "Just like they needed to be coached in the sport, they needed to be mentored in their faith," says Tom Petersburg, the Athletes in Action rep who ministers to the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians.

Catering to athletes might seem an elitist calling (there is no Fellowship of Christian Beer Vendors), but that's the point. Petersburg says professional athletes have a unique platform to share their faith. They endorse products, so why not a lifestyle?

But they can also fall a long way. The fame, money, and travel open a door to sin that few can comprehend. "We're all made with a desire to know God. The problem with pro sports is, you have so many things filling that vacuum," Petersburg says.

He carries himself with the mannered reserve of his native Iowa. After college, he joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ. He moved to Cleveland in 1979 to work with athletes. Browns coach Sam Rutigliano and Indians slugger Andre Thornton helped him establish credibility. Then and now, he's had to allay fears that he's a bug-eyed zealot or a jock sniffer. Team chaplains "who are in there just because they love sports probably won't make it," he says.

Much has changed since the days of the Cardiac Kids. Scrubs make millions. Free agency and salary caps force roster shuffling. Yet for all the talk about sports being a business, angels roam the outfield in legion. Chapel services for the Browns and Indians average between 12 and 15 players. Jerry Butler, the Browns' director of player development, says Bible studies are more crowded than when he played for the Buffalo Bills in the '80s. "You think they read the newspaper? A lot of them are reading spiritual things."

Browns kicker Phil Dawson, a chapel and Bible study regular, says faith enables him to take the field with a clear head. "I think it helps me perform better, to be honest, just because I'm not stressed out about what's going to eventually happen to me. The Lord's going to provide, and I go out there and relax and play."

Many athletes cite God reflexively. "I'm blessed" is a pleasant way to say, "I'm better at this than 99.99 percent of the population." It also allows athletes to wear a cape of civility. If done for the glory of God, blindsiding a quarterback doesn't seem so barbaric. "If your motivation is to let people know you do this for the Lord, I think it's great," Dawson says. "But if your motivation for saying that is 'Hey, I'm a good guy; look at me, God's blessed me,' I don't know if the Lord respects that or not."

Other invocations of the Lord's name bespeak arrogance and victimology. St. Louis Rams Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce spoke as if Jesus were moving the first-down chains on their way to the Super Bowl. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis compared his prosecution for double murder to Christ's suffering. The New York Times Sunday Magazine sat in on a Knicks Bible study, where guard Charlie Ward said, "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day."

As for players who believe in a God who gives a hoot about wins, Petersburg and Simpson seem to regard them as a parent might look on a precocious child. Petersburg calls the God who supposedly decides game outcomes the "genie in the bottle." To Simpson, it's religion distilled to a "rabbit's foot." Still, while Simpson may never pray for a win, she is leading the Rockers through A Prayer for Jabez, the best-seller that has been criticized for advancing the notion that God rewards his favorites with riches.

"He's not a good-luck charm," says Indians catcher Ed Taubensee, who occasionally leads Bible study when the team is on the road. "He's already given us the gift to play."

Butler, who played receiver for the Bills, speaks with the wisdom of retirement: "I don't think He designed us with football in mind. If He did, our knees would go in different directions."

Adds Dawson: "I don't think God cares if the Browns win the Super Bowl or not. He really doesn't. But I think He cares about how the Browns conduct themselves along the way."

Shortly before Ward's fanged comments were printed, his coach, Jeff Van Gundy, complained that God and golf were the two worst things to happen in the NBA. Van Gundy was bothered by the team pastor free-ranging in the locker room and the interclub fraternization Christianity seemed to inspire. (Unlike in other sports, NBA players from opposing teams attend the same chapel.)

Petersburg defends Van Gundy's need to preserve the locker room as a workplace. He and others, however, reject the assumption that faith in the divine makes athletes soft. "The connotation is that, if you're a Christian, you can't be a hard-nosed ballplayer," Andre Thornton says. Fourteen years removed from his playing days, he sounds ready to mix it up. "I'll be glad to go face-to-face with anybody."

Another criticism is that evangelicals create schisms in locker rooms already split between black and white, offense and defense, native- and foreign-born. The San Francisco Giants and Minnesota Twins have both dismantled squads for fear that evangelicals had created bad team karma.

"That's definitely one of the cliques, among many," Dawson says. "Here in Cleveland, we have a lot of good guys. Everyone's pretty open. To the credit of the guys who are the 'Christian clique,' they do a great job reaching out to others, saying, 'Look, we may not do the things you do, but you're our teammate. You're our friend. We're not going to alienate you, and hopefully you won't alienate us.'"

Petersburg concedes that religion is a divisive topic. "If a player is abrasive in his faith, I'll pull him aside and ask what he's after."

None of these debates -- is the midfield prayer a show of faith or just a show? -- will be settled soon. Even the chaplains differ. Petersburg calls postgame prayers in the middle of the arena a "player-driven deal"; Simpson would be happy to join the Rockers at center court, even as team management frowns upon it.

"Right now," Simpson says, "there's some skepticism of pro-sports ministry."

Where does it come from? she is asked.

"It's Satan. It's the work of the evil one."

Perhaps. A dark force could explain the fat ring on Art Modell's finger.