OLD JOKE: Vince Lombardi is lying in bed with his wife on a cold winter night.
"God," she says, "it's freezing in here."
"My dear," Lombardi replies, "when we're alone like this, it's O.K. to call me Vince."
The truth is, Lombardi almost had reason to think so highly of himself. For if sports has risen to the level of religion in America—and this book, The Gospel According to ESPN, argues persuasively that it has—then the men and women who perform on its grandest stages must be regarded as prophets, angels, devils, gods and demigods. The case is made here by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Peter Carlson, Le Anne Schreiber and Ralph Wiley. Their arguments are presented with enough humor to avoid blasphemy and enough seriousness to convince you that they may be onto something.
In the editor's note Jay Lovinger points out that the Reverend Billy Graham and onetime Miracle Mets reliever Tug McGraw have essentially the same message: "You gotta believe." What's more, notes Thompson, there's a long-standing American belief best summed up by infamous Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes: "Sports and religion have made America what it is today." Plimpton adds that the detritus left behind by athletes is preserved with the same awe reserved for saintly relics. Bobby Orr's knee brace is displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and the bowl and the spoon that Joe Montana used to slurp his chicken soup before his heroics in the 1979 Cotton Bowl can be viewed at Notre Dame.
The book goes on in this amusing vein, aided by a rich collection of photographs. In the end no tome on this subject can avoid confronting sports' longest-standing theological question: Is it O.K. to pray for victory?
The best answer was given by boxer Beau Jack, a lightweight champ from the 1940s who emphatically said, "No."
"Suppose I pray to win," Jack explained, "and the other boy prays to win too. What's God gonna do?"