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Religion in Sport
Frank Deford
April 19, 1976
Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series
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April 19, 1976

Religion In Sport

Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series

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The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which is the patriarch of Sportianity, does not subsidize teams, but uses older athletes to bring younger ones to Christ, mainly at summer sports camps ($110 a week) and in high school group sessions known as "Huddles." The FCA's annual budget is $2.2 million, and its president, John Erickson, refers to it as a "para-church."

For years, some coaches who are not members have complained that the Fellowship—which bills itself as the "muscle and action" of Christianity—operates as a powerful lobby when one of its member coaches is up against an outsider for a job. As a result, there are coaches who feel that they have to protect themselves by signing on as FCA members. "It's like getting a union card," says one. "If you don't join, some coaches in the Fellowship will bad-mouth you with kids they're recruiting, tell 'em you're a drunk or your marriage is breaking up. I know, because kids I've recruited told me."

Another substantial organization, Pro Athletes Outreach, was founded largely as an intramural peace-keeping force because the giants of Sportianity, AIA and FCA, were squabbling so indecorously over enlisting the best missionary athletes. It was an outgrowth of Sports World Chaplaincy, Inc. but is now a thriving operation with an annual budget of $250,000, and it sends phalanxes of pros off on what it calls "speaking blitzes" of the U.S. The PAO stars also entertain with flag football games, tugs-of-war, wrist-wrestling and other fun games.

The movement has grown so that it has even spawned a think tank, the Institute for Athletic Perfection, which formulates dogma for athletic religion. Moreover, the presses of Sportianity are flooding the market with pamphlets, books, newsletters, magazines, even comic books and films (A Man & His Men, featuring Tom Landry.... "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the impact of a Christian life"). Athletes In Action sends out taped vignettes and interviews that have been played on more than 150 radio stations. It established a national television network for its top basketball team this past season, with John Wooden mike-side.

Sport and religion were not total strangers before all this began. Billy Sunday, the turn-of-the-century evangelist, was a reformed weak-hitting major league outfielder. Dr. James Naismith was a seminarian before he invented basketball at the YMCA. C. T. Studd, a millionaire British missionary, was the progenitor of groups like Athletes In Action. Studd was a great cricket player who agreed to make a tour of army garrisons in India if he could preach after his innings. And remember Deacon Dan Towler? The Vaulting Vicar, Bob Richards? The House of David baseball team? Other athletes went on to the ministry when their playing days were done: Albie Pearson, Donn Moomaw, Henry Carr. Bill Glass, the former All-Pro end, is now one of the nation's top evangelists. Jerry Lucas, whose previous enterprises included fast food and magic, has opened up Memory Ministries, a nonprofit organization that will instruct the nimble-minded, for a $20 fee, in memorizing all 89 chapters of the four Gospels. Lucas' new book, Remember The Word, has sold almost 60,000 copies.

But religion rarely intruded into sport in the past except in the occasional instance of a player who refused to perform on a holy day—Sandy Koufax was probably the most famous and most recent. Hank Greenberg was another. But Cassius Clay's conversion to the Black Muslims provoked a cause c�l�bre in sport. Later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found his life endangered when he was caught in the middle of an interdenominational Muslim war. Alvin Dark—"Preacher Dark" and " Sister Dark" to Charles Finley—lost his job as manager of Finley's A's in large part for taking to a pulpit and suggesting that his boss would go to hell if he didn't let Christ enter his heart. A few Muslims claim that certain Jewish basketball owners have blackballed some of them because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some teams, notably the 1974 Kansas City Chiefs, have been disrupted by overzealous God Squadders trying to push hellfire and brimstone on the whole team.

That religion should suddenly be a factor in sport while its influence elsewhere is declining is not the paradox it seems. Certain members of the religious community have quite openly set out to mine athletics. The belief in these ecclesiastical pockets is that athletes need special spiritual assistance, that they are especially vulnerable to preaching and, finally and most important, that they are ideal instruments to be used in bringing others into the fold. Addressing the Cincinnati Reds at chapel at Fenway Park during the World Series last October, the Rev. Billy Zeoli, the biggest individual star in Sportianity, told the players, "I hope you have a concept of how much you affect people, how they look up to you. Let me remind you that your national influence on youth is greater than that of any single pastor, priest or rabbi."

Arlis Priest, the head of Pro Athletes Outreach, is convinced that athletes can strongly influence moral and religious life in the United States. Among the sincere, dedicated men in athletic religion, surely none is more sincere or dedicated than Priest. Converted in a foxhole in France ("Every man I saw die talked about mother or God"), Priest is known as Uncle Arlis to the 90 or so NFL players who form the heart of his organization. Priest was a baseball aspirant before World War II, good enough to merit a Double A tryout; afterward, he was a successful real estate broker before giving his life over to the lay ministry. Now gray-haired and distinguished, he is a dead ringer for Harry Reasoner. At PAO headquarters near Phoenix, Priest speaks evenly, almost dispassionately, but there is conviction and emotion in what he says. He explains how athletes are crucial to saving America:

"We're losing. We've lost our perspective, turning to drugs, free sex—and did you know there are now 26,000 suicides a year? And here we are, more blessed than any nation in the history of the world. Do we really think we're that much smarter that we can turn away from God? Well, professional athletes can reach the people who want to find God, who want to be Christians, but don't know how to. Particularly the young people—they'll listen to athletes. Pros have the right background. Why, they're probably the most disciplined group of people left in this country. They're dedicated, they're taught to play as part of a team, and they're willing to pay the price. This is what we need in America.

"Two years from now I expect to have half the professional athletes as Christians. Yes, half. I will be disappointed if we don't have half. And then, as Romans 1:16 says, the power is in the Gospel, and it is the athletes in our society who can best carry that message."

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