Clearly, the trickiest thing in mixing religion with sport is the matter of asking God for victory. It is a no-no to do so, but, unfortunately, it is quite common for athletes to get carried away and to pray precisely for that. "He's just an overly enthusiastic baby Christian," Billy Zeoli, the inspirational chapel speaker, said after a pro football player came flat-out in pregame prayers and asked Jesus to give his team a win. "Please don't get on him." Zeoli, however, felt it was unnecessary to discuss the impropriety of a victory prayer with the player. The line can be a fine one. When Kermit Zarley, one of the outspoken Christians on the PGA tour, won the Canadian Open a few years ago, he credited his success to God for having found him a new driver. Now, if that was not quite like saying that God hit tee shots for Kermit Zarley, the implication was clear that Zarley won the Canadian Open because God hung around pro shops with him when he was hunting for new clubs. Regrettably, whatever Sportianity is trying to project, the public often has another impression. Most viewers believe that teams assembling for a televised prayer after a victory are Pharisees, thanking God, paying Him off for getting them another big one in the W column. A poll of young Christian athletes, teen-agers who have been specifically instructed by the movement, asked, "What does it mean to be a Christian athlete?" The response most often received was, "To have God on my side." Jesus, it seems, is coming across as the next best thing to a home-court advantage.
At the same time, no one in the movement advises athletes to pray for victory. On the contrary, the try ethic, epitomized by Christ's Total Release Performance at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, is almost universally taught. The message is virtually the same all over: try your hardest, and then, win or lose, you will not be in conflict with Christian tenets. The favorite scripture comes from Paul, who is heard so regularly that he has become rather like the Curt Gowdy of Sportianity—and not only because both tend to get windy. The essence of Paul's endorsement of competition and Total Release Performance is found in 1 Corinthians 9:24, which quotes him thus in a modern paraphrase text of the New Testament: "Surely you know that in a race all the runners take part in it, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize." Also cited regularly are Paul's familiar words from 2 Timothy 4:7: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." Unfortunately, Paul's most direct statement about athletics (1 Timothy 4:7-8) does not fit in Sportianity, so it is never quoted: "...exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little."
Malcolm Boyd, Episcopal priest and author of the best-seller Are You Running With Me, Jesus?, replies to the try ethic, "If you're into triumphalism as a theory, then it follows that the important thing to you is to win, even if you camouflage that by saying that you're merely trying. You feel that God is on your side. You may not pray those words, but you can't tell me it's not in your heart—whether it's Vietnam we're talking about or Ohio State.
"Who was that swimmer—you know, the Olympic guy? Yes, right—Mark Spitz. Isn't that funny how quickly we've forgotten him? I'll tell you why—I'll tell you when he lost all respect: at the very instant he reached his peak, when he crawled out of the water after his last gold medal and said he never wanted to swim again.
"What is the point of swimming, of doing anything, just for the sake of trying to win? Certainly, Jesus didn't want that, and it is audacious for these guys to say it. In Gethsemane, and there hanging on the cross, Jesus didn't ask to win. In fact, his thoughts turned to the needs of others.
"Besides, I've had enough of this trying nonsense. I've seen so many kids wounded by it. It is this kind of trying, the kind that this athletic religion teaches, which is killing off so many men, leaving widows. It is very dangerous right now to be trying harder. It is making us more machinelike instead of more human. We'd do better to learn how not to try so."
The Sportians stick close to a you-and-Jesus, one-on-one theology. "Don't allow your group to stray too far off course from the Christ theme," the FCA advises its leaders (Tip No. 5). Don Cutler disagrees with the movement's lack of social concern: "If the New Testament says anything, it is that this man poured Himself out for you, and now it is your responsibility to pour yourself out for others. It is not a question of His taking care of you, whatever—your having no obligations other than signing up for the big Christian team."
Sadly, lost in the shuffle, in the competition for dotted-line converts (sign here, raise your hand, send for literature), is sport itself. In the process of dozens of interviews with people in Sportianity, not one even remotely suggested any direct effort was being considered to improve the morality of athletics. An active churchman, who has long been involved in pro sport, says, "The trouble with these people is that they worship sport as much as they do Jesus. They are so thrilled to be working with hotshot stars that they can see nothing wrong with athletics. They don't want to. I'm afraid that it is not religion that has come into sport, but athletic groupies."
More than a decade ago a deeply religious pitcher named Allan Worthington protested that he would quit the Chicago White Sox unless the club stopped stealing opponents' signals by illegal means. Since that time players in all leagues have struck righteously for more money, more benefits, more power. But not until five months ago, when Bobby Hull refused to suit up for a hockey game in protest against the violence in his sport and in fear that someone might be killed, has a single player dared put himself publicly on the line against something he considered ethically remiss.
Sportianity casts stones at players like Joe Namath for personal behavior. Dave Hannah of Athletes In Action is still angry that Lance Rentzel was doing work in Sportianity at a time when he was having deep psychological disturbances; Hannah thinks that Rentzel was inconsiderate in bringing such bad sexual publicity to the movement. But no one in the movement—much less any organization—speaks out against the cheating in sport, against dirty play; no one attacks the evils of recruiting, racism or any of the many other well-known excesses and abuses. Sport owns Sunday now, and religion is content to lease a few minutes before the big games. Religion seems to have become a support force for athletics, like broadcasters, trainers, cheerleaders and ticket-sellers. John Morley, a British statesman, wrote, "Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat." As long as it can work the territory, Sportianity seems prepared to accept athletics as is, more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.