An invocation by Father Edward Rupp at the dinner before the 1976 WHA All-Star game:
"Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie, we come before You this evening to seek Your blessing.... We are, thanks to You, All-Stars.
"We pray tonight for Your guidance. Keep us free from actions that would put us in the Sin Bin of Hell. Inspire us to avoid the pitfalls of our profession. Help us to stay within the blue line of Your commandments and the red line of Your grace. Protect us from being injured by the puck of pride. May we be ever delivered from the high stick of dishonesty. May the wings of Your angels play at the right and left of our teammates. May You always be the Divine Center of our team, and when our summons comes for eternal retirement to the heavenly grandstand, may we find You ready to give us the everlasting bonus of a permanent seat in Your coliseum.
"Finally, grant us the courage to skate without tripping, to run without icing, and to score the goal that really counts—the one that makes each of us a winner, a champion, an All-Star in the hectic Hockey Game of Life. Amen."
Until recently, the distasteful practice of having loquacious men of the cloth deliver pregame invocations larded with sporting lingo was restricted pretty much to the South and to football. But athletic religion is not so bashful anymore. Increasingly, public team prayer and public-address entreaties to the Divine Goalie or the Head Coach in the Sky are in evidence. Sportianity, as this brand of religion might best be called, is thoroughly evangelistic, using sport as an advertising medium. The idea is simple enough: first, convert the athletes, who are among the most visible individuals in our society; then, use these stars for what is generally known in the business as "outreach," an up-to-date rendering of the old-fashioned phrase "missionary work." To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.
A classic example is an inspirational comic book, written about the life of Tom Landry, the Dallas Cowboy coach who is also chairman of the national board of trustees of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the best-known and most influential of the Sportian organizations. In the comic book, Landry's bald head is never shown. He always has a hat on or, indoors, his pate is cleverly obscured by well-placed lampshades and word balloons. The problem is that he became prominent in Sportianity about the time he went bald, and Spire Christian Comics apparently does not want young readers to get the impression that being a witness to Jesus causes baldness. On the other hand, children are being led to believe that religious wisdom is revealed to the Western world through the National Football League. The comic implies that "God's Game Plan" is guaranteed—coming as it does "From the Blackboard of the Dallas Cowboys' Chapel Service." The plan is being peddled as orange drink or vitamins ("From the Training Table of the Dallas Cowboys") might be. Sportianity is a hard, clever sell.
Athletes are brought along carefully. Only natural ministers move right into the starting lineup. Dave Hannah, the president and founder of Athletes in Action, the jock arm of Campus Crusade for Christ, explains the group's redshirting of Terry Bradshaw. "We spent a long time considering whether Terry was there," Hannah says, "but now he's really coming along spiritually." The major Sportian organizations compete diligently for the best athletic outreachers, the big names that also will be hits at the religious box office.
Too often the star system becomes a numbers game. Sportianity seems mesmerized by numbers. Ben Patterson, an editor of The Wittenburg Door, a contemporary religious magazine, writes, "Look at the thousands who have come to Christ through the witness of a famous Christian athlete or entertainer. My reply is that if all the statistics of all the evangelistic crusades reported in just the last 10 years were accurate, then we would be living on a planet fully Christianized—several times over."
The most detailed statistics come from Baseball Chapel, which is coordinated by a retired sportswriter, Watson Spoelstra of Detroit. Spoelstra puts out a biweekly newsletter that provides Chapel stats every bit as detailed as those in
The Sporting News
. Chapel attendance last season soared to 6,434, which averages out to 260 a Sunday—and this without any special Bible Day or Cross Day giveaways. There were exactly 146 individuals who spoke in Baseball Chapel last season.
Pro Athletes Outreach boasts that 250,000 heard its speakers during a five-city tour in 1975. The Sports Ambassadors played before 139,400 fans last year. Athletes In Action teams packed in 700,000 spectators, with 125,000 of them filling out inquiry cards. And, from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes monthly: "Of the 70 delegates during one week, 26 indicated they found Christ as Savior and Lord, 29 made recommitments of their lives, and 22 said they would like to become involved in fulltime Christian service."