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It's the latest thing: Ringed by TV minicams, a dozen or so fervent Christian players from both teams join at midfield after the game, drop to their knees, clasp hands, bow heads and pray. A stadium full of people and a national television audience are in attendance, whether they like it or not. You saw some New York Giants do it during the postseason, with a delegation of Chicago Bears. And you saw a group of Buffalo Bills do it with some Los Angeles Raiders after their AFC Championship Game.
I have a Jewish friend who is a big Giants fan, but these heaven huddles are getting to be too much for him. "I come to the game, and I root for the Giants, but that doesn't mean they have a right to shove their religion down my throat," he says. "Why can't they do that somewhere else?"
Why can't they do that somewhere else?
Howard Cross, the Giants' backup tight end and one of the team's Christians, says that doing it somewhere else would blow the whole message. "It's a testimony," he says. "We want people to notice. People hold athletes so high. We have the money, and we have the press, and if we want, we have the girls. But we want to show people that we need more than that. When we bow down, we're showing them that we're looking for more than this world has to offer. Some people think it's weak, but some people say, 'Boy, I'm really touched by that.' And if we touch one person, then it's worth it."
Personally, I think it's weak. I don't think your average fan goes to football games to be touched. I don't think that when he loads up the thermos and pays $10 to park, he's looking to get proselytized. The only conversions he cares about are extra points.
Sure, athletes are entitled to freedom of religion like anybody else. But let them exercise it on their own time. When Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who is not among the midfield huddlers, came off the field after New York's NFC championship win over the San Francisco 49ers, he ran to his locker, knelt in front of it and prayed. Fine. He was keeping it private. It wasn't his fault that a television camera followed him. In fact, athletes have been crossing themselves before at bats and free throws for years, and I can live with those fleeting, more or less reflexive displays of faith.
What I resent are elaborately orchestrated 50-yard-line religious sales pitches. I believe in my God as surely as you believe in yours, but I don't use my last paragraph to mention it, and my plumber doesn't inscribe it on his U joints. He simply fixes my sink and lets me worry about going down the spiritual drain. When you signed up to be a Giants fan or a Bills fan or whatever, you never figured that the players were going to try to reroute your allegiance toward their own version of the way God works.
Promotional prayer is wholly inappropriate to a sporting event, even if, as the players say, they are offering thanks that athletes on both sides survived the game without serious injury. But an outrageous Sunday service happened not after a game but during one. Two weeks ago, against the 49ers, Giants kicker Matt Bahr was lining up a 42-yard field goal try with four seconds left. A successful kick would put New York in the Super Bowl. During the timeout that preceded the kick, seven Giants knelt together and prayed hard for Bahr to split the uprights, which, as it turned out, he did.
Then a really outrageous service was held at Sunday's Super Bowl, where a group of Giants knelt and prayed as Bills kicker Scott Norwood attempted a 47-yarder, as time ran out, to win the game. Is praying for somebody to blow it very Christian? Does the Lord have something against Norwood?