Pluralism on the Field

This Sunday, when you settle into your easy chair for that great annual American extravaganza--the Super Bowl--you'll probably see some great football. But one thing you won't see is athletes praying. And here's why. Over the past several years, Christian athletes have grown increasingly outspoken about their faith. The Washington Redskins has so many Christians that when they trounced the Detroit Lions last year, one newspaper announced, "The Lions were thrown to the Christians last night." The report mentioned halfback Earnest Byner's conversion, and his baptism in Darrell Green's Jacuzzi. Byner joins Art Monk, Charles Mann, and several other team mates in his open profession of faith. But this new boldness is not always well received. Christian athletes sometimes get razzed by their teammates. Like the time Brett Butler talked about his conversion to Christ in the Giants' clubhouse--and someone turned on a laugh machine. But the most hostile critics are in the media. After last year's Super Bowl, a scathing article appeared in Sports Illustrated, attacking athletes who pray publicly. Christians on various teams had been meeting on the field to pray. And during the Super Bowl, a small group of New York Giants knelt together on the sidelines. The writer for Sports Illustrated was incensed by it all. Praying during a game, he argued, is coercive--the players are imposing their beliefs on a captive audience. Millions of television viewers are being subjected, he said, "whether they like it or not," to the spectacle of grown men bowing their heads in prayer. Shocking. The writer urged the NFL to ban the prayers. I don't know if the NFL officials read the article but they followed its recommendations to a T. League owners voted to ban prayer sessions on the field. Players may still pray in locker rooms or kneel in the end zone after a touchdown. But organized prayers are now verboten. This raises serious questions about our understanding of pluralism and freedom. Just who is doing the coercing here? There's no coercion when a camera picks up a group of athletes praying. No one is forcing the television viewer to pray. Or even to watch. If they object, viewers can just switch the channel, or turn the TV off. Isn't that what people always tell Christians? When Christians turn on the TV and find comedy acts or movies that mock religion, we're told we're free not to watch. We're told that's pluralism. The very suggestion that maybe actors should stop saying certain things in public raises accusations of censorship. But the very same people demand that athletes stop saying certain things in public. Like prayers. What happened to pluralism this time? The pluralism argument goes both ways. If we allow freedom for religious criticism, we have to allow freedom for religious expression. A little more religious expression might not be a bad thing for sports. Athletes have always had a reputation for hard drinking and skirt chasing. Today we're constantly hearing about a Dexter Manley's cocaine habit, a Wilt Chamberlain's sexual exploits. Wouldn't it be a good antidote for young people to hear a little more about a Reggie White's prayer meeting, which he leads after every game for the Philadelphia Eagles? In my book, that would be a healthy dose of real pluralism.


Chuck Colson


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