What's God got to do with it?

Oct 3, 2012

IF you’re fixing for a fight, the two topics guaranteed to get temperatures rising and tempers flaring are politics and religion.

I was in my senior year in college when I decided to conduct my own social experiment to see how political choices influence personal relationships. More specifically, I wanted to find out if my friends then would respect my political choice and not let this affect our friendship. My simple plan: Tell anyone who cared to ask who my choice for president was, that I was voting for the dictator and incumbent president Ferdinand Marcos. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, as I would have wanted to see the guy and his family receive the same warm reception that Mussolini, his mistress, and his team of ministers were given by the Italian people when they finally caught up with them while trying to escape into Switzerland following the fall of the Axis powers. Most of us know how the snap elections of 1986 election ended. It was a tumultuous period in Philippine history, when sentiment for political change overflowed into the streets, where private citizens from different socio-economic classes joined hands to courageously stare down gun barrels and fearlessly confront advancing armored vehicles head on. But back to my study…

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I learned quickly that the unpopular choice meant relocation to social Siberia. The friends who learned I was voting for Marcos shunned me, while some even did not speak to me — that is, until they found out I had joined the election watchdog group Namfrel (the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections) as a volunteer during election day. Thus concluded my social experiment on electoral choices. So much for friendship and respect for political choices in the time of People Power.

But this story isn’t about the role of politics in sports, which would require a serious amount of research and walking around in Kevlar-reinforced apparel for the rest of my life. It’s about religion, and more specifically, God’s role in sports.

The God referred to here is he (assuming the universally accepted male gender) of the Christian and Catholic religions, as I have yet to hear the names of Mohammed, Allah, and other incarnations of the supreme being invoked by athletes, coaches, and fans during media interviews.

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God and sports have not always been a cozy couple, depending on how and who looks at the pairing. The media, both traditional and social, have been quick to pass judgment on sports personalities who embrace their faith and who are not the least bit shy about talking about the way the venerated one moves them.

New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow’s genuflecting in the end zone after a touchdown and wearing references to bible passages in his eye paint have been the subject of emulation, admiration, ridicule, and parody. It even led the NCAA to pass the “Tebow Rule” in 2010 that banned placing messages on eye paint, which Tebow frequently wore as a college varsity player. Ex-New York Knick and now Houston Rocket Jeremy Lin, aside from being the first Chinese of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, is famously known for speaking publicly about his faith (Christianity). At the height of his ‘Linsanity’ fame in New York, even his pregame handshake with teammate and fellow Christian Landry Fields became subject of discussion and coverage by the news-hungry media and public. But you don’t have to look far for examples of such testimonies of faith. Every other sports personality in the country is quick to profess devotion to the divine power, especially when interviewed in the aftermath of competitions.

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My beef with this whole God-in-sports issue can be crystallized in a few salient points, pointing to the many roles the man upstairs takes on vis-à-vis athletic contests in general.

God as Micro-Manager. What makes people think that God is going to be able to pay attention to a sporting event that appears miniscule, even microscopic, in the whole scheme of things? Oh, I forgot. The big guy sees all and knows all. But then again, aren’t there more important things that require his all-knowing and omnipotent authority? Pestilence, famine, and AIDS, for instance. But wait, he’s omnipresent as well, so he actually could be sitting in the cheap seats disguised as an obnoxious costumed fan getting rowdy, pissing other onlookers off, and testing their patience. Who knows? If they don’t beat the crap out of him and leave him be, he may reward their team with a win.

God As Sports Fan. The Almighty, a sports fan? A lot of people seem to think so. I’ve watched many a hoops game where cardiac finishes always bring out spectacular end-game heroics, epic defensive and offensive gaffes – and rosaries. Middle-aged women clutching rosaries and lost in prayer while bedlam ensues all around are a common sight at collegiate varsity games, where the final outcome rests in a final play with just seconds to spare. The image of players on the bench, locked arm in arm, mumbling the words to Hail Mary or Our Father, while their teammate toes the 15-foot line for a pair of charity shots that could win, tie, or lose the game is a favorite target of television cameras and make for great sports drama. The ubiquitous fan holding up a sign that reads ‘John 3:16’ (Clue for non-Christians/Catholics: it’s a bible passage) that’s totally unrelated to all the other posters and placards being waved by rabid fans and spectators, is another in-your-face reminder that indeed God is with us — in the coliseum.

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God As Game-Changer. Do you have a prayer against a Hail Mary squad? Some quarters like to believe that there’s an edge to invoking God and/or his relatives’ names as part of their cheer or school anthem. Maybe it works, and maybe it doesn’t. And when an eventual winner surfaces, does that mean that the loser did not pray hard enough, or is the Holiest of Holies partisan like the rest of humanity? I’ve been a believer of the ‘defense wins games’ and ‘play good defense and the offense will take care of itself’ schools of thought for the longest time. I also believe in working hard for the win, but that sometimes the breaks don’t always go your way.

But the wide world of God’s sports is different. When the final horn sounds and the celebration begins, the microphones close in for some words from the victorious team or individual, and you can almost always expect an I’d-like-to-thank-God-Our-Father-for-giving-us/me-this-victory.-God-is-good-God-is-great speech, punctuated with the grammatically erroneous and annoying “God Bless” parting shot.

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Oh, so he just happened to side with you (and/or your team) on this beautiful October evening. So you’re the anointed one. Fantastic. Am happy for you, really. God Bless.

God As Task Master. But what happens when things don’t go your way? In short, what happens when you lose? Fret not, there’s a simple enough answer to that using the God perspective. It’s called the ‘God Has Other Plans’ escape clause. Non-religious people would pass it off simply as a loss and naturally move into the contentious post-game analysis. Not so for God’s army. There’s a higher power involved here, one that is celestial and ethereal in nature. Expect to hear any variation of the following: ‘He wants us to work harder,’ ‘He has bigger things in store for us’ or ‘It’s His way of telling us it’s not time yet.’

Losing has never been so fulfilling and nourishing for the soul. Nice. Now get back to work on those penalty shots.

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God As A One-Man Team. The popular phrase ‘The devil is in the details’ is actually an offshoot of the earlier “God is in the detail (detail here serving as a collective noun),” the meaning of which pertains to whatever one does must be done thoroughly. The flipside (involving, ooh, the devil) refers to the missing element that is hidden somewhere among the details. How does this at all apply to the God perspective in sports? Simple. Since God is viewed as the Supreme Being and perfect in all ways, it is imperative for man to look at all aspects of the game to ensure victory; that is to examine and analyze everything that a head coach, manager, statistician, nutritionist, conditioning coach, team physician, and whatever army of assistant coaches and trainers, and apply what’s necessary to improve the final outcome, which hopefully concludes with a ticker tape parade.

Simple enough. If only you were God.

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My friends, who dutifully attend Sunday mass and still go to confession, read the bible and quote passages from it, say their prayers before meals and bedtime, and thank the Lord for all that is good in their lives, will probably wag a finger in my direction and admonish me with a persuasive ‘You gotta have faith.’

This is the crux of all of the world’s different religions: faith. Call it conviction. Call it belief. People have died defending it. Nations have gone to war over it. So what’s a little skirmish within the confines of a playing field?

You have to believe — in something, in someone. It could be a person, an ideal, or even yourself.

After reading through this article and knowing that I am once again stoking the fires of controversy and dissension, I can only guess what frozen hell awaits me among my once and future-former friends.

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Only God knows.

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