People praying over football may not appreciate their luck

People praying over football may not appreciate their luck

As he lies dying in Tennyson’s epic poem, “The Idylls of the King,” Arthur offers encouragement to his knights: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

We all may hope so. But does prayer influence the outcome of football games or the success of football teams? That’s the implication of the tale of the Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who the other day won a case at the Supreme Court. The court decided that his school district had violated his constitutional rights by removing him for praying ostentatiously on the field after games.

Reasonably enough, the school administration felt that the coach wasn’t praying privately and individually, as his lawyers maintained, as much as he was using his public school position to encourage his players to pray. Indeed, once the coach began the practice, his players soon joined him in prayer on the field. They well could have suspected that doing so might help them gain playing time. They might have been praying for exactly that.

While the court seems to have overlooked them, old news reports about the coach’s practice quoted him as admitting that with his praying he sought to set an example for the players to help improve their lives. If that was his purpose, his praying wasn’t really private and individual at all but government-sponsored prayer in a public school setting, which has been deemed unconstitutional since a Supreme Court decision in 1962.

Of course prayer won’t kill anyone. In government venues people may feel pressure to pray but no one can be compelled to pray, and the court’s decision in this case isn’t likely to revive the insincere and superficial if not meaningless school prayers of old, in which students could feel coerced.

But since it calls attention to the connection of prayer and sports competitions, the decision invites speculation about the nature of such public prayer and the civic religion behind it.

After all, right now the world is suffering, as it usually is, several wars -- not just in Ukraine but also the Middle East and Yemen -- as well as sharply rising inflation that threatens some poor countries with famine. Meanwhile there is always widespread suffering from disease and natural disasters. In these circumstances who should feel compelled to seek divine help in the context of football?

Occasionally sports may reflect a great cause worth praying for, like the liberation of the oppressed, as when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers bravely challenged racial segregation in baseball.

Desire for the success of a perpetual underdog might justify prayer as well. People are moved by the locker-room prayer scene in the basketball movie “Hoosiers,” where a player for the team of a tiny rural school competing for the state championship says, “Let’s win this one for all the small schools that never had the chance to be here.”

But such prayer needn’t be offered in a stadium, the sort of spectacle condemned in the Sermon on the Mount:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.

Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Any place that prays over football may not understand just how blessed it already is.


* * *


BAD POLICY KILLED THEM: While the Supreme Court was ratifying high school football prayer, dozens of illegal immigrants were baking to death in a truck in San Antonio, Texas.

In recent years there have been many such smuggling atrocities near this country’s southern border, and they happen not just because of the desperate economic conditions in Latin America and elsewhere.

Most of all they happen because people contemplating illegal immigration are justifiably confident that if they can sneak into the United States or even just reach the U.S. border, the U.S. government will never get around to enforcing the law against them.

This de-facto policy of semi-open borders is not as humane as its proponents think.


Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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