Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Religion in sports? Amen

Published: Aug. 15, 2006 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The first thing I noticed was the likeness of Reggie White and a crucifix in a half-page spread. Hundreds of miles from home, I found the prominent article about the late Green Bay Packer in a national newspaper a welcome sight.

The second thing was the not-so-humble headline: "Reggie's (whole) story." Unsure how one can reveal the "whole" anything in one opinion article, I grabbed my hotel copy of the July 31 USA Today.

The article was timely because White would be posthumously inducted into Pro Football's Hall of Fame that week.

So what was the startling news, I wondered? Reading the first paragraph about White's "regrets" of preaching while in uniform, I began to anticipate some bombshell admission made just prior to his death. Maybe someone discovered a tape White recorded before his short life ended in 2004.

I prepared to have the image of a man whom I admired not only for devastating play on the football field but also for an unabashed faith life off the field altered in some way.

However, the article failed to deliver what one might have expected from its headline, first paragraph or closing sentence: "Let's remember Reggie's story - all of it."

That's when I became more intrigued with the author - Tom Krattenmaker, who holds a master's degree in religion from the University of Pennsylvania and serves on USA Today's board of contributors.

Krattenmaker's work reveals a recurring theme of what troubles him. With all that imperils professional sports today - bloated payrolls, steroids, player scandals, etc. - Krattenmaker worries about the increasing menace of overt displays of faith practiced by Christian athletes and religious organizations supporting them.

Several of his works that sound a warning include: "Going long for Jesus," "Playing the 'God' card" and "A 'war' on Christians? No." But back to his article on White.

The first problem is that there is little new in the article. Indeed, Krattenmaker simply recycled the same quotes from his Jan. 3, 2005, piece titled "Rushing for Jesus" (published at Salon.com).

Team chaplains and public displays of faith among professional athletes are not new, either. Wisconsinites old enough to remember the Lombardi era will recall St. Vince's oft-repeated mantra to players about three priorities: God, family and football.

Yes, the framers of our Constitution took care to preserve a separation of church and state. They didn't want religious fanaticism to supplant the role of government. They also wanted to protect the rights of citizens to worship, or not, as they choose.

But Krattenmaker invokes the church-state boundary by reminding us that sports facilities used during displays of Christian faith are publicly financed. He forgets that attendees at these games are voluntarily voting with very private dollars - the same private dollars that patronize advertisers feeding the money machine of pro sports.

There is our check and balance. We do not need a separation of church and locker room.

The second problem with Krattenmaker's work is that there is no arresting feature or strong indicators to support his assertion that something is increasingly awry in professional sports due to "the conspicuous religiosity that we witness in pro sports today." And we can't know had he lived longer whether White would have fully adopted Krattenmaker's cause.

The quotes used in the article do reveal that White felt sports ministries had exploited his fame, that deeds are more important than preaching and that he was living that ethos more than before.

But that's it. I see thin evidence to justify a mission to identify what Krattenmaker calls "the appropriate place of religion in pro sports" or to control a force he describes as "problematic."

Krattenmaker is working on a book about the influence of religion in pro sports. I'm content to close this chapter with words from White's widow, Sara, addressing fans on Aug. 5: "I encourage you to live like Reggie lived."

Amen.