November 18, 2004

For God's Sake: Religion's Place In Sports

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Public displays of religion in sports can be so annoying. Take Curt Schilling. The insufferable, overexposed Red Sox pitcher beat the Yankees in game six of the ’04 ALCS and exclaimed, “I wanted to be able to glorify God’s name when all was said and done.” After the ensuing World Series victory, Schilling went out to rally for the nation’s number one Jesus freak himself, George W. Bush. But perhaps he was just doing a little campaigning of his own — I hear there are a few open cabinet positions. But what happens when the team does require a religious exercise? What about the teams that pray together on the field on in the locker room? Should separation of church and state also mean separation of church and stadium?

In Santa Fe School District v. Doe (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed student-led prayer over the public address system before high school football games. The court explained if you are not a religious adherent the prayer makes you feel like an outsider. Religious conformity is too high a price to pay for a football game.

At our beloved Cornell, however, we do have team prayers. Father Michael Mahler is a highly respected Catholic priest who has worked with the football squad as a chaplain since 1990. He conducts non-denominational prayer services on game days right before the team breakfast. The services are far from mandatory — but the team does conduct both pre-game and post-game prayers in the locker room.

Recall that Cornell contains three state-funded colleges. Is this the end of the “wall of separation between Church and State” advocated by Thomas Jefferson?

“There is a variety of faith and lack-of-faith backgrounds among the players,” Father Mike said. “But whether they have any religious faith or not, I have always been respected by the players.”

The players indeed value and respect Father Mike’s role.

“[The prayer] gets everyone in the right frame of mind to play the football game,” said senior lineman Ryan Lempa. “It’s just something to bring everybody together — if you want it to be religious, it can be; if not, it doesn’t have to be.”

According to Head Coach Jim Knowles ’87, many teams throughout the country put too much emphasis on team-sponsored religion. He is well aware of the dangers of things going too far.

“Personally, I think you have to be really careful with it,” Knowles said. “In conferences like the SEC, sometimes the whole team goes to church together and the chaplains are really woven in with the team. I’ve always been wary of an overbearing religious influence.”

Some other Cornell athletes stress the importance of religion in their individual lives. Junior middle blocker Heather Young and a few volleyball teammates regularly attend local meetings of the Fellowship of Christian athletes (FCA). For senior wrestler and NCAA qualifier Joe Mazzurco, prayer is an essential part of his pre-game ritual: “My faith in God and my religion give me a sense of calm and peace and really allow me to stay focused.” But, according to the Supreme Court, “school sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible” under the First Amendment. So a coach — as was reported at a Southern California high school last year — cannot legally force his athletes to either read Christian materials or not compete.

And, while vital for Young and Mazzurco, it must be remembered that prayer is not for everyone. There are those who believe God belongs in the churches, not the stadiums. In a nation of many religions, it is important to respect and accept the beliefs of others, both on and off the field.

Coach Knowles said that the concept of faith does not necessarily equate with the establishment of religion.

“Playing football involves a lot of faith,” Knowles said. “You have to have faith and trust in your team. It’s a kind of faith that does not exclude anyone.”

In matters concerning religion, it is well to remember that this country was founded by men like Thomas Paine, who wrote, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

— Further Considerations: A recent study in Forbes magazine denounced the lost revenue figures NHL owners published in regard to the ongoing labor crisis, stating that the owners’ numbers were hundreds of millions of dollars away from the truth. Too bad the ILR research statistics classes Commissioner Bettman took in the seventies skipped basic arithmetic…Best way to spend Thanksgiving break? Watching football, of course. Check out SC-Notre Dame on Nov. 27…Were you offended by ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” promo before MNF? Please. I’m just sorry T.O. couldn’t catch any acting classes…Support the football team on Saturday as it hosts defending league champ Penn for a shot at second place in the Ivies — at this rate, I’m thinking we can settle the score with ASU on the football field. Or maybe we’ll just stick to the classroom.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor.
The Ultimate Tripwill appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen