LAMAR HANKINS | SPORTS AND RELIGION | Offering up prayers for Damar Hamlin

When did God start taking sides in football games or bless the performances of various pious athletes?

Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin is removed from Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, in an ambulance. The Buffalo Bills, in white, kneel at the bottom left of the image. Photo by Schetm / Creative Commons.

By Lamar W. Hankins | The Rag Blog | February 8, 2023

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws.” — Zora Neale Hurston autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)

I was one of those millions of viewers who watched Damar Hamlin go into cardiac arrest after what appeared to be a routine tackle during the first quarter of the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals football game on Monday night, January 2.  I think everyone watching the game was shocked by what happened.  We all know that football is a violent game, but we don’t expect the specter of death to attend a game; perhaps sprained ankles, broken body parts, torn ligaments, and traumatic brain injuries, but not the possibility of immediate death.

I watched for about 20 minutes as commentators and announcers struggled with what to say, as they frequently cut to commercials.  I watched as many players on the field offered up prayers for Hamlin’s recovery. From what I saw and from news reports since that night I have learned that people all over the country, on television and off, prayed for Hamlin’s recovery.

If you believe in a God who can cure whatever afflicted Damar Hamlin, you have to believe that same God could have prevented the cause of his affliction, but did not do so.  Why would such a God choose to intervene later?  The truth is that there is no force in the universe that controls what happens every second of every day to 3 billion humans.

Whenever something terrible happens, we all would like to be able to fix it.

Whenever something terrible happens, we all would like to be able to fix it or do something about it, but the most rational among us know that only a few people, with the right professional training, can do anything.  The EMTs did what they were trained to do and kept Hamlin alive until doctors at University of Cincinnati Medical Center were able to perform their professional services.  Weeks later, we still don’t know whether or to what extent Hamlin will recover, though he recovered enough to attend a Bills’ playoff game and watch them lose to Cincinnati on January 22.

I realize that religious people did what they have been trained to do — they prayed.  Other people began to give to a charity that Hamlin had started, trying to raise $250,000 for toys for poor kids.  The response after Hamlin’s injury increased the fund to nearly $7 million in three days, with more donated subsequently.  This was something concrete and real that people felt they could do to honor him.  All I did was turn off the television with the realization that my desire to watch the play of two talented NFL quarterbacks had led to a possible death of one of the other players.  As many have said, and it can’t be said often enough, football is a violent game.

I quit playing the game after six years in junior high and high school.  Now, in my retirement years, after a lifetime of pain, I have endured three back surgeries and the replacement of two knees and a hip — all traced back to those six years of playing football when I could have continued to play my saxophone in the school band, something I could have enjoyed throughout my life if I had not been pressured by coaches and family to give it up for football.

I confess that in recent years football games have not held my attention the way they used to.  I watch fewer of them, but I still watch some, though much of what I see disgusts me.  Many players make a tackle or a good play and strut around calling attention to themselves.  We used to be satisfied as football players with congratulating one another when we did the jobs we were trained to do.  The NFL practice of defensive players running into the end zone after there is a turnover and mugging for the cameras and fans is so disgusting to me that I turn away from the television set.  If I enjoyed that kind of thing, I would watch “professional wrestling.”

When did a god worthy of the name take such an interest in a sport?

I have much the same reaction to the players who make religious gestures to some god who presumably has an interest in the game’s outcome.  When did a god worthy of the name take such an interest in a sport?  I thought gods were all about morality, right and wrong, treating other people with love, and assuring a pathway to everlasting life.  When did God start taking sides in football games or bless the performances of various pious athletes?  If a pass receiver and a pass defender both ask God for their blessing on their respective performances, which athlete will God help when a pass is thrown?  And why would anyone want to believe in a God who cared about the outcome of a football game or athletic performance?

The use of God in these ways is not limited to professional sports.  Recently, the legendary Deion Sanders, coaching the football team at the University of Colorado, has suffused his athletic program with Christianity and engaged in religious exercises with players and staff members. Christian prayer has been used to start official team meetings at Sanders’ direction.  Sanders has even brought up religion and prayer at press conferences.  Debo Swinney regularly prays with his team at Clemson before and after games.  Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s stellar women’s basketball coach, tweeted out the caption “Jesus vs. Arkansas” as part of her “Daily Devotional” that was posted on Twitter, just before her team played Arkansas recently.  And she frequently prays with her players.  

One has to wonder why all this praying and Christianizing is going on in athletics.  Is it a no-cost way to use sports psychology to get a winning team?  Sports psychologists teach techniques like self-talk to create inner monologues in players that can enhance their performances.  Self-talk can include thoughts, words, music, or quotes players might say to themselves.  Self-talk can help instill optimism in athletes, improve their focus, manage stress, or inspire confidence.  Maybe prayer is being used as a cheap, readily available sports psychology technique to improve individual performances and build team cohesion.  In addition, I’ve observed other religious behavior among many athletes, who have their own rituals, habits, gestures, symbols, tokens, relics, and mementoes.  

If athletes want to believe that praising God or praying to him (or maybe her) will make a difference in their performances, they are certainly entitled to continue those religious practices, but they won’t impress me or cause me to believe that they are really good people because of their piety.  These practices lead me to see the professionals as shallow, highly paid humans in great physical shape.  I hope they don’t get hurt.  But that is about as far as I can go with anything like a prayer.

After all, for most human beings, football (as well as other sports) is just a diversion from real life, like playing dominoes or a board game, or watching a movie, or visiting with friends, activities that don’t entail the dangers of football.  As long as football players think they have God on their side, no amount of deaths, near-deaths, physical injuries, or brain trauma will affect the game. In America, football has assumed the place of the spectacles held in the Roman Colosseum, which went on for 400 years.  But the American empire may not last that long.

[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as an Associate Exit Guide and contributor to the Good Death Society Blog.

Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Lamar.

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2 Responses to LAMAR HANKINS | SPORTS AND RELIGION | Offering up prayers for Damar Hamlin

  1. While I agree with Lamar’svassessment of American football and much professional sport, surely it is disingenuous to wonder “since when” divine beings have taken an interest in human conflict, whether on the playing field or the battleground. The ancient Greeks provide but one rich mine of supernatural support or interference, from the siege of Troy to the first Olympic games; I cannot think of any human society that has not believed that somebody upstairs was on their team.
    Whatever increase we’re seeing now in sports theology is likely attributable to decreased belief in science and reason, cultivated by our masters to curtail any notion that human beings ourselves can decide our fates.

  2. Leslie Cunningham says:

    I’ll agree with what Lamar and Mariann are saying. I’ll add
    1) Team sports are a lower level of war. That’s what my husband Howard was taught in Air Force officer training in 1965.. It’s especially true of international competition where the teams represent nations.
    2) Only the Christian god supports teams in the US. Courts have established that it’s legal for public school coaches to lead prayers on the field. So public schools may promote Christian Nationalism.

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