Why God Needs to be Kept Out of the Huddle

The case against one team, one prayer.

Whether it was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sitting during the national anthem or Hussein Abdullah being penalized for kneeling and praying after a touchdown, or high school football coach Joe Kennedy’s constitutional challenge for the right to show his devotion, prayer in sport has a complex and controversial past. Even Tim Tebow, a Christian man in a predominately Christian league, became a polarizing figure simply because he was open about his beliefs.

Increasingly though, the understanding of religion’s role in sport is being challenged. Athletes from outside of the traditional Judeo-Christian umbrella are becoming more of a regularity in locker rooms, which means teams are now facing pressure to both support their players in their beliefs while ensuring team cohesion. With this trend showing no signs of slowing down, the debate over what role, if any, religion and prayer have in the modern team environment isn’t going away anytime soon.

On December 3rd 1990 — after a game between the 49ers and Giants — team chaplains Pat Richie and Dave Bratton got together and arranged the first joint post-game prayer.

The stage was set. Monday Night Football would go on to draw an estimated 41.6 million viewers — a record which still stands. Bratton wanted the players to take this moment and share their faith on the biggest stage. The idea came to him after he saw two Philadelphia Eagles players praying before a game.

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Prayer circles are historically a sign of evangelical Christianity, but the message a prayer circle sent on this stage was largely unclear. Were the players trying to convert spectators? Were they trying to fix their religious image? Were they making a statement? These questions went largely unanswered, but the practice itself stuck.

Team unity is often cited as one of the primary reasons why athletes pray together as a team. On average, there are more players that join team prayers in order to continue to build a team bond than do for religious reasons. They pray to be a teammate, to support others with religious beliefs, or to just feel at one with the group. The irony with that, however, is that team prayers are largely tailored towards Christianity, which can alienate people who are members of different religious traditions.

People of minority faiths, or no faith at all, can be subject to apparent mistreatment when religion takes a prominent place in an athletic program. Although praying may provide a safe environment for some, going against the values of the majority of the team may lead to those individuals feeling excluded. More often, athletes who feel distanced from a team because they have different religious beliefs simply leave the team or take a step back. They feel as if they are no longer welcome.

At the high school level, there’s an ongoing debate on whether or not prayers led by public school officials should be banned. Some states have completely banned this practice and in others, school districts have followed suit. Opponents argue that a coach leading a team in prayer breaches the constitutional separation of church and a state in a public school. It’s worth noting that public-school students have the right, by law, to pray on school property — but students must organize the prayer.

But those laws don’t apply to professional sports. In that world, coaches and chaplains usually lead the team prayers. While not team-mandated, players of different (or no) faith often face the uncomfortable decision of whether they’d rather join in on a team exercise that they don’t believe in, or face exclusion and alienation. Yes, these are grown men who are free to make their own decisions. However, they’re still employees of the team, forced to choose between either going with the crowd or being perceived as non-team players. In a professional space where labels and narratives are difficult to shake, which is an unenviable position to be put in.

During Doc Rivers’ first year as the head coach of the Orlando Magic, he became accustomed to leading the team in prayer and it became a part of their pre-game routine. Halfway through the season though, he noticed that one player wasn’t participating as enthusiastically. Muslim player Tariq Abdul-Wahad was standing in the back of the huddle, hesitantly participating with his arms folded. Before their very next game, Doc told the team that they would no longer be praying collectively. From then on, players that wanted to pray could take a few minutes to do so, although they were asked to practice their faith individually. This was an example of a coach wanting everyone to feel as comfortable as possible in their place of work, accommodating the wishes and wants of the larger group, while protecting the minority from feelings of alienation.

After Doc’s message to the team, Tariq walked into his office with teary eyes and gave Rivers a big hug. This meant the world to him.

Being the only one in the locker room of a certain religion is not easy. Not only does a player face the challenge of fitting in, but they also face the challenge of being put in the ‘spokesperson’ role for their religion. The pressure of these dual forces can really weigh on a player, and if that continues over time, it unquestionably impacts the player’s performance on the field.

That’s why team prayers should be abolished by every athletic institution, professional or otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with taking a reflective moment to come together and get in sync as a unit, but when that turns into religious worship, it threatens to undermine the cohesion moments like that create.

Doc Rivers’ mentality should be the model that teams follow — prioritizing the athletes as individuals while respecting the wants of the larger team. And if players insist on coming together for this ritual, let them, but have them do it silence. Let them lock arms or huddle-up, or take a knee, or whatever form they want this expression to take, but make it universally accessible. Let each individual pray or meditate or think in their own way, free from any kind of pressure to conform to one religious belief. That way, teams still get the unifying moment they crave, while all players get the unifying moment they deserve.


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