Culture At Large

What price glory? Parsing the mixed messages of sports celebrations

Stephen Woodworth

This week the NFL spawned a heated debate about who can be worshipped in the end zone.

During Monday’s routing of the New England Patriots, Husain Abdullah, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, intercepted a Tom Brady pass and returned it for a touchdown. His performance was the talk of social media. No, not his athletic performance, but rather the fact that he fell to his knees after scoring and bowed his head, praying to Allah. Officials subsequently tagged him with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Athletes often punctuate their victories with public celebrations. Soccer players dance with teammates, baseball players exit the dugout after a home run to tip their caps and NASCAR drivers spin circles in the infield. And thanks in part to the likes of Ickey Woods, football players have made victory celebrations an art form. (Or a comedy routine, as when linebacker Stephen Tulloch recently celebrated himself into a season-ending injury.) In addition to the myriad of dances, spikes and stunts, many players often choose to punctuate their touchdowns with religious gestures, such as making the sign of the cross on their chest, pointing a single finger into the air or, most famously of all, “Tebowing.” One thing that apparently is not allowed, however, is praying to Allah.

The following day the NFL acknowledged that the officials had made an unfortunate mistake, but not before the observant public blasted them for an obvious double standard. To even the casual observer, it seemed as if only the Christian God could be acknowledged on our playing fields. Regardless of which deity is being addressed, however, the Abdullah debacle raises real questions about sports celebrations, for Christians in particular. Namely, are religious signs in the end zone a proper use of a public platform, or simply mere performance?

Whenever we engage in public worship of any kind – of our God or of ourselves - we need to tread cautiously.

As a high school running back in the glory days of my youth, my touchdown celebration involved raising imaginary six-shooters and playing the part of a raucous cowboy to the cheering crowds. It was always about rubbing defeat in the face of my enemies, while also inciting spectators to raise their voices in tribute to me. It was self-glorifying, to be sure, yet looking back I’m not sure offering an ostentatious prayer, a la Tim Tebow, would have been much better.

In both cases, I now hear the words of Jesus: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

I am well aware that the end zone celebrations of professional athletes do not always involve prayer. And yet the principles Jesus posits here are equally applicable. Whenever we engage in public worship of any kind – of our God or of ourselves - we need to tread cautiously. I readily recognize the heart behind some players who desire to honor God for their success and use this platform for testimony. And yet, Jesus warns us that doing so can run the risk of forfeiting eternal rewards for temporal ones. Indeed, whether his god is Allah or Yahweh or none at all, what sort of statement might it make if instead of any celebration, a scoring player handed the ball to the official and made his way back to the sidelines without fanfare. Sometimes silence truly does speak louder than words.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Sports, Theology & The Church, Faith, Worship, Prayer