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The Rooting Interests of Deities

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | January 13, 2011 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | January 13, 2011 |

I watched the second half of that BCS “championship” game the other night.

Yes, BCS, you have caught me on the record. I did watch your game. I admit I enjoy a quality match-up between two excellent teams for all the perceived marbles, and in that respect you delivered. However, that is the only college football postseason game I watched with anything beyond a passing eye. Just imagine, profit-hungry advertisers, if some silly playoff system compelled me to watch 15 single-elimination games instead of only one. I digress.

In the rapture of victory, these were the very first words from Auburn football coach Gene Chizik’s mouth to an on-field interviewer: “I just can’t be more blessed to be part of a whole team like this. Man, God was with us.”

It was a brief acknowledgment to that big deity upstairs, and Chizik then immediately complimented his team’s work ethic and talent. I could not help but note that praise for God was his first instinct.

In the interview that followed seconds later, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had this to say about his controversial journey to ultimate success over the course of this season: “It’s just a God thing. I thank God every single day. I’m just his instrument, and he’s using me on a consistent basis daily. … He’s using me to extend his word.”

Post-game interviews from the Oregon side carried a different tone.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly had this to say: “Obviously we are disappointed in the result, but first and foremost I told my guys to thank God for humbling us with this loss. Perhaps He thought we were a little too full of ourselves and wanted to remind us that our hard work and talent alone are not going to cut it. Or maybe He has a future victory planned for us, and we needed this loss to get there.”

Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas reflected on his physical abilities: “I’m God’s vessel, and I think He made me well. But Cam Newton is God’s vessel, too. What can I say? I’m the inferior vessel.”

If it was not obvious, let me be clear, folks. I fabricated those last two quotes.

I do not begrudge members of the sporting world their religious beliefs. If they are so excited about God’s grand creation that includes these games, these fields of play, and these results that they cannot contain their gratitude after a win, then I can understand that. What bothers me is the frequently resulting implication that there is some sort of direct divine rooting interest in play. It seems that God only plays a part in the winning result. Should we not ascribe some responsibility for the losing result as well?

I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart delivers the following pre-meal prayer: “Dear God: We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” That quip earned a rebuke in a sermon at the church where I spent part of my youth, and the congregation was encouraged not to watch the program at all as a result.

That specific incident is not the reason I drifted away from the church and religion in general, but it might be symptomatic of the reasons. Bart is obnoxious for the sake of obnoxiousness, but he is also only a kid who still has much to learn. Perhaps it is wiser to discuss the kernel of truth in his statement than to dismiss it without analysis. At its core, how different is what Bart says from Aesop’s ancient moral that “gods help those who help themselves”?

For the sake of argument, I can imagine believing in this God that receives all this victory praise. However, I have trouble imagining an omniscient and omnipotent deity having much vested interest in any given sports contest’s result. Was God excruciatingly bored by the Super Bowl blowouts of the 80s and 90s and decided to entertain Himself (and us) with more compelling entertainment in recent football history? If so, thanks, God! But why haven’t you livened up soccer and golf for us too?

If you were a competitive athlete, wouldn’t you like to believe that the outcome is not predestined? Wouldn’t you prefer to have a measure of control and any deserved pride and accountability that derive from your performance? What would be the point of arising at the crack of dawn and working out twice daily if you are merely a rotating but ultimately immovable gear in a vast machine?

Perhaps I am biased. It is a story for another day, but my own athletic endeavors concluded in circumstances that belied any sort of divine plan. I daresay I worked as hard as anyone else at my level of competition, but certain variables had a way of winning out. One could argue that I do not see the full “plan.” One could even snidely say that a lack of faith defeated my goals. In my observation, though, there is far too much chaos and far too many counter-examples in the sporting world to take those assessments seriously.

My critique of gratitude for God in victory also might be unfair. (It is certainly not original either, as I have heard people harping on the concept for years.) People are happy and grateful when they win. Some of those people believe in God and thank God for all sorts of wonderful facets of their lives that include but are not limited to a scoreboard. Many of the most visible interviews with players occur after a win. Losing interviews naturally are much more subdued. Hence, as ridiculous as I find the concept to be, any view on this subject will be skewed by definition.

That said, I would still like to see the sentiment toned down. I find the idea limiting to humanity’s athletic abilities and our general pursuit of excellence, and frankly this sort of divine intervention would be rather limiting to God as well.

Perhaps what we need is a little balance along the lines of my imaginary Oregon quotes.

This week LeBron James himself had this to say - presumably in reference to a crushing defeat and historic blowout by his former team the Cleveland Cavaliers at the hands of the Lakers:

“Crazy. Karma is a b****.. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!” [sic]

James since denied that he was referencing the fate of the Cavaliers (or Cavs owner Dan Gilbert who memorably attacked James via written statement in the wake of “The Decision”), but that is a difficult story to believe, particularly when considering that James recently publicly expressed his enjoyment of the role of villain.

Regardless of the specifics of the continuing James drama, here we have an example of exactly what I sought! Perhaps the most talented player in the NBA is invoking negative divine influence in a basketball game! Oh, city of Cleveland, this low of lows for your team has nothing to do with losing the NBA MVP from your roster. It is simply a case of the petty attitude of your fans and your front office. Stop burning jerseys, and God will fix everything. Perhaps you will not win the next game, but there is no need to lose by 55 points!

The NFL this season gave us an even better example. Once again, we have the modern wonder that is Twitter and its increased access to the many thoughts of star athletes to thank.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson dropped what would have been the game-winning overtime touchdown catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 29th. His tweet after the game:


(My favorite part is the humble “THX THO” at the end, so that God does not take the outburst too seriously.)

Of course, many people thought Johnson’s outcry ridiculous or even comical. Shouldn’t he take some accountability for the drop? I thought it was amusing, but I also found it refreshing. If God is planning the wins, then doesn’t he plan the losses too? Johnson later apologized and retracted the statement as a product of emotion in the heat of the moment. In spite of that and although this might be for the wrong reasons, I now consider myself a Steve Johnson fan.

C. Robert Dimitri is not grateful to the sports gods. He simply enjoys sports.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.