published Friday, September 27th, 2013

Cook: Football is not sacred

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I was a coach, and a very bad one.

"Dribble!" I'd yell to my girls.

"What for?" they'd yell back.

Most games we'd lose by 40, which felt like losing by 140. We often didn't get past half court. We made more turnovers than pastry chefs. Refs would let the clock run, out of compassion.

During those seasons, I prayed. A lot. For mercy. Patience. A 6-foot center. Someone to cut power to the gym. Memory loss.

Never, though, did we gather as a team to pray at half court, kneeling together, with stands of fans looking on (obviously, we didn't have stands of fans looking on).

Yet tonight all across the area, football coaches, their players, cheerleaders and fans will do just that: pray. Boldly. Unapologetically. At the 50-yard line.

"This is the South and that's the way it should be," Sale Creek coach Ron Cox recently told Times Free Press reporter Stephen Hargis.


Why are prayer and high school football so wedded together?

Both are part of the Southern experience, and when so many of us gather together on Friday nights for football, prayer becomes a natural extension of that.

Perhaps, as the Florida Georgia Line song goes, it's just what we do.

But why is Friday night football the cultural arena where we take our stand?

Why don't we gather together to pray so boldly at, say, girls' cross-country meets? Or volleyball tournaments? We don't even pray as dramatically at church on Sunday as we do Friday night.

Sure, no other sport brings so many people together. If golf matches had the same drawing power (or potential to cause such injury) as football, then I guess we'd pray there too.

But I think there's a deeper reason:

High school football mirrors an evangelical religious experience.

Football has a crusader-esque quality to it. Banners, fight songs, helmets, a desire to vanquish the foe before us. It easily slides into place with a theology that also wants to conquer evil in the world.

Football's strategy of gaining ground (or conversely, not losing it) matches the same struggle within the culture wars between religions and secular society, as evangelicals battle to win ideological turf.

Abortion. Marriage. Family values. To fight culturally for such things is to don shoulderpads and helmets -- or, as St. Paul said, to put on the full armor of God -- and fight, fight, goal-line fight.

"We want to prepare our kids for the battle on Friday nights but we also want to prepare them for the spiritual battle," Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis told Hargis. "Make no mistake, there's a spiritual warfare going on and it's for the souls of our kids."

He's right, you know. Kids are being pulled under by massively destructive forces (sexualized media, endless drugs, a flattened culture), and I love the lionhearted Mariakis for fighting to save them.

But football is not sacred.

And God is not a linebacker.

With so much resistance coming from groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which repeatedly tries to interrupt Friday football prayer (they're often right, at least constitutionally), then perhaps it is time for coaches to call an audible.

To win, by losing.

Is there a coach or athletic department out there willing to invite anti-football-prayer folks to the table, for the single and sole purpose of listening to them?

Genuinely, sincerely, honestly and without judgment. That kind of listening.

Don't try to join them, but stop trying to beat them. Learn from them. Befriend. Offer peace, not a blitz.

Doing so probably won't stop the legal debate, but could make a place for common ground and the possibility that the Us vs. Them mentality will soften. How fragrant and appealing such a move would be; it would turn heads across the land.

Would they do that to you? Who cares. Take the highest road.

Isn't that the point of religion and prayer? Not to conquer, but to make peace? To reconcile, not defeat?

(But you see, that will never be the point of football.)

That long-ago team of mine? Those girls kept playing for me, despite knowing I was the sorriest coach this side of Morris Buttermaker. They tried their hardest, never gave up, and returned my ineptitude with grace and kindness.

Halfway through the season, I realized I'd been praying for the wrong thing.

Instead of praying to win, I should have been praying for the wisdom to know how to lose.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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JonathanMCook said...

I rarely say this but will give credit where credit is do.

Good article.

I could address this is variety of ways, but you pretty much hit the lead points. I love this quote though.

"This is the South and that's the way it should be".

That's up there with a favorite quote from of all people an elected official in Georgia who took down a flag in retailation for when a member of an opposing party took down I believe the old Georgia state flag with the confederate emblem on it. His justification and I quote,

"They started it".

Well played 4th grader...well played.

September 27, 2013 at 8:10 a.m.
Facts said...

Having lived in Texas for several years before relocating here, our daughters' sports teams prayed prior to competition. Neither played football.

I do understand the humility the author seeks as a tool. But I also understand that "we do not fight against flesh and blood..." that seek to silence those of us who speak, live, and love our Savior. I agree that humility, love and gentleness in the stand for the right to speak to our Heavenly Father is needed. But, I just can't see that Paul in the New Testament teaching to avoid suffering and persecution by avoiding conflict. His greatest writings were penned from jail.

September 27, 2013 at 8:14 a.m.
MattTheSharp said...

As usuall I disagree with everything in this article except that Mr. Cook probably was a very bad coach.

I would like to raise some questions. What is wrong with praying on the sidelines? Why should Christians gracefully accept defeat? What is wrong with Christianity? If Christians are allowed to pray on the field then so are Muslims, Jews, Wiccans or Buddhist. The fact of the matter is, if Muslims were praying on the field, or Wiccans for that matter it would be hailed as a great cultural achievement. Another glass ceiling broken. More freedom for us all. A new, brighter day.

But it's not. Its Christians and we just cant have that. But why? Why I ask? Why is it always Christians that must submit, that must compromise, that must sit down and shut up? What is so wrong with Christian values? Traditional American Christian values. What is so wrong with holding the door open for a lady? What is so wrong with abstinance before marriage? What is wrong with young men bowing together or alone, praying before the God he worhips? Anyone can do it. I am positive a Muslim would be welcome to kneel and make his prayers towards Mecca on the sidelines with everyone else. We wouldnt mind at all. Christianity is tolerance and love, despite what others may say. God said true religion is to visit the fatherless and the widows, to be kind, to love one another. Is that so bad that we must stamp it from our Culture?

Let us be honest with ourselves. Is our modern society such a utopia that we can afford to forget the old things,some of the things that made life in America so good for so long? Are words such as honesty and honor and morality so foriegn to us that we cannot remember what they mean and what they have done for us? Or do we think that these things can be attained without religion? We tolerate Islam and condemn Christianity.

Its remarkable. In Islam a women can be arranged into marriage with a man at 10 years old. A man can have sex with the body of his dead wife. It is illegal for women to attend College in most Muslim country's, also illegal for them to have drivers license or show their face in public. A man must travel to Mecca, fast during ramadan, shave his body hair, pray 5 times a day and when called upon be ready to kill or be killed for Allah. To martyr ones self while killing infidels, thats you and me by the way, is the highest honor attainable. Has anyone read the Quran and the Hadiths? You should and you will ask yourself as I do, Is Christianity really that bad? Is it really the culture to fear and despise and disrespect?

September 27, 2013 at 9:44 a.m.
ToHoldNothing said...

In our modern society, Christianity should not plead the victim when the whole purpose of preventing sectarian and divisive prayer at football fields, exchanging it instead for a moment of silence, is to promote equality of all religion and irreligion in terms of the government sponsored school.

They shouldn't be taking a stance, implicitly or explicitly, through administration or faculty encouraging such things.

I don't think any religion, no matter how great or horrible it may be to me personally or to others, should pray at a school event, sports or otherwise. School isn't the place for such things, the houses of worship or the home are.

One can learn about religion at schools, of course, but not in the sense of being preached to or at. Religion should be less about conversion and more about conversation (I just made that up, which surprises me)

September 27, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

MattTheSharp, you compare the fundamentalist excesses of Islam to the more benign and tepid aspects of Christianity. That's an apples to oranges comparison. There are moderate Muslims who detest the barbaric practices of the jihadist faction of their religion just as there are Christians who are repulsed by the fundamentalist beliefs and practices of Christianity's Bible thumpers - those, for example, who blow up abortion clinics and denounce gay people as sinners doomed to hell and focus more on preaching about the wrath of God's judgment than on his love and mercy. We non-believers do not condemn Christianity's excesses any more than we do Islam's. It's just that here in America we are confronted more with the abhorrent aspects of Christian fundamentalism than we are with those of Islam. If and when the time comes that jihadist Muslims begin to infringe upon our society with the misogynistic and otherwise barbaric practices of their sharia law I guarantee you that we will be speaking out just as forcefully.

You ask if things like honor and honesty and morality can be attained without religion. Yes, they can! And the very fact that you think they can't shows just how ill informed you and many other Christians are about where indeed true morality comes from. It does not come from some mythical stone tablet handed down by God on Mt. Sinai; rather it is the natural component of humanity, our innate capability to empathize and feel pity and sadness for others in their suffering, guilt and shame when we do wrong, and happiness when we help others. It is sad that you and most religious people - even the more moderately religious of you - cannot see that religion is actually the antithesis of true morality. If it is only the fear of eternal punishment that keeps you from murdering your neighbor or robbing your local bank or raping an unsuspecting girl in a back alley, then you are a pitiful excuse for a human being and there is nothing "moral" about you. True morality is something that comes from much soul-searching and contemplation about who you are and what your actions really mean to other people. It is not blindly following some list of "Thou shalt not."

September 27, 2013 at 12:07 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Matt, the majority is always "wrong" or to some.

ToHold, nobody is forcing students to take part. If they're afraid of being singled out for not participating, they can fake it.

September 27, 2013 at 12:11 p.m.
Rickaroo said...


Whether a team huddling and praying before and after a sporting event should be allowed or not, I really don't much care myself. Certainly it doesn't affect me personally. But David Cook makes a good point: what is it about football, more than any other sport, that the coach and players feel the need to pray? Of course the game of football is fraught with its own sort of risks, but still... it's just a game! I don't know about how others react when they see them praying, so reverential and all, but I think it's downright silly. If they think prayer is so sacred, they don't seem to have a problem trivializing it in such a way. It has been a custom for so long, especially here in the South, that most people don't even think about it. But I think it's time that we do think about it. Like it or not, we live in a much more diverse and multi-cultural society now and we need to question some of those Christian customs that we have taken for granted for so long.

As for holding a door open for a lady - that is a Christian custom? Really?? I don't know about you, but I've always done something like that (for a woman or a man, whoever is right behind me) out of respect and just because it's good manners. I'm not sure I want you Christians to stop believing. You obviously wouldn't know how to behave without your sacred book of dos and don'ts!

September 27, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

Why worship some god who's more concerned with a football game prayer than famine, war, disease, and the lunacy of John McCain?

God needs to get his priorities straight.

September 27, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.
ToHoldNothing said...

The majority isn't always right, but it isn't always wrong either. The point is whether the majority is actually thinking or just going with the mob.

Participation should be a shared thing and a moment of silence is far more fair. I don't fake prayer, even in a funeral or such. I just hold my head up and see it for what it is: the harsh reality. All this pretense of piety isn't really for me.

People can pray as individuals if they want, but government funded entities have no reason to do so, especially in terms of official events. If people need to government to encourage their religion, maybe their religion isn't worth it.

September 27, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

"ToHold, nobody is forcing students to take part. If they're afraid of being singled out for not participating, they can fake it." - LB

If there is an element of fear from not participating and a feeling that faking it is necessary to maintain the respect of the coach and other players, that is called coercion. It might be easy for a grown individual to stand up for him/herself and refuse to take part but teenagers are especially susceptible to peer pressure and are more afraid of being viewed negatively by their friends and team mates. To say that people should simply accept the Christian status quo and not make such a big deal out of it only shows the hubris that is typical of so many Christians. They are always quick to claim that they are the ones being persecuted and victimized but never can see how their actions might be offensive to others who do not share their beliefs and customs.

September 27, 2013 at 2:22 p.m.
nucanuck said...

What is the need for a public display of one's beliefs? Should not each individual pray privately whenever and for whatever reason deemed proper?

Meeting in groups for learning or worship is one thing, but in mixed public groups, prayer has the potential to be offensive to some and does not further tolerance of different views. Loving your neighbor also means respecting the differences among you.

Those who insist on offending others sensibilities in public places may need further study in their own belief system.

September 28, 2013 at 2:04 a.m.
jesse said...

If they are praying to Bear Bryant then its O K!

September 28, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

jesse said...

"If they are praying to Bear Bryant then its O K!"

At least Bear Bryant was real, helped people, did many good things, and didn't kill innocent people.

September 28, 2013 at 9:09 a.m.
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