Dear Athletic Support: My son’s coach prays at athletic events. For the longest time, I didn’t think twice about this. I remember my own coach praying before games and after practices. I guess I just thought sports and Christianity went hand in hand, especially in the South. But my world was turned upside down last season when we hosted a foreign exchange student. This young man was a Muslim. He was also on my son’s team. I’ll never forget the look on the foreign exchange student’s face when he came home after the first practice. I tried to imagine my son in the same situation, and it completely changed my point of view. In your opinion, how should a coach handle prayer with his team? Is it even legal? — Praying Parent
Dear Praying: I am not a lawyer. So, please, don’t take anything I say in this column as legal advice. That being said, I was a coach, a coach who led Christian prayers with his team. In hindsight, however, I’m not so sure it was the right thing to do.
To begin with, there are legal ramifications involved. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In practice, this means public institutions should not favor one religion over another, or promote religion in any way.
As you and I both know, we get away with this in the Bible-Belt South. My problem with prayer and sports, however, goes deeper than the law. It goes back to your experience with the foreign exchange student.
High school is complicated enough. I can’t imagine how challenging it would be to experience those formative years in another country. To make matters worse, what if your basic worldview — the religion of your people — was challenged every step along the way? Talk about tough.
Now, many of my Christian brethren might argue that it is our duty to witness to this young, displaced Muslim man and share the Good News, but before we go breaking out tracts and offering up prayers, let us pause and consider the teachings of Jesus.
With Christmas only a few days away, there’s no better time to reflect on the Savior who was born in a manger. The King who rode a donkey. The often-ridiculed Prophet who spent most of his days with beggars and thieves.
If Jesus were a high school football coach, what would he do? I think he’d find a way around the laws without making the foreign exchange student — or any other player on the team with differing religious views — feel ostracized. Christ’s love is bigger than mere words. In fact, it’s far beyond anything our human minds can fathom.
If we think about it this way, the debate over prayer in schools doesn’t seem quite so urgent, and I think that’s a good thing.
In the end, words aren’t the only way to spread the Good News. Coaches have many different avenues in which to show Christ’s love, and so do you. Merry Christmas, Eli.
Cranor is a former professional quarterback and coach turned award-winning author. Send questions for “Athletic Support” to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit elicranor.com.