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‘Jocks for Jesus’ : Evangelicals Score Points in Pro Sports

Times Religion Writer

“These are the dog days. . . . I know you’ve got to be tired,” the minister said to a dozen players on the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team fighting to wrap up the National League’s Western Division title.

Commiserating with the players in an auxiliary locker room inside Dodger Stadium was the Rev. John Werhas, who briefly played with the Dodgers himself in the mid-1960s.

Seated on a stool, a well-marked Bible in hand, the casually dressed Werhas read Isaiah’s words about God in the 40th chapter: “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength. . . . Like eagles, they shall run and not be weary. . . .”

‘Right With the Lord’

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“The only way,” Werhas said, “that you and I can have that strength is to be right with the Lord.”

The Dodgers’ voluntary chapel, typically a 20-minute service held about an hour before the start of a Saturday night home game, usually draws about half of the team’s roster. At last Saturday’s service, prayers were expressed for team unity and for recovery from injuries. Infielder Dave Anderson and outfielder Mike Davis gave opening and closing prayers.

The service is not a Dodger tactic to produce more runs or victories during the pennant drive. Unknown to many baseball fans, every major league team has permitted clubhouse chapel services for well over a decade, providing “church” away from church.

Ministries Established

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Not confined to baseball, such ministries to professional and collegiate athletes have become well established in football and basketball since the movement was dubbed “Jocks for Jesus” nearly 20 years ago. Werhas’ 14-year-old Victory Ministry, for instance, coordinates services also for the California Angels, football’s Rams and Raiders and basketball’s Lakers and Clippers.

Even less noticed is the religious coup scored by conservative Protestantism. Despite falling short of broader cultural goals (instituting prayer in schools, banning abortions, restricting pornography and, most recently, barring the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”), evangelical Christianity has become the dominant spiritual force associated with American sports.

The ministries to sports teams are nondenominational. But over the years, through the preferences of born-again players and the active volunteering by evangelical speakers, the chapels have tended to rule out Catholic priests. A liberal Protestant minister would be unwelcome, players and chapel coordinators said.

“I would think all of our (chapel) coordinators are born-again Christians,” said David Swanson, national executive director of Baseball Chapel Inc.

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Sports celebrities known for their testimonies of faith are almost invariably those from the evangelical-charismatic-fundamentalist camp--former basketball great Julius (Dr. J) Erving, football coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys and others. Theologically conservative Protestantism with its emphasis on biblical literalism and a “personal relationship with the Lord” is presented by leaders in the movement as the only meaningful version of Christianity.

Not only that, some athletes see themselves as key players in a spiritual revival.

Vehicle for Witnessing

“God looks at football as a vehicle where players can use it to witness to people what Christ has meant to their lives,” said Bobby Hebert, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

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“Lots of times the youth of America won’t go to church and listen to a preacher,” Hebert said, “but America is so sports-oriented they will listen to a sports figure.”

“Everything I do is to glorify Jesus Christ,” track star Carl Lewis said four years ago during the Los Angeles Olympics. Evangelicals rejoiced over widely published photographs of Lewis and two other Americans kneeling in prayer after finishing 1-2-3 in the 200-meter race.

For the 1988 Games that opened Friday, at least 75 evangelical sports ministries and churches formed the International Sports Coalition to coordinate their activities--including seeking converts--at the Seoul Olympics. “To us it is the Soul Olympics,” said John Cho, a seminary president who is chairman of the evangelistic strategy there. “When I saw how Christian athletes are revered, I realized this was an effective way to communicate Christ.”

‘See Jesus Christ’

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Indeed, Todd Worrell, ace relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, told an evangelical magazine that once people know that he is a Christian, “I hope that someone can watch me and see Jesus Christ in one way or another, whether it’s in how I play or in what I say.”

Veteran pitcher Don Sutton, released this summer by the Dodgers, said he understands why ministers use Bible-believing ballplayers as examples of Christian dedication.

“I think if I had a ministry and I knew Orel Hershiser was available . . . I would certainly like to have a famous Dodger pitcher there to tell (teen-agers in the church) how difficult it is to be on the road, how it feels to lose and how knowing God changes your goals and your motives,” Sutton said.

Suspicion persists among liberal-to-moderate Protestants that sports ministries engage in celebrity-collecting in order to reassure themselves and persuade others that “born-again” Christianity is socially acceptable.

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“Why a ministry to ballplayers instead of migrant workers?” asked Ralph B. Potter, professor of social ethics at Harvard Divinity School.

Not Many Substitutes

“I don’t see many fourth-string tackles . . . asked to share their public testimony,” said the Rev. George Conn, a national Presbyterian church official for student ministries.

The urge to showcase sports stars is sometimes criticized within evangelical circles, too.

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Werhas, for one, said he keeps a low profile in his ministry with players on the Los Angeles area professional sports teams. “We try not to use the athletes to further our cause, but basically allow the guys to grow,” he said.

Similarly, an evangelist speaking at an annual gathering of born-again athletes said he heard someone speculating on how wonderful it would be if golfing great Jack Nicklaus were a “Christian” (a code word here meaning not any Christian but a committed evangelical Christian). The evangelist said he responded that it would be wonderful simply if Jack Nicklaus were Christian for the sake of his own salvation.

And yet, the evangelistic use of sports celebrities was an unmistakable feature of that meeting, Phoenix ’88--a $150,000 event over the Memorial Day weekend at a Scottsdale resort.

Stars Featured

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Former Arizona State quarterback Danny Ford, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Terry Cummings and ex-football star Rosey Grier were among those featured at the Phoenix ’88 banquet, which was attended by about 500 athletes, wives and ministers and emceed by ex-Harlem Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon.

In the closing Sunday service at the conference-host Phoenix Assembly of God Church, Pastor Tommy Barnett especially singled out beefy athletes for brief words on their faith, including 6-foot, 6-inch Dean Miraldi, 30, right guard on the 1987 Los Angeles Raiders who retired this year; one-time heavyweight boxing contender Earnie Shavers; arm-wrestling champion Bobby Hopkins and ex-wrestler Chick Huntsberry, who for four years was a bodyguard for rock star Prince.

“Now I work for another Prince; he protects me!” said the 6-foot, 6-inch, 280-pound Huntsberry.

Several speakers said in one way or another that a committed faith strengthens an athlete new to fame and big money so that he can handle the lures of drugs, marital infidelity and an undisciplined life. “The No. 1 attack of the enemy (Satan) is sexual impatience,” warned one sports evangelist. “You walk out of the dressing rooms after the games and there are ladies asking for autographs and room numbers.”

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Athletes are sometimes wooed as spokesmen for the faith. “We want you to preach, but you need to get yourself together and be right with your wife and family,” said Greg Ball of Champions for Christ, an aggressive ministry whose sports-lingo workbook on salvation calls Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden “the ultimate fumble.”

‘Grounded in the Word’

When he left the Los Angeles Rams and coincidentally became a charismatic Christian 20 years ago, Rosey Grier said, he spent the next four years at Los Angeles’ large Crenshaw Christian Center studying, “listening to tapes, memorizing verses, getting to know my commitment” before saying much publicly about his faith. Grier said he advises other fresh converts also to “get grounded in the Word” first.

Very few players talked about the Gospel during his playing career, Grier said. Now, chapel meetings and mid-week Bible studies are common on professional football teams, although Grier estimated that the average team has only about 5% “really committed” Christians and another 15% to 20% “saying they were believers but not really knowing (much).”

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One player who takes his evangelistic burden seriously is Darrell Green, a defensive back for the Washington Redskins. When his team won the Super Bowl last January, he kept a “promise to the Lord that I would take this off-season to travel and give Him the glory” by speaking about his beliefs at colleges and high schools.

The 22nd Super Bowl in San Diego was unusual in that a joint religious service was held 20 hours before kickoff, with rival coaches Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins and Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos sitting side-by-side and taking turns speaking. Crediting Gibbs with the idea, Reeves said, “I’m glad the Lord is using Joe and me in a special way.” Only about a dozen Redskins and fewer Bronco players attended, however.

That joint worship service, as well as the separate team chapels in various sports, both raise questions about whether the players’ competitive edge is affected.

Fear Distraction

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Players say that chapels are disliked by some managers who feel that they are a distraction or blunt ballplayers’ desire to win. But the Dodgers’ Dave Anderson said, “That’s totally ridiculous.” Citing a teammate who attends chapel as an example, Anderson said.: “John Shelby is one of the most aggressive players I know.”

And born-again athletes say they are not deterred from playing rough, if that is what the game calls for.

The Lakers, on the way to their second straight NBA championship this year, had a physically tough playoff series with the Utah Jazz. One of the roughest Laker players in that series was 6-foot, 9-inch forward A. C. Green, a lay preacher.

“Most people misunderstand Christians when they think they’re basically . . . wimps or cowardly,” Green explained in a post-game interview then. “It’s not that way. On and off the court, I’m a very assertive, aggressive person.”

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When that intensity occasionally spills over into religious zeal, it can turn off even a 23-year veteran like Sutton, who describes himself as a Bible-believing Protestant Christian. “I don’t want to be hit over the head with the Bible,” he said. “I would rather see God living through someone’s life, than to be dragged kicking and screaming into chapel.”

The culturally conservative nature of evangelical beliefs showed up in March when Houston Astro pitcher Bob Knepper stirred a flap by saying that women should not be umpires because, “I believe that God’s perspective is that women should not be in certain occupations.” The Bible shows that “woman was created in a role of submission to the husband,” he said.

Sutton, saying that he never heard that view from another Christian player, added that Knepper is conservative in philosophy but has a “very caring, wonderful” side that few know about. “I personally know more than 15 things Bob Knepper has done for needy kids and folks that have never been written about,” Sutton said.

The exclusively evangelical Protestant approach of the sports ministries and chapels rarely produces complaints, most players indicated.

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Some Avoid Services

Mormon baseball players such as the Angels’ Wally Joyner, the Braves’ Dale Murphy and the Cubs’ Vance Law have attended chapel services. “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not attend as a rule,” said Van Crouch, chapel coordinator for the two Chicago baseball teams. Mike Davis, speaking of his years with the Oakland Athletics, said that Muslims and some Catholics avoid chapel.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles Manager Tommy Lasorda, a Catholic, has been “extremely helpful” with the Dodger chapel, Werhas said.

Lasorda has said he attends Sunday Mass as much as possible during the season, often with Catholic players such as Fernando Valenzuela. “If youngsters can see the manager of the Dodgers going to Holy Communion . . . it can be an incentive to them to realize how important it is to go to church,” Lasorda told an interviewer for a Catholic magazine. In addition, a Mass is sometimes celebrated for the players on Sunday morning before a home game.

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UCLA football coach Terry Donahue, known as a dutiful Catholic, permits both a Catholic Mass and a Protestant service conducted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on the morning before a game.

The pioneer sports ministry, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was begun in 1956 by both mainline, or mainstream, churches and evangelical groups, but it assumed a thoroughly evangelical character in later years. In the late 1950s, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Athletes in Action became the first of many evangelical groups to cultivate a sports ministry.

Limited Visibility

Several reasons have been given to explain why the older, mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have had limited visibility in the sports world.

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For one thing, the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches tend to urge anyone, including athletes, to attend a local church rather than to expect the kind of specialized ministry in which evangelical para-church groups excel.

The religious goals of mainline and conservative Protestantism also differ.

Whereas during the 1984 Olympics the bottom line for evangelicals was more converts, mainline Protestants in Los Angeles formed an interfaith chaplaincy with Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other clergy to serve the needs of athletes and coaches in those traditions.

“We worked as a team,” said the Rev. Charles Doak, a longtime Presbyterian campus minister at UCLA,

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Attention on Individuals

Doak said that evangelical religion may also be inherently the most appealing to athletes because of what he called its attention to the individual over the mainline churches’ emphasis on community justice and shared responsibilities.

“The athlete is always threatened by removal or failure,” Doak said.

It is made clear, however, by evangelical ministers and born-again players alike that they pray to perform up to their ability--not to win. “It’s stupid to ask God to take sides,” one minister said.

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But that does not mean a light-hearted plea for victory goes unappreciated. Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles offered a prayer in verse for a Dodgers world championship in his invocation at the team’s luncheon last April.

Mahony noted that the Dodgers “have the tools that they need/great pitching, good hitting/ strong defense and speed.”

The verse concluded:

“To be the world champions

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“Lord, this would be great!

“We look forward to the season of 1988.”


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