There is an irony here, one so blatantly conspicuous that it is nearly invisible. It was Karl Marx who famously referred to religion as “the opiate of the masses.” This Sunday, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will tune in, with great interest and fervor, to watch a game with an outcome that has no direct bearing on their lives (unless they took Arizona plus the points). People will hug, they will cry, they will cheer, they will wreak unconscionable havoc on automobiles, based solely on the outcome of this game.
And religion is the opiate of the masses? Or is sport the new religion?
'It's not who wins'
“If you ever really want to do a story about who I am, God’s got to be at the center of it,” said Kurt Warner, who will be making his third Super Bowl start. “Every time I hear a piece or read a story that doesn’t have that, they’re missing the whole lesson of who I am.”
“You don’t have to listen to what I have to say,” Roethlisberger said before his first Super Bowl start three years ago in Detroit, “but I will always have the opportunity to glorify God in all that I do.”
Does God care who wins? There are few things regarding religion that approach consensus, but it’s fair to say that most of us concur with FoxSports.com columnist Mark Kriegel, who recently wrote, “I refuse to believe that God —anyone’s God — has a rooting interest in the outcome of something as secular and perverse as a (football) game.”
Lusk agrees. “That’s a very shallow way of looking at it, that God would care who wins,” says Lusk. “It’s not who wins. It’s, do you serve God by displaying your talents to the best of your abilities?”
BYU won 17-10, and afterward, Collie, a devout Mormon, told a radio reporter, “When you’re doing what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part. Magic happens.”
Collie was widely excoriated in print for his comment, but did not back down. “I believe the Lord has truly blessed me,” Collie said. “It’s the reason why I’m playing football, and if you don’t believe that, the next time you receive an award, then don’t say you want to thank God first for your success. That is the same exact thing. For people to make an issue out of saying that the Lord helps me out is ludicrous.”
This past season Collie led the nation in receiving yards per game.
There’s a common thread that links Warner and Roethlisberger and Bradford and McCoy and Tebow and even Collie. Besides their football success, that is. All of them play glamour positions, playing relatively non-violent roles in a highly violent game.
What if Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who laid out Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee with a vicious fourth quarter hit in the AFC Championship Game, had pointed heavenward after delivering that blow? McGahee lay motionless on the field, but then again, Clark had caused a Super Bowl-clinching fumble.
If Clark had publicly thanked God for that moment, would that have been in any poorer taste than McCoy pointing skyward after tossing a touchdown pass? And, of course, as has been pointed out numerous times before, why don’t quarterbacks exhort God after throwing a pick six?
Some find reasons to believe or dismiss
Is spirituality real or is it simply life’s greatest psychological performance-enhancing drug? Does the answer matter?
Lusk played three NFL seasons. Uncommonly close with his coach, Dick Vermeil, Lusk spent one day at training camp in 1979 and then left to begin his ministry. When he began at his church in run-down North Philadelphia, he had 17 members and two mortgages.
Today? “We have more than 200 employees,” says Lusk. “We give out 8,000 food baskets at Christmas. Mentor 1,000 children of inmates. We train about 3,000 welfare recipients per year on how to enter the work force. The same bank building that used to turn us down for loans? Now we own that bank.”
Ben Roethlisberger did not start at quarterback until his senior year of high school. Five years later, in his 2004 rookie season, he donated his first playoff game check — $18,000 — for tsunami relief.
“We serve people who are Christian, who are Muslim, who are atheist,” says Lusk, who considers all these public pigskin proselytizers his sons. “My obligation is to humanity. Why would you take that away from me, that which motivates me to help people?”
You can’t know. You can only have faith. Still, at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe. Those are not my words. Those are the words of one of the world’s greatest living evangelists, a man who preaches rock-and-roll salvation. A man who on Sunday night, for nearly half an hour, will preach his gospel at halftime of the most viewed television event of the year. Bruce Springsteen.
People find some reason to believe. And as long as they do, other people will find some reason to dismiss it.
After the Eagles lost the NFC Championship Game in Arizona, Lusk sent an email to the Philadelphia coaching staff. “‘It is not the critic who counts,’” says Lusk. “‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.’”
“There’s more to it,” says Lusk, “but that’s the focus. Isn’t that a great quote?”
Old or New Testament?
“That’s from Teddy Roosevelt.”
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