Athletic epiphanies often lack perspective

Commentary: Matt Calkins

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Minutes after toppling Oregon in Monday’s BCS title game, Auburn coach Gene Chizik revealed what gamblers around the country really would have liked to have known.

“God was on our side,” he said on national TV.

Hey, props to the Tigers’ recruiting staff on that pull. Omniscience is a heck of a weapon against a Chip Kelly offense.

But even the densest among us know that God has more to worry about than a little college football game.

There’s pro football, too.

Last November, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson blamed The Man Upstairs for causing a potentially game-winning touchdown pass to slip through his fingers, later tweeting “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me!?!?!?”

And don’t forget about LeBron James taking to the Twitterverse after the Cavs’ 55-point loss to the Lakers on Tuesday, the King promulgating “Karma’s a (expletive). God sees everything.”

Man, hear enough of this God-and-sports talk and you start to wonder if there are tailgaters and scalpers lurking outside the pearly gates. But seriously, can the Lord Almighty really have that vested an interest in a game’s result?

“I’m not sure that is God’s major concern,” said Dan Russell, former champion wrestler and current pastor at Battle Ground Foursquare Church. “God didn’t need me to win four NCAA titles, but I do think I was honoring him by doing my best, by giving 100 percent regardless of the outcome.”

Wait a minute ... is Russell implying the Big Guy didn’t at least slide him out of a half nelson or two? Maybe accelerate the ref’s arm on a pinfall? Because there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that sports outcomes do get a divine boost from time to time — especially on the high school level.

The top-ranked prep football team in the country is De La Salle, a Catholic school in California. The No. 1 prep basketball team is Oak Hill Academy, a Baptist school in Virginia. New York’s Christ the King High, meanwhile, won a mythical national championship in girls basketball six years ago and has produced WNBA All-Stars such as Sue Bird, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tina Charles.

It’s when we get to college sports that the immaculate influence begins to wear off — most notably with Notre Dame football, which has finished in the Top 10 once in the past 17 years.

One of two conclusions can be drawn from this data: A) Religious high schools generally have more money than others and are simply better able to attract and develop quality athletes. B) God, being omnipotent and all, skipped college and went right to the pros.

“I don’t think God determines the outcome of any event. I think he’s given us the tools to affect the outcome,” said Ed Little, principal of Seton Catholic High in Vancouver. “But we have to remember that it’s competition, not the end of the world. We have to keep that perspective.”

We should probably also keep in mind just who exactly is succeeding in sports.

Did God help Tiger Woods win 14 majors while he was cheating on his wife? Was God keeping Mike Tyson champion while he was beating his wife?

Can you not think of at least 50 successful athletes that God’s public relations angel would try to keep at bay? And what will it mean when Auburn eventually starts to lose? Does God switch teams faster than Larry Brown?

It is questions like these that tend to puzzle Portland resident Tom Krattenmaker, a contributing religion writer for USA Today who penned the book “Onward Christian Athletes” in 2009.

Krattenmaker recounted the story of the 2007 Detroit Lions, who shocked the NFL by surging to 6-2 in the first half of the season. Quarterback Jon Kitna preached “salvation” week in and week out while religious media noted the profound effect spirituality had on their success.

So what happened next? Detroit lost seven of its next eight games and went 0-16 the following year. As the late, great defensive lineman-turned-minister Reggie White said: “God don’t need football to proclaim who he is.”

Look, whether someone is praying to Jesus, bowing to Allah, worshipping Vishnu, or honoring Buddha, religion can be a beautiful thing that unites communities, promotes charity, provides an outline for compassionate living and, yes, assists in sports excellence.

Russell said that he honors God by giving it his all.

Little said that prayer can help center an athlete before an event.

And former Trail Blazer Dan Dickau asserted that his faith helped him weather the incessant ups and downs throughout his hoops career, adding that God couldn’t have been too detached from the Ducks if they made it all the way to the title game.

But for people to say that the Lord has a particular allegiance? For them to suggest that He looks less favorably upon the runners-up than the victor? For athletes or coaches or fans to imply that prayer, not practice or prowess, is what’s moving that ball across the goal line?

God help them.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com