The big problem when we talk about religion and sports | Opinion

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Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz (86), Carson Wentz (11), and Trey Burton (88) pray ahead of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Philadelphia.

Like every Eagles fan, I was devastated when quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending injury on Sunday. He’s a terrific player, of course, and he seems like a terrific person as well: humble, generous, and supremely positive in his outlook on football and life.

“I know my God is a powerful one with a perfect plan!” Wentz tweeted, after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. “Time to just lean into him and trust whatever the circumstances.”

But I’m also troubled by the way that media outlets praise Wentz for his Christian faith, which they almost certainly wouldn’t do if he pursued a non-Christian one. Consider the following exchange between ESPN announcers Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden, who gushed over Wentz near the end of the Eagles’ victory over the Washington Redskins on Oct. 23:

McDonough: “He’s a tremendous young man. [He] says faith is the most important thing in his life. . . . When you are around him you can feel the inherent goodness that he has coming from his faith.”

Gruden: “It’s unbelievable — he thinks his Lord Jesus Christ helps him play better, gives him more confidence. . . . He ran his own Bible study [in college]. He’s doing that here in Philadelphia. He doesn’t push it down anyone’s throat. But good for him.”

So let’s suppose that Carson Wentz was Muslim, not Christian. Can you imagine McDonough and Gruden — or any other big-time sportscaster — lauding Wentz for his faith in Allah, or for leading a Quran study group?

I didn’t think so. And that speaks to a big problem, in the way we speak about religion and sports in America. We’re a hugely diverse country, composed of people who follow different faiths (or, increasingly, no faith at all). When it comes to sports, however, we tend to equate “religion” with “Christian” — and with a born-again version of it, at that.

But Christianity is an immensely diverse religion, too. And there are plenty of devout Christians who don’t believe that every soul needs Jesus to win eternal salvation. They try to make the world more Christlike, instead of trying to convert everyone to Christ.

That was the impulse of athletes and coaches like James Naismith, who founded the game of basketball at the Young Men’s Christian Association in Springfield, Mass., in 1891. In an era of rising poverty and inequality, YMCA leaders argued, sports would teach the spirit of cooperation and fair play that Americans needed to create a more just society. “The playground, if it is to meet the deeper needs of the times, must be a democracy,” another YMCA official proclaimed.

But this style of Christianity came under fire from evangelists like Billy Sunday, who blasted it for “trying to make a religion out of social service with Jesus Christ left out.” A former baseball player turned fire-and-brimstone preacher, Sunday warned that anyone with a “low spiritual batting average” would end up “dying on second and third base.” There was only one way to be a Christian, and everyone else was going to you-know-where.

That became the dominant form of faith in professional sports after World War II, when it merged with the social and political conservatism of the burgeoning Christian Right. In 1977, Eagles tailback Herb Lusk became the first NFL player to kneel in prayer after scoring a touchdown. (Tim Tebow came much later.) Lusk would go on to deliver the invocation at the 2000 Republican convention and praise nominee George W. Bush for his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Bush rewarded Lusk by naming him to a national advisory council on HIV/AIDS, where Lusk insisted that abstinence out of marriage was the only lasting solution to the disease.

Fittingly, Lusk also served as the chaplain for the Eagles. Most other NFL teams have chaplains, too, and most of them — like Lusk — are evangelical Christians. And every team has a core of born-again believers, who try to spread their faith in the locker room and beyond.

On the Eagles, that group is led by Wentz, Trey Burton, Zach Ertz, Jordan Hicks, and Chris Maragos. A few weeks ago, the team released a video about faith featuring testaments from some of these players. Nick Foles, who has taken over as quarterback in the wake of Wentz’s injury, describes himself on Twitter as a “believer in Jesus Christ” before mentioning that he’s also a husband, father, son, and brother. When they are “around guys who maybe aren’t Christians,” Maragos recently told the Inquirer and Daily News’ Jeff McLane, Wentz and Co. remind their teammates that “we got something better to offer.”

Maybe they do. And surely they have every right to evangelize their brand of Christianity, to anyone who will listen. But there are any number of ways to be Christian, or to be religious. And in a nation of enormous diversity, we shouldn’t value one of them over all of the others.

So, go Eagles.

And Happy Hanukkah, to one and all.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of  “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).