Years ago, when I was a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press, I had the opportunity — the honor, really — of getting to cover sports on nearly every level. High school. Middle school. College. Even a pro game or two.
(Did you hear the one about the guy whose doctor tells him he only has one day left to live? The guy runs out and find the nearest middle school girls' basketball tournament, buys a ticket and stays the rest of the day. Why, you ask? 'Cause it'll seem like the longest day of his life!)
Unless it was soccer, I knew that as a sports reporter I could count on certain things: One team always won, one team always lost. And most times, I would find someone — a coach or player — praying, thanking God for this or that.
Every time, it was the winner.
I never heard anyone — coach, player, parent, pro athlete — ever give thanks for losing. For getting injured. For not getting to play. For missing the winning shot or dropping the winning catch.
Is God not present there as well?
My opinion on prayer within the Hamilton County Commission meetings is no secret. It ought to be replaced by the more inclusive moment of silence. But recent challenges to pregame prayer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football games make me rethink my position.
There seems a wide difference between a government building -- where folks are represented, budgets crafted and legislation passed — and Finley Stadium. Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says (they've been morally wrong before) there seems a quantifiable difference between an evangelical prayer at the County Commission and someone asking for God's blessing before the Mocs play.
So I'm pulling for Finley Stadium prayer, but not in the way you might think.
A long time ago, in a land far away, I was a coach. Girls basketball. One season in particular, we lost. Every ... single ... game.
I don't remember if my players or I prayed before games. We were so bad we could have had Moses on the bench and still lost. And man, I sure wanted to win. Heck, some games I just wanted a lay-up to go in.
Often, they never did. And we never won. And I was crushed flatter than pregame pancakes.
Looking back, I've realized that losing season was far more transforming than the season my team went undefeated (better players, not better coaching). My losing season was a blessing that taught me empathy and perspective. God, I learned, is far more present in the suffering, the losses and the defeats in life than in the winning.
Take Ridgeland High School, which has drawn the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Football coach Mark Mariakas, the foundation claims, merges the sport way too closely with religion — taking players to church, hosting pregame prayers, Bible verses on jerseys.
My understanding — confirmed by several folks within the area's sports community — is that Mariakas is a stand-up guy who's only trying to do what he thinks is right for his players.
"You cannot find a better man," one of his former players told me.
At the end of the day, that's worth something.
But what if we changed our understanding of prayer? What if Mariakas' actions and loyalty to his players was a form of prayer? He doesn't have to say anything to pray; his whole coaching philosophy can be prayer. And with this tough road before him now, there is so much that can be learned, so much he can model to his players about adversity and forgiveness.
I don't think God — creator of universes, black holes and honey badgers — cares whether we pray at football games. I think we do it for ourselves. And I can't see a way out of this mess until we begin to view prayer radically different.
Not something to announce over a microphone, but something we lose ourselves in.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...