Should NFL Players Pray Publicly?

by Bryan Wagner

As another National Football League season shifts into high gear, you may notice after the game a group of players from both teams gathering at midfield. This is rarely shown on national television, and what these tired, sweaty athletes are doing is expressing their faith by taking time to praise God in prayer. 

A little more than 7 years ago, Pat Richie, who is San Francisco 49er's team chaplain, conceived the post game huddles so fans could see the contrast between the all to familiar image of the out of control athlete, to the guys who show there is more substance to their lives than just football. Members of the 49er's and the NY Giants first began this practice when they knelt to pray after a playoff game in 1990. All-Pro athletes such as Reggie White, Mark Brunell, Cris Carter and Brent Jones along with many others have demonstrated their faith in this way. 

The issue of public prayer, despite the efforts of the players and chaplins, still and may always remain: Is this type of public prayer appropriate? This question we need to think about carefully. Martin De Haan, president of RBC Ministries, asks and answers this, "Why did Christ tell his disciples to pray in private? Was it because there is never a time to pray in public? No. Obviously there is. But I think we need to be cautious about using public prayer in a competitive arena when motives are likely to be misunderstood. 

As one who used to take part in these post-game prayers, I know when I made this type of a public profession of faith, I was both ridiculed and respected. I was teased, made fun of and called names for my faith. I would be watched very closely in what I said and what I did. But I would also be respected for my stand of faith. 

Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly objected in a 1990 article about the prayer circle that took place in that years Super Bowl. After the New York Giants edged the Buffalo Bills 20-19, he took aim at the players that participated and said they should exercise this freedom in their own home. He also says players shouldn't "shove their religion down my throat", and that prayer is uncalled for in a sporting event. He even ridiculed Giants Jeff Hostetler for "inappropriately" praying privately in front of his locker after the game. Excuse me, but after a game a player is on their own time and anyone can turn off the TV or choose not to watch. A more serious challenge has come from the NFL league office over the past several years to stop these post-game sessions by invoking a seldom used "no fraternizing" rule. Players and even owners would be subjected to a substantial fine. This has never happened. God is faithful and the prayer circles still exist today. 

There are many positives about post-game prayer. Listen to what some players have to say: 
Howard Cross, right end for the NY Giants- "it's a reality check, a chance to calm down and thank God for the ability He has given the players." 
Eugene Robinson, safety of the GB Packers-"it has long lasting fruit, the kind that germinates well after football." 
Brent Jones, right end for the SF 49ers- "it's a step of faith." 

I did it because Christ is more important than the game and it also gave me a chance to get to know the other Christians on the teams we played. These prayers come from the heart. Topics included the safety of the players, the protection of their families, the injured athletes, but mainly acknowledging who Jesus Christ is and hoping others will see He exists. 

Why do the players do it? Is it to let their light shine and give God the glory? Or is it just pretending to be pious? Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and not to hide that light. He also instructs us not to practice piety before others as the Pharisees did. This may seem contradictory, but the difference comes from the motive and intent. I think the majority of players do it for the right reasons. They pray together for the power of the gospel, the oneness in Christ and to glorify God. We shouldn't judge the motive of the player, but praise God these men are humbling themselves in a profession that puts them on a pedestal. I think this fulfills Jesus' commandment to "let your light shine."  In this day and age of self-gratification and a "me first" attitude, it is so nice to see men glorifying God and putting Him first. 

Bryan is a former NFL Punter. He played on several teams during his career including the original Cleveland Browns.