The fall 0f 1996 was one of the most disappointing seasons in my life as a sports fan. My grandpa has instilled in me an avid desire to cheer for the Cleveland Browns. Grandpa is a true Browns fan. We have been to several Browns games in person – in Cleveland, and even ventured to a few road games in Detroit and Indianapolis. Grandpa has every copy of the official team newspaper and several of the media guides. His house (and my bedroom) were littered with brown and orange memorabilia. Some of my fondest memories involve going to Grandpa’s house after church for the 1:00 kick off. We watched them win a lot of games . . . and lose a lot of close games . . . “The Fumble,” The Drive,” they still make me depressed. We also swore a lot at those bastards from Pittsburgh (back then we beat them a lot more than they beat us – as hard as it is for my son to believe).
I was a senior in high school in the fall of 1996. It could have been the greatest year for me as a football fan. But as I look back at that fall, I don’t remember watching many NFL games at all. I remember watching the playoffs and not caring who won – at all.
The fall of 1996 is when the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, moved the Browns to Baltimore and they became what is now the Ravens. ( The whole drama has an entire writeup on Wikipeida) Yeah, that Ravens team. The one that just won their second Super Bowl since moving. The one who is run by one of my favorite players of all time – Ozzie Newsome, who chose to stay there instead of return to Cleveland. The Browns did come back to Cleveland in 1999 and retained their colors, their records, their heritage . . . but it hasn’t been the same since. . They’ve been woeful. It occurred to me this season just how long it has been since they were good. They’ve been to the playoffs once since returning in 1999. And lost. To the Steelers. Bastards.
This is really a long way of explaining why I hate the Ravens. I thought I had gotten over the whole thing, and then I was watching the game Sunday and realized that I was hoping for them to die . . . OK, not really, but I really didn’t want them to win. I realized how real those feeling still are. And then . . . the worst thing that could have happened, happened. They won, but what I’m talking about is worse than that. It has to do with Ray Lewis
In case you missed this parody of Ray Lewis on Saturday Night Live last weekend, it’s pretty funny – see here.
Now, he wasn’t raptured to heaven after the game as the skit mocks, but he was full of Scripture. I heard him interviewed after the game on television, and then again on the radio and both times he was quick to give God the credit for his victory. His first homily still rings in my ears, “Man . . . . I tell you . . . if God is for you, who can be against you? That’s what this is all about?”
That is not what I needed to hear. My heart was already heavy after they Ravens win . . . but now, Mr. Lewis informs me that it was God’s destiny???? That God was on the Ravens side???? That means, as I have long wondered, God hates Cleveland. We had Bill Belichick before Bill Belichick was cool (and he sucked). Bizarre injuries. Unbelievable plays – they once lost a game because one of their players took their helmet off. You just can’t make this stuff up!
While this idea does resonate with a lot of people’s feelings regarding Gods involvement in the games, it doesn’t do much for my theology. Athletes have seldom been shy about preaching the word. Whether it’s Tim Tebow’s eye black, the antics of Dion Sanders, or the classic end zone prayers – Dion Sanders once assured us that “Sports and religion go together like peanut butter and jelly.” However, it is my perspective that these athletes may be the best of the best in the athletic world . . . but they don’t usually make good preachers. This is very subject is critically analyzed by Tom Krattenmaker in his great book Onward Christian Athletes. Are the 49ers, not to mention the other 30 teams, supposed to understand that God wanted them to lose? That there is a plan in their losing? To take Ray Lewis’s comment in it’s implication – absolutely.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that the Scriptures from which these athletes regularly quote more often times than not, celebrate the “losers.” The entire New Testament proclaims Jesus came to the less fortunate and the downtrodden . . . so to think that somehow these same Scriptures, at the same time, proclaim God’s providence for their games and that God takes interest in who wins? The Scriptures are written in the context of people preparing to die for their faith and be physically tested and challenged in their faith. In quoting from Romans, Ray Lewis shows himself to be lacking in his exegetical skills. Instead, like so many athletes, the turn to the Scriptures to reaffirm a broader civic religion at play in their games – a religion where good sportsmanship, playing by the rules, and being a good teammate are tantamount to God’s ultimate purpose in life. While these are all noble qualities, they do not represent the essence of the Christian Gospel. The “sacrifice” that the Bible talks about has nothing to do with preparing for a game. God being “for us” has nothing to do with promoting the outcome of a game. By using these holy words to affirm his victory, Ray Lewis has reduced the Bible to a self-help guide, a trite collection of feel-good aphorisms that show up in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble a month after it comes out.
Athletes should stop quoting Scripture. At least in the trite way that has become so common place across today’s athletic landscape. If an athlete were to ever come to terms with the true radical nature of Scripture, and shared the words of the Bible in the midst of the modern-day spectacle that is the Super Bowl, we can be assured that people would have taken notice of that . . . and probably not taken the words too well.