Some say that sports have become a religion in American society. If so, it should come as no surprise that prayer plays such a prominent part of the sports scene.

More than a few sportswriters and broadcasters have been known to say, “They don’t have a prayer of winning that game.” While the saying may contain a kernel of truth, that’s not the kind of prayer I mean.

People are uncomfortable with prayer at sporting events for a number of reasons. For spectators, coaches and athletes who don’t believe in a higher power, prayer is irrelevant.

But even those who believe in God aren’t unanimous when it comes to the role of prayer at public sporting events.

It’s not that anyone quibbles with silent prayer, but if you choose to have a public prayer, what constitutes an appropriate prayer?

In 31 years as a basketball official, I’ve heard only a handful of public prayers before games. The prayers were fairly simple-thanking God for the ability of the athletes who were playing the game, praying for the well-being of all participants, and reminding spectators to be respectful of the players and officials.

It wouldn’t have hurt my feelings if the prayer had included a request for wisdom for the officials. I’m sure someone would have offered a loud “Amen!”

What I haven’t heard was a prayer asking for victory. That request would surely raise eyebrows-but honestly, isn’t that what we want if we’re the home team?

Maybe we don’t think that kind of prayer is appropriate. Or, maybe we think God has more important prayers to answer than determining the outcome of athletic contests.

All of which makes me wonder how God responds to prayers when players, coaches and fans from both teams pray for victory.

For example, how does God answer prayers when Tabor plays Bethel in volleyball, football, soccer, basketball or any other sport? Is the outcome based on which team prays harder or more sincerely?

When I played sports in high school and college, I don’t recall praying for a victory. Nor do I remember praying that the best team win, maybe because deep down I knew we weren’t always the best team.

As a basketball official, I’ve been known to utter a silent prayer before a game, asking for wisdom to do the best job I can and to respond to situations appropriately. Even if I asked God to help me call a perfect game, I don’t know how that prayer would be answered.

I believe the almighty God could make that happen, but I’m not sure that’s God’s priority-and it hasn’t happened in the more than 1,500 games that I’ve officiated so far.

There seems to be some element of human error that God allows.

While I believe in the power of prayer, I don’t claim to have all the answers as to how and why God responds.

Using the Bible as a guide, prayer is acceptable anytime. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.”

That seems rather straightforward and simple. “Everything” encompasses, well, just about everything, including sports, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, Jesus was critical of the Pharisees for praying in public because their primary purpose was to be seen praying publicly.

They wanted to be thought of as super-spiritual, but Jesus wasn’t impressed because he knew their hearts.

When you get down to the crux of the matter, prayer before a game might look good, but does it do any good? It can.

However, if, after pre-game prayers, there is frequent and inappropriate behavior by players, coaches and fans during a game, maybe the prayers were merely lip service.

Perhaps officials should throw a flag or give a technical foul for a bad testimony.

I believe God generally cares more about how we conduct ourselves during games than about the outcome of games. And it’s very hard to maintain control when our emotions are involved.

It’s easy to talk the talk. It’s hard to walk the walk. If prayer changes everything but our actions, perhaps it really isn’t prayer.

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