Have you ever sneaked in a little prayer that your team might win a close game? It also is not unusual to see a batter blessing himself before stepping up to the plate, or an acknowledgment of thanks to God after a wide receiver catches a touchdown pass.
When you consider the passion and drama of sports, and the dedication needed by athletes, then an acknowledgment to the Almighty is not surprising.
Indeed, most of us would benefit by talking more to God and seeking his guidance and support in our work, whether at the highs and at the lows. But there seems to be a particularly compelling link between sports and religion. This is acknowledged in some of the best sports films.
Sports at the movies is hot right now with "Million Dollar Baby" winning a bunch of Academy Awards late last month. Coincidentally, "Chariots of Fire," the 1981 best picture winner, and the 1986 film "Hoosiers" have each just been re-released on two-disc special edition DVDs. I am a sucker for DVDs of great films that include all kinds of documentaries, commentaries and deleted scenes, and the new DVD packages of "Hoosiers" and "Chariots of Fire" are enjoyably jam packed.
Many consider "Chariots of Fire" and "Hoosiers" to be the two top sports movies of all time. In my mind, the only real debate is which gets ranked first and which second. Now, "Million Dollar Baby" is being mentioned as a contender. Prior to the Academy Awards, Sports Illustrated ran an article speculating that "Million Dollar Baby" might be the greatest boxing film.
Interestingly, religion comes into play in each of these three films, with "Million Dollar Baby" though differing sharply in its treatment.
In "Chariots of Fire," the story focuses on runners from Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games. One, Eric Liddell, is not only fast, but also a Christian missionary. The film presents Liddell's Christian beliefs as the very core of his being. His decision, after years of training, not to run on a Sunday during the Olympics was presented as noble and principled. Standing up to enormous pressure, he states that "to run would be against God's law." For good measure, Eric's declarations regarding God's purpose for his life are inspirational.
Religion does not play a central role in "Hoosiers," which is the story of how a tiny high school wins the Indiana state basketball championship in the early 1950s, but faith is an unmistakable and positive backdrop in the film. The team, for example, travels on the local preacher's bus, and prays before each game.
Most fitting for this underdog tale, the preacher prays before the championship game: "And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and slung it. And it struck the Philistine on the head and he fell to the ground. Amen."
Religion explicitly enters "Million Dollar Baby" through the old trainer portrayed by Clint Eastwood. He regularly attends mass at a Catholic Church, but only seems interested in mocking points of doctrine with the priest. Both the priest and the moviegoer are left bewildered as to why the trainer comes to church at all.
After the female fighter becomes paralyzed from the neck down, she asks that the trainer kill her. After a perfunctory exchange with the priest, the trainer eventually commits euthanasia. He murders her. So, bringing religion into the film either lacked purpose or was done to specifically reject the Christian message regarding the preciousness of life.
While "Chariots of Fire" and "Hoosiers" embrace religion and prayer to varying degrees, "Million Dollar Baby" turns out to be an anti-religion sports film.
At one point in "Chariots of Fire," Eric compares faith to running in a race. He declares: "It's hard, requires concentration of will, energy of soul." But faith and sports, obviously on different levels, offer hope. True hope and energy of soul were absent in the bleakness of "Million Dollar Baby," and that's one reason why it will never rank among the best sports films of all time.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.