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Winning faith?

Sports | Book explores connections between religion and sports

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

In the run-up to the 2007 NFL football season, quarterback Jon Kitna predicted that the fledgling Detroit Lions, who had finished 3-13 the year before, would win 10 games. Analysts scoffed. But when the team won six of its first eight, reporters rushed to find an explanation for the improbable turnaround. Many pointed to Kitna's Christian faith, which had inspired professions of faith among some two dozen of his teammates and fostered a locker-room culture of spiritual unity.

ESPN columnist Jemele Hill called it "the resurrection of a franchise that, well, only Jesus could muster." Kitna credited his Maker with a miraculous healing of a concussion he suffered in the first half of a week 2 contest with the Minnesota Vikings. The devout playcaller later returned to the game and led his team to an overtime victory.

But all such hype soon deflated as the Lions managed just a single victory over the season's final eight games to finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs. A dismal 0-16 record followed in 2008.

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The story of Kitna's Lions is one of many that journalist Tom Krattenmaker recounts in his forthcoming book Onward Christian Athletes (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009). Krattenmaker contends that the conflation of Christianity and winning is pervasive among evangelical athletes. Writing from a pluralistic perspective, he raises questions as to how such public figures might better reflect the values of their faith.

A self-described "Jesus follower," Krattenmaker is nonetheless concerned that other religions find expression in professional sports, too. He considers the overrepresentation of the evangelical flavor disturbing: "There's a pretty well-coordinated, intentional effort by evangelicals to engage with pro sports. There are chaplains with all of the pro sports teams, and they almost always come from evangelical ministries. They're very intentional about articulating their mission as being one of leveraging sports to reach the public with their message."

Of course, evangelicals would disagree that such efforts are problematic. But what of Krattenmaker's more salient point-that connecting faith with athletic success misrepresents Christianity's purpose? Evangelicals might well resonate with exploration of that topic, specifically reports from Kitna and teammates that their 0-16 season provided more opportunity for growth and expression of true faith than the 6-2 start of 2007 ever could.

Springing forward

Helio Castroneves cleared of tax evasion charges

By Mark Bergin

Popular Indy car racer Helio Castroneves was cleared of all charges May 22 in a federal case alleging tax evasion. A jury acquitted the 2007 winner of ABC's Dancing with the Stars of six charges and failed to reach a verdict on the seventh count of conspiracy. Prosecutors have elected not to retry Castroneves on that charge.

Just two days later, freshly armed with that bit of good news, the charismatic driver parlayed pole position into his third Indianapolis 500 victory. Adorned in flowers in the winner's circle, Castroneves thanked his fans through tears and credited his Maker for his remarkably rapid ascent to the height of his sport yet again: "I have to thank, first of all, the Lord for giving me this opportunity to be strong, to have the family that I have. . . . It was a tough beginning of the season, but things are starting to fall into place. This is the best month of May ever."

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