Team Spirit Print
Written by Eric McHenry   
Article Index
Team Spirit
Page 2
Page 3

ImageGrowing up in small-town North Carolina, Tyrone Willingham had two religions—Christianity and football—and he was careful not to neglect either one.

“College football highlights came on at about noon Sunday,” he recalls. “And at that time you didn’t have the ability to record a program. So by noon we had made our move to the back row of the church. We were ready to put our money in the collection plates and dash out the door.”

Sports and religion go hand-in-hand in America. Collegiate and professional teams have chaplains and chapel sessions. Players invoke God before games and point to him after touchdowns. Billy Graham and the Promise Keepers hold their rallies and revivals in the same stadiums where faithful fans (a word that derives from the Latin for “temple”) gather by the tens of thousands to cheer on the Angels and the Saints, even when they haven’t got a prayer.

But, as Willingham learned early in life, religion and sports are sometimes at odds, too—and not just on Sundays. As a football coach, he must work hard to instill his values in his players. But as the coach of a large, religiously diverse team at a public university, he must keep some of those values close to the vest. He must practice what he can’t always preach.

“Clearly, religion is a part of what it means to be in athletics these days,” says James Wellman, chair of the comparative religion program at the Jackson School of International Studies. On May 9, Wellman will moderate a panel including Willingham and Men’s Basketball Coach Lorenzo Romar on “Religion in Sports: Tensions and Opportunities,” the final installment in the comparative religion program’s annual lecture series.

“You see a lot of sports figures expressing their religious beliefs, and a lot of different religious groups serving and ministering to sports teams,” Wellman says. “Fellowship groups are very active. There are Bible studies before games and prayers before games. I’m curious how these coaches deal with religious diversity on their teams.”

ImageIn a word, carefully. Neither Willingham nor Romar says he has ever been given explicit guidelines by the University, but both say they’re mindful of the need to tread lightly. It’s a matter of respect, they say, both for religious diversity and for the distinction between public and private arenas. “I think I have an awareness of those sensitivities regardless of whether our administration sits down with me to discuss them,” says Willingham. “I’m aware that there are certain things you cannot do at a public institution because it seems to violate the rights of the individual, and I’m careful not to let any spiritual feelings that I have threaten that balance.”

That’s not to say that the coaches must feign agnosticism every workday, or that religion is unwelcome in UW athletics. Both teams have a volunteer chaplain, former Husky football player Mike Rohrbach, ’78, who directs the Christian sports ministry Run to Win Outreach. (Rohrbach’s wife, Karen, ’78, is volunteer chaplain for women’s basketball.) Both teams offer voluntary Bible study and observe a moment of silence before games, which some players use for prayer. And Romar has also organized a weekly Bible study for members of his staff. But the coaches stress that participation in these activities is voluntary.

“I’ve definitely made it clear, what I believe. But I’ve never forced it on anyone,” says Romar, a devout Christian who spent seven years as a player and coach for Athletes in Action, the sports division of the Campus Crusade for Christ. “Everything is there for you, it’s voluntary. It’s not going to affect your playing time or the way I view you as a person at all.”

Romar believes his personal experiences as an evangelical Christian and an Athlete in Action have, in fact, heightened his awareness of religious sensitivities. He grew up in a church-going family and attended Catholic school, but didn’t think deeply about faith until his mid-20s. Following a strong but not stellar basketball career at the UW, he hustled and scrapped his way onto the roster of the 1980 Golden State Warriors, then beat even longer odds by returning to the NBA for four more seasons.

But during that time he began to feel a spiritual need that no amount of worldly success could satisfy. One day he picked up a Bible he and his wife had received as a wedding gift. “That’s when the light came on,” he says. “I had been trying to get closer to God by just being a good person. But no one will get closer to God that way, because we don’t reach his standard. When I read the scriptures, I realized I had to depend on what he had already done for me as a way for me to get closer to him.”