Does God Have a Favorite Sports Team? | Sojourners

Does God Have a Favorite Sports Team?

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the team after the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Championship at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. Sunday, March 10, 2024. Ken Ruinard/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters.

After the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team won the NCAAW championship on April 7, 2024, the team’s deeply emotional head coach Dawn Staley attributed the historic win to God: “We serve an unbelievable God — we serve an unbelievable God.” Staley continued, “Uncommon favor, unbelievable.”

What does “uncommon favor” mean exactly? Typically, that phrase has been used in church spaces to denote an unexpected blessing. In Staley’s case, we find her crediting God for blessing her and the Gamecocks with a national championship.

Is this uncommon favor? Perhaps. But for Staley, these aren’t uncommon sentiments. Throughout South Carolina’s entire undefeated season, Staley has continuously acknowledged God both on and off the court. This acknowledgment includes the controversial statement, “If you don’t believe in God, something’s wrong with you, seriously.” (offered after a win against the University of Oregon that placed South Carolina into the Final Four). On Instagram, Staley, who is a Christian, documents the devotions she delivers to the team before each game, which she calls “pregame meals.” The devotions are always titled: “Jesus vs. Georgia,” “Jesus vs. Tennessee,” or “Jesus vs. Alabama,” with Jesus’ opponent always matching the Gamecocks’ opposing team.

As a longtime fan of women’s basketball and someone who, while riding the bench in high school, once had dreams of playing Division I ball, I closely followed the NCAAW tournament this year. As a womanist and theological thinker, I’ve been paying even closer attention to the ways athletes and coaches mention God. Could God have really helped coach Staley win the NCAAW championship? Does God intervene in sports?

Now, I recognize that questions like these may seem a bit silly. Personally, I can’t imagine God flicking God’s finger and changing the trajectory of a ball. I struggle to picture God whispering into the ear of a referee to help them decide on a controversial call.

However, I reckon that what a person believes about how God shows up in the gym, on the field, at the rink, etc., is also indicative of what they believe about God in other aspects of their life. If you believe that God will manipulate a shot, you might also think that prayer can get you the right lottery ticket numbers. If one understands God to only be on their side — “Jesus vs. the opposing team” — you might fail to recognize the face of God in your opponent. Indeed, you may think that everyone who offers a different opinion than your own is not only your opponent but God’s opponent too. If there is a deep inclination that you can pray hard enough to win, your view of God can — and will — be warped in the case that you lose.

Some might argue that faith in God translates to success in their respective sport. The NBA basketball player and Golden State Warriors’ point guard Stephen Curry is known for his usage of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” On Curry’s signature shoe with Under Armour, this verse is written on the tongue of the sneaker. And after Curry scores a three-point shot, he taps his chest and points toward the sky to remind himself to “have a heart for God.” Curry says that this verse serves as “my mantra, how I get up for games and why I play the way I do.”

At face value, this is an inspiring passage that uplifts the limitless capacity of God’s children. But when read in context, it is a verse that Paul uses to explain the trials of building a ministry from the ground up, according to the late Abraham J. Malherbe, who was a New Testament scholar and professor emeritus at Yale Divinity School. In his review of Curry’s TV series, Stephen vs The Game, sports studies scholar Zach Smith notes that the verse “is a mantra well-suited to the athletic point of view with an almost self-help sounding focus on overcoming obstacles.” The result is a faith that emphasizes an individual “relationship with God as the locus of an authentic faith that is evidentially validated by empirical outcomes.”

But Paul’s intention for this verse was not for it to be used as a mantra or to emphasize an individualized relationship with God. Rather, this verse is Paul recognizing that God was acting through the church of Philippi, which provided him with financial support for his ministry. As Malherbe emphasized, this verse does not guarantee that Christians will experience success in “all things.” For Paul, the “all things” he is referring to revolve around ministry and not simply succeeding in sports because you are a Christian or believe in God.

While I don’t think God exerts any particular energy or power over the results of a basketball game or any other sporting event, I do think God cares about us, rejoicing with us when we win and comforting us when we lose. I imagine that a sporting event is God’s opportunity to kick back and relax just like the rest of us. Perhaps God gasps when we do, cheers on a great play, and maybe even sighs after a terrible call. Maybe God receives the glory from the winning side while simultaneously comforting the losing team. Maybe we should imagine God is just another excited fan, cheering on those created in God’s image. Maybe God is on both sides.

That said, I do believe there are times when God takes sides. In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “the father” of Black theology James H. Cone writes that “[w]ithout concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for ‘pie in the sky.’” A God worth believing in is a God who sides with the oppressed in the face of injustice. God takes sides with the Hebrews in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule, the LGBTQ+ people being targeted by state and federal legislation, and Palestinians being bombed by the Israeli government. These are instances where God “chooses a team.” And the team that God chooses is always the underdog. These issues don’t end after a 40-minute game. They are not settled by the decision of a jump ball. In the face of visceral oppression, the God of the oppressed steps in.

After the stands are emptied and the parades finally come to an end, some will still find the “uncommon favor” that Staley cites to be an encouraging testimony. As a huge fan of the Gamecocks, I admire Staley’s convictions and don’t want to diminish her accomplishments. But rather than just simply chalking up their success to divine intervention, I think it’s important to recognize that the South Carolina women’s basketball team and coach also displayed uncommon work ethic, uncommon talent, and uncommon discipline. God surely cheers them on, but I don’t believe that God is in the business of handing out advantages to one team, one player, or one coach because God favors one side over the other.

If God were in the business of choosing favorites in sports, then after many nights of prayers, endless devotion, and faith that was certainly bigger than a mustard seed, I think I would’ve eventually been subbed into one of my high school basketball games.