In a dramatic move, University of Florida’s legendary football coach, Urban Meyer, abruptly quit the sport on Christmas Day.
His decision came after a hospitalization for chest pains and a realization that he had nearly worked himself to death building a championship team. Meyer’s prodigious work habits included neglecting his family and e-mailing recruits in church.
“I’m a person of faith and I wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight,” said Meyer. “A lot of times, coaches do not have their priorities straight. You put business before God and family, you have a problem.”
Of course, this is wishful thinking. If Meyer had actually prioritized God and family before the pigskin, he’d make a fine deacon and a great father… and a mediocre Division II coach. Those who reach the pinnacle in sports have a rare combination of natural gifts and an obsessive need to win. For example, the two most successful basketball players in my lifetime are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – both of whom are pathological competitors. Their need to win likely crosses over into a disorder – but that is what it takes to be a champion.
For all his talk about God, it was the text messages and e-mails from the pews that catapulted the coach into sainthood in Gainesville. The choice was to worship on Sunday or be worshiped by adoring fans each Saturday – and Meyer chose the latter. This is not a criticism, just a reality check on Meyer’s message that he could have reversed his priorities and still had the same successful career. I doubt he could have.
When Meyer announced his retirement, his 18-year-old daughter hugged him and said, “I get my daddy back.” The coach said that he was retiring because God had told him to quit and his daughter’s reaction was confirmation of this divine intervention.
Two days later, following an afternoon on the practice field, Meyer changed his mind and switched his retirement status to a “leave of absence.” He expects to coach next fall.
So, did Meyer misinterpret God, confuse God’s voice with his own desires or is the coach defying His will by returning to the sideline?
In sports, it seems, God is always on the winning side, ready to snatch victory from the presumably heathen team, and deliver the game to the good guys. However, the notion is quite offensive and in some ways ruins the game. Why even watch, after all, if the sport is fixed and a victory is already preordained by God?
In any case, I think that athletes and coaches should get back to scoring touchdowns or drawing up plays on chalkboards. The whole “catch a ball for God” routine is getting quite stale. Just once I’d like to see an athlete say, “I dropped the ball because Jesus doesn’t like me.”
Why not? Does He not get the credit for touchdowns, with an increasing number of spoiled, solipsistic athletes pointing towards the heavens after each score?
It is also outrageous to think that God gives a damn about football when children are starving and wars are raging. On my block in New York City, there are about a half-dozen homeless people who are exposed to the harshness of winter. I’d like to think that a just deity would end such injustice before traipsing off each Sunday to the New York Giants game.
For selfish reasons, as a University of Florida alumnus, I am glad Meyer is returning. I like to win and gator chomp and it makes me feel good to marinade in victory. It was exhilarating to crush Cincinnati 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl.
But can we finally keep God off the goal line and have a separation of sports and Scripture? Can the former Gator quarterback, Tim Tebow, an incredible athlete and a seemingly decent person, complete one sentence without mentioning Jesus and turning it into a prayer?
The fact that an athlete is gifted, does not mean he is God’s gift to the universe. Fundamentalist athletes and coaches alike aren’t special and should stop acting like Moses, just because they get to appear on ESPN’s Sports Center.
Although, after watching Tebow pass for a career-high 482 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 51 yards against Cincinnati, I wouldn’t rule out that he could part the Red Sea.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”