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  A Higher Power Play
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 1998; Page E1

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Okay, Caps fans, it's time to start praying.

The Washington Capitals are down, three games to none, to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals heading into tonight's match-up. If the Wings win, the Capitals' joyous season — their first trip to hockey's championship series in the team's 24-year history — will come to a crashing halt.

Time to seek intervention from a higher power. As a public service to our readers, we asked several men of the cloth:

Is it okay to ask God for a Capitals victory in tonight's game?

There wasn't universal agreement on the answer but Caps fans should know that they aren't heretics if they petition the Lord for help. Whether the prayers will do any good is a matter for lengthy seminary debates.

"In our tradition, the only prayer that's impermissible is one that would upset the natural order of things," says Rabbi Jack Moline, of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. Though, he adds, "I suspect if you're from Detroit, 3 that would be impermissible." Inasmuch as Detroiters believe that it's the natural order of things for the Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Though Moline says it takes chutzpah to assume a prayer rendered to God on behalf of a sporting team will give that team the edge, there's little harm in it. Moreover, he says, there's precedent in the Old Testament. Sort of. When the Israelites were under attack by Amalek, Moses helds his hands up in prayer. Amalek was repelled. When Moses lowered his hands, Amalek began to overrun the Israelites.

"The value of prayer in any kind of competition helps us focus on the righteousness of our cause," Moline says. "And, as a Jew and someone who knows from my history what it's like to be the underdog and yearn for victory, I would say the Caps fit right into that category."

Capitals owner Abe Pollin may have already begun seeking intercession. In his MCI Center box for Saturday night's 2-1 loss was Bruce Lustig, rabbi at Pollin's synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation. Last week, Lustig told his congregation to pray for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup, his administrative assistant reports.

While sports teams of all levels — from high school to the pros — often appeal to God in pre-game prayers, the Capitals don't have a pre-game prayer or a team chaplain, says team spokesman Matt Williams. Moreover, he says, he doesn't know of any teams around the National Hockey League that do. Many professional football and basketball teams, on the other hand, have active religious regimens. When George Allen coached the Washington Redskins, he instituted team prayer and Bible studies, and the core group of players came to be known as the "God Squad." Further, it's common to see football players kneel in prayer during games after a particularly serious injury has occurred on the field. It is not for nothing that the exemplar of a physically vigorous follower of the Gospel — a believer sound of mind, body and soul — was known as a "muscular Christian."

One of the more visible links between sports and religion is seen at the University of Notre Dame, where a mural of Jesus looms over one of the football field's end zones. Because Christ's arms are upraised as though he's signaling a score, He's been nicknamed "Touchdown Jesus." Elsewhere on campus, there is a statue of Moses with an upraised index finger, proclaiming, campus wags say, "We're number one!"

Athletes in Action is a Christian organization that seeks to spread the Gospel by using high-profile athletes — such as hockey goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and baseball pitcher Andy Pettitte — as apostles.

"When we see images on TV where athletes are taking time to humble themselves before God, that's great," says Marc Dickmann, sports information director for the Ohio-based group. "We need positive role models in society, and athletes have a great platform."

Athletes in Action favors pre-game prayers that beseech God to grant a safe and competitive contest.

But then there's the other kind of prayer: The one that asks God for the victory. Is it ethical? After all, by doing so, a partisan is essentially praying that the opponent loses.

"The appropriate prayer is 'May I do my best and may my best be better than the other guy's best,'" Moline says. "It's not, 'Dear God, let me win.' It's not, 'Be with Olie in the goal and guide the Caps' shot into the Detroit goal.' Those are two different kinds of things."

Arguing against intercession for a Capitals' victory is the Rev. Brian Shanley, assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic University and a lifelong sports fan.

"I would not pray for a victory because I cannot think of a good reason to grant the Caps a victory," he says. "You've got to have a morally good reason." He admits a possible bias: The Capitals beat his beloved Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.

But he certainly sanctions another kind of petition.

"I would pray that the Caps would play their best, which they certainly haven't been doing," he says. Moreover, he says: "I think God has already done His work so far for the Caps, getting Philadelphia and New Jersey and Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. What more do you want God to do?"

The theological implications go deep, Shanley allows, as he wrestles with the morality out loud.

"If there's a moral claim that you should root for the underdog, then there's an assumption that God has some kind of preferential option for the underdog. But if Detroit's a better team, don't they deserve to win?

"Then, you go to the fans — do the Capitals fans deserve it? But the fact of the matter is that they don't support the team. Then you could start talking about [Capitals] players — do they deserve it because they haven't won it? What if they're not playing their best? If they're not playing their best, do they deserve it?"

To close the syllogistic circle:

"The only angle would be the underdog angle, and I don't know if that gives you good grounds" to pray for victory, Shanley concludes.

Shanley adds that Caps fans have nothing over the faithful who follow the Boston Red Sox, among which he counts himself.

"The Red Sox are a continual object of prayer: 'Why does God allow such suffering?'" he says of the team, which hasn't won a World Series since 1918 and has repeatedly broken fans' hearts with late-season swoons.

Indeed, the same is true for the Rev. Raymond Kemp, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "I haven't prayed hard for any team since the Washington Senators," says Kemp, who is good friends with a priest in Pittsburgh who used to wear a stole bearing Steelers colors during Sunday Mass. "I prayed hard for the Senators," who left Washington not once but twice.

Does he feel betrayed? Does that mean his prayers fell on deaf ears? Kemp has managed to keep the faith and remains philosophical, as one must when contemplating the Divine Mystery.

"God didn't abandon me," he says. "The Senators did."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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