When Sports Stars Thank Jesus

I don’t often get asked by people who do not have any faith if they can ask me a question about religion. I was this week and it made me consider that we never quite know the impact of throw away statements (both intentional and unintentional) about your faith. Australian golfer Aaron Baddeley’s victory at the Barbasol Championship two weeks ago was a welcome return to winning. The 35-year-old shot to fame sixteen years ago winning the Australian Open as an amateur. The last time he won a tournament was five years ago and he lost his PGA Tour card at the end of 2015. In a press conference after his win in the Barbasol Championship he thanked Jesus: “Without my relationship with Jesus, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.”

Winding Up Secularists

Aaron’s faith has never been hidden. After winning his second big title in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2007 he said “I’m amazed at God’s goodness in my life – He’s my all, I just love Him so much.” To which Daily Telegraph journalist Rebecca Wilson complained “I do have a big problem with born-again sportsmen who make it their life’s work to spruik Christian beliefs like we are heathens in dire need of conversion.”

He was annoying critics again after his recent win with Sydney Morning Herald columnist and Christian basher Peter Fitzsymons opining “He nearly got through the acceptance speech without doing it, but then, I guess, it just gripped him. He couldn’t stop himself.”

Food For Thought

Aaron’s acknowledgement of Jesus did not go unnoticed to a good friend of mine who is a gifted golfer and passionate about all things golfing. He does not share my faith in Jesus. Nevertheless he bailed me up and wanted to know why Aaron thanked Jesus instead of himself, given that he was due the praise because of his dedicated practice and application to detail. The hard work after all was done by Aaron arguably and not God. The next question involved why Aaron acknowledged Jesus and not God.  The result was a fascinating conversation between a believer and an honest enquirer seeking to understand more about the faith of Aaron Baddeley and to resolve some longstanding confusions.

The conversation covered a range of topics including the Trinity, the role of the Holy Spirit, the notion of seeking solutions outside of yourself and your own capacity for change and renewal, witnessing and why Christians do it, why God hasn’t given Aaron more victories (his career since first winning the Australian Open has been somewhat of a disappointment to many).

It was an enjoyable, honest and frank exchange which to my mind resulted in a greater understanding between both of us. I discovered more about my friend’s genuine quest for greater understanding about the nature and motivations for faith in Jesus and hopefully he left with a greater understanding of Aaron’s faith (and mine). At the end of the conversation I invited my friend to consider that the fact that two blokes 14424km away on the other side of the world from Opelika Alabama were having an in depth conversation about Jesus and related subjects illustrated the value and purpose behind Aaron’s intention to reference Jesus as an act of witness.

The Tebow Effect

I know plenty of Christians who aren’t great fans of Christian sports identities making pronouncements about Jesus. American football quarterback Tim Tebow was both celebrated and hated for his uncompromising stance on using his profile to give witness to Jesus. Tim is the son of Baptist missionary parents. His mother was encouraged to terminate Tim after difficulties with her pregnancy. Tim went on to win the Heisman Trophy (the first sophomore to win it), the highest honour in college football.

During his college football career, he frequently wore references to biblical verses below his eyes on a black smear that footballers use to counteract light glare. After wearing John 3:16 on ‘eye black’ in the 2009 BCS Championship game the verse was the highest-ranked Google search term over the next 24 hours, generating over 90 million searches.  When Tebow switched to another verse, there were 3.43 million searches of “Tim Tebow” and “Proverbs 3:5-6” together. Tebow understood the influence that the platform afforded him and in his own way was determined to use it to witness in the best way he thought relevant.

The governing body of college football brought in what was coined the ‘Tebow Rule’ which made it illegal for players to write messages on their eye black.

In addition, ‘Tebowing’ became a phenomenon. Tebowing is the act of kneeling on one knee in prayer specifically with your head bowed and an arm resting on the one bent knee. Tebow had a propensity for kneeling and praying during games and the phenomenon evolved from there. In an internet age filled with crazes like planking, ‘Tebowing’ joined the list of actions people across the world performed or created memes about.

Tebow’s best playing days in the NFL were for the Denver Broncos before moving on to the New York Jets and then Patriots and Eagles. Tebow now works in commentating and analysis of college football. He is also heavily involved in philanthropy including the development of hospitals through the Tebow Foundation in partnership with CURE. During his playing days his insistence at witnessing meant that he was a polarizing figure. He was pilloried by secularists, and shunned (and also pilloried) by many Christians who felt uncomfortable with his pronouncements of faith and acknowledgements.

Having said that, there are plenty of Christians who support and appreciate his stance and from the Google search metrics associated with his eye black messages, and Google searches of his name.

We The Infamous Ones

It’s easy for the armchair critic (Christian) to cast judgment on high profile Christians, primarily because armchair critics have never experienced what life is like for believers who have a significant public profile. We don’t have mics shoved in our face at the end of our Saturday morning Parkrun or the game of touch football in the park. We live our lives in relative obscurity to the Tebow’s and Baddeley’s of this world.

What was brought home to me this week is that somewhere, people are watching and listening and what appears to many as a throw away acknowledgment is to them a catalyst to inquiry. To some the statements are fodder for satire, to others a stepping stone to faith.

We ourselves (us obscure people who will never have global reach) never know the potential of the statements we make that we think are of little consequence. We don’t have to be sophisticated and culturally correct in order for God to work his purposes. Sometimes it may well be a matter of not bothering about what is cool but what is real and meaningful for us. If we’ve committed our life to Jesus, can we avoid bringing up the subject?


Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager and local gym & fitness club owner. August 2016.