Sports are supposed to be fun. They’re where we turn to distract ourselves from the harsh realities of life.
What happened to Damar Hamlin during Monday Night Football isn’t supposed to happen. As we watched the Bills star, a 24-year-old professional athlete in peak physical condition, suffer cardiac arrest and drop to the turf, we were reminded of our fragility. We could see how close all of us, even professional athletes, are to death.
How do we respond when the curtain of our common humanity is pulled back and we’re brought to our knees? In those times, we need Christian leaders in public spaces who are faithful to lead in both witness and prayer.
Suffering Brings Us to Our Knees
When it became evident how serious the situation was, players and coaches from both teams dropped to their knees on the field in tears, heads bowed and in prayer. Thousands—if not millions—offered prayers for Hamlin privately, on social media, and through their media platforms. Everywhere I looked I saw some variation of “Pray for Damar Hamlin.”
Talking about faith publicly isn’t always easy, even for those most secure in what they believe. Even in sensitive times like this, prayer can bring out vitriolic trolls. No matter how well intentioned they may be, Christians who pray publicly can become targets of nasty comments from people who are fatigued by “thoughts and prayers” or simply don’t think God is real.
Talking about faith publicly isn’t always easy, even for those most secure in what they believe.
Still, those who aren’t believers sometimes look to us to lead them through times of suffering, through moments they can’t understand. Take Fox Sports personality Nick Wright, for example, speaking about the Hamlin situation to his sports talk show cohost Chris Broussard, a believer:
Two of the closest people in the world to me, my wife and you—my [broadcast] partner for years—are deeply religious people, and I am not. And it made me a little envious in that moment and since then that I didn’t have that foundation of, I don’t want to say, a greater purpose or a higher power or something.
Because I feel like at times like this, when there’s an inexplicable tragedy, you’re almost flailing about, like, “Why? Why did it happen to this kid in this moment?”
Need for Public Witness
In tragedy, people are looking for answers. As Christians, we don’t always have them. We can’t fully explain why something like this happens. We know suffering, pain, and heartache are inevitable, but we don’t always know God’s specific purposes in our suffering.
What Christians can distinctively offer is hope and truth about our loving God.
It takes courage to share your faith publicly, though, and several people in sports media have been especially bold in the wake of this incident. Former NFL player Benjamin Watson, appearing on CNN with Anderson Cooper, was one. “The questions about what happens after this life, where you will spend eternity, are coming up for all of us, not just for the football players,” he said. “But thank God that he provides an answer through his Son Jesus Christ.”
Another was ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who offered an impromptu prayer during the studio show NFL Live. Fellow analyst Marcus Spears, also a believer, and host Laura Rutledge bowed their heads. Orlovsky was a guest on my podcast in 2020, and in that conversation he shared how he’s gone from a skeptic who viewed prayer as more of a “good luck charm” or something he did when life was bad to where he is now: a bold believer who isn’t afraid to share his faith on live TV.
We often hear people speak about God, say they’ll be praying for someone, or share Christian sentiments on television. In my role at Sports Spectrum, I cover the intersection of sports and faith. That includes a lot of these stories. But I can’t remember a time when someone prayed live for nearly a minute on a network like ESPN as Orlovsky did:
God, we come to you in these moments that we don’t understand, that are hard, because we believe that you’re God and coming to you and praying to you has impact. We’re sad, we’re angry, we want answers, but some things are unanswerable. We just want to pray, truly come to you and pray for strength for Damar, for healing for Damar, for comfort for Damar, to be with his family, to give them peace. If we didn’t believe that prayer . . . worked, we wouldn’t ask this of you, God. I believe in prayer, we believe in prayer, and we lift up Damar Hamlin’s name in your name. Amen.
The fact that ESPN—a network not known for its Christian sympathies—would broadcast a prayer is surprising. What’s not surprising is the fact that people everywhere know that God exists and that they are not God. They may seek to suppress this truth, but they cannot totally escape it (Rom. 1:18–20). And this creates an opportunity for each of us to testify to the truth of who God is and what he has done for sinners.
Influence for Eternity
Sports, particularly football, have a wide, captive audience. According to Sportico, 82 of the top 100 most-watched U.S. television programs in 2022 were NFL broadcasts. All but six were sporting events. For Christians in sports media, this audience is a gospel opportunity. In recent days, many people saw and heard the truth and hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ through various public declarations. Amid horrific situations like this, that’s a really good thing.
Sports have a wide, captive audience. For Christians in sports media, this audience is a gospel opportunity.
Horrific situations also occur in all our work environments, and though our words may not be broadcast publicly like Orlovsky and Watson’s, we can have an influence for eternity by following the example of people who are unashamed to testify to Christ.
When questions about the afterlife arise, you can point to the Savior. When no one knows what to say, you can ask, “Can I pray?” When suffering reveals our common humanity, you can be a public witness by getting on your knees.