Should prayer be banned in sports as performance enhancing?

Prayer by athletes can be viewed as performance-enhancing, some experts say. (Creative Commons photo by Elias Gayles)

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WACO—One standard the World Anti-Doping Agency uses to ban a substance is whether it enhances, or has the potential to enhance, athletic performance.

Drugs aren’t alone in such scrutiny. The use of high-tech prosthetic limbs has caused debates in elite sports. Some even have seen music and its positive effects on the brain as providing marathon runners an unfair advantage.

Now some experts wonder if prayer—and even faith overall—could come under similar scrutiny in the debate over performance-enhancing drugs, technology and techniques facing modern sports.

It’s the kind of question some participants asked during Baylor University’s annual faith and culture symposium, this year titled “The Spirit of Sports.”

Prayer as enhancing technique

“It is possible that prayer can be seen as an enhancing technique,” said Tracy J. Trothen, an associate professor of theology and ethics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and an ethicist with a focus on the intersection of religion and sports. She was one of about 120 presenters at the three-day symposium in Waco.

Trothen especially is fascinated by the advantage music gives long-distance runners. A high-profile case occurred at the 2007 New York Marathon.

The New York Times reported U.S. Track & Field barred headphones and portable audio devices from its official races, citing safety and “to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.”

Some science back ups that concern, Trothen said. MRIs, for example, have shown music works like “emotional doping” on the brain.

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Significant impact on the brain

And so do practices like prayer and meditation, said Trothen, author of Winning the Race? Hope and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate.

They, too, “are shown by MRIs to have a significant effect on the brain,” Trothen said.

“From my perspective, I think meditation and prayer have such huge, strong, positive effects that, of course, they are enhancing,” she added.

So far, sports governing bodies have not gone after spiritual practices and faith in general for their performance-enhancing qualities.

“It raises questions about what we see as unduly improving ourselves,” Trothen said.

Sports as big business

Those are the kind of thought-provoking conversations planners of the symposium wanted to foster, said Jason Whitt, associate director of the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor.

The institute chose the sports topic for its timeliness, given what a giant business sports has become in the United States and around the world, he said. Most segments of American culture have embraced sports, and its potential to be formative—or deformative—also was considered, Whitt said.

Proven passion for sports

Paula McGee has proven her passion for sports. The California-based inspirational speaker, writer and Baptist minister was a member of a University of Southern California basketball team that won back-to-back national championships in the 1980s. After trying out for the Harlem Globetrotters, she played a season with the Women’s American Basketball Association.

She’s also earned a master of divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, a master’s in the Hebrew Bible from Vanderbilt and a doctorate in women’s studies in religion from Claremont Graduate University.

But all of it, from hoops to conducting diversity training to preaching and her Wal-Martization of African-American Religion dissertation is connected, McGee said.

In Waco, she participated in one panel discussion about gender and sports, and in another about race and money in big-time sports.

“For me, everything is spiritual,” she said. “I see everything as what I am called to do.”

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