When faith oversteps all bounds

January 28, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- It's the Super Bowl. Anything can happen when players are exposed to three straight days of group interviews. And now that the sessions are over, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce can mercifully step down from his pulpit.

Mixing sports and religion is always problematic. And if you're offended by suggestions that God favors one team over another, you'll probably be even more offended by Bruce, who seems to believe that God favors him over virtually all others -- including those who share his Christian faith.

Bruce said he saved his life in a Dec. 7 car accident by taking his hands off the steering wheel and shouting the name of Jesus Christ. Over the past two days, he has suggested that two athletes who died in recent crashes -- golfer Payne Stewart and NBA player Bobby Phills -- could have done the same.

And yesterday, in an exchange with Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly during a mandatory interview session, Bruce said he could have survived the attack at Columbine High School in Colorado -- even after Reilly informed him that Cassie Bernall was murdered after acknowledging her belief in Jesus.

"He [the gunman] wouldn't have blown me away," Bruce said. "I would have pleaded the blood of Jesus. I'd say, `I plead the blood of Jesus,' and it [the gun] wouldn't have gone off."

When does this end? The Atlanta Braves' John Rocker offended virtually every racial and ethnic group in an interview with Sports Illustrated. Now here's Bruce, using his Super Bowl platform to spread religious beliefs that many will find detestable.

Perhaps we shouldn't care.

The views of professional athletes on non-sports issues often are worthless. Then again, it's not always easy to judge. Muhammad Ali delivered a memorable political commentary when he said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." A former NBA star, Bill Bradley, is now running for president.

Most prominent athletes choose to avoid controversial topics, wary of damaging their images. But others in this expanded media age seek to use their celebrity to advance personal agendas.

So, what's newsworthy and what isn't?

It's a question sportswriters face every day, particularly when athletes speak about their religious beliefs.

St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner's faith seems an important element in his rise from obscurity. On the other hand, Tennessee offensive lineman Bruce Matthews made frequent references to his faith on Super Bowl media day, and few stories written about him included his remarks.

Like Bruce, Titans safety Marcus Robertson had a recent brush with death, crashing his motorcycle after hitting a slick spot on Dec. 27. His helmet was not strapped. His head bounced on the street twice, scarring his face permanently. But he was otherwise unharmed.

Robertson will not play in the Super Bowl because of a broken left ankle he suffered in the AFC championship game. But when he says, "I'm a walking testimony of God," how can he be ignored?

Bruce has frequently been asked about his accident since arriving in Atlanta. He is linked not only to Robertson but also to Phills and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who suffered a spinal-cord injury in a car accident Sunday and is threatened with paralysis from the chestdown.

Asked about Phills on Tuesday, Bruce said: "I know the name of Jesus, and if I use it, it's going to protect me. Maybe he [shouted] it, or maybe he didn't. But I know if he did, he could still be here. That's what I think. That's what I believe. I don't know. I wasn't there with him. I was there with me."

Asked yesterday if he could envision himself in Thomas' position, Bruce said: "Not at all. When my accident occurred, I knew I had faith in Jesus Christ. I called on Jesus Christ. Therefore, I wasn't afraid. I knew I wasn't going to die. My life didn't flash in front of my eyes."

Bruce's accident occurred as he was returning to St. Louis with his girlfriend from a college basketball game in Columbia, Mo. A left tire blew out, causing his car to spin off the road and flip twice. Like Thomas, he was not wearing a seat belt. But he escaped without injury, and his girlfriend was not seriously hurt.

As a Pro Bowl receiver at 27, perhaps Bruce is too young to entertain his own mortality. Under the intense media glare of the Super Bowl, perhaps he doesn't understand the implications of his comments. But he reportedly comes from a family that shares similar beliefs.

His exchange with Reilly yesterday took place in two parts, with Reilly returning to ask about the Columbine shootings. Bruce also talked about the Titans' secondary, Rams coach Dick Vermeil and other standard Super Bowl topics. He did not proselytize. He merely answered Reilly.

Bruce praised Thomas' charity work and initially tried to resist judging his NFL colleague, saying he didn't know the extent of his faith. Then Reilly asked about Stewart, the golfer who died in a plane crash two years after becoming a born-again Christian.

"There are certain rights you have being a Christian," Bruce said. "There are certain rights you have as far as owning your car. But if you don't fit the key in, you can't open your door. If you're a Christian, there are certain things that you can use, and the name of Jesus is one. That's a weapon I use against anything that's going to serve harm to me."

Would Stewart have lived if he had shouted Jesus' name?

"I believe so," Bruce said.

It's the Super Bowl. It's a free country.

Isaac Bruce is entitled to his beliefs.

And fans are entitled to think whatever they want about Isaac Bruce.

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