(CNN) — Rich Franklin cornered the man who challenged him and launched a looping kick that caught him on his jaw.
The man’s face flushed red, and his knees wobbled. Franklin moved in, pounding his opponent with haymakers until he collapsed, grimacing.
Franklin, an Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight, had just scored another victory. The chiseled fighter took the ringside microphone and faced the roaring crowd.
“I want to say thanks to God, all praise to him,” he said. Then he bowed and folded his hands in prayer as his groggy opponent was led outside the ring.
Was it Franklin’s right hand or was it the hand of God that helped him smite his opponent? Ringside viewers may disagree, but God seems to be standing in the corner of a lot of victorious athletes these days.
Baseball players point to the heavens after hitting home runs; NFL players pray in the end zone after scoring. Competitors routinely thank Jesus, along with their sponsors, in post-game interviews.
Thanking God from the winner’s circle has become so common that one British newspaper published a letter to the editor entitled: “Leave me out of your petty games –Love, God.”
The British letter raised a question: Does God care who wins on game day? And, if so, do losers somehow have less faith?
Praising God or selling one’s goodness?
Franklin, the UFC fighter, says he doesn’t know if God cared if he knocked out Travis “The Serial Killer” Lutter in Montreal, Canada. But “it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
“Win or lose, I always thank God for what he’s given me,” says Franklin, an evangelical Christian.
Franklin says he thanks God after victories because he has felt God’s presence in the midst of mixed martial arts battle.
“There are times when I’ve been in fights and I felt like I was about to lose and all of a sudden things turned around on me,” he says. “My opponent lost his position. I wiggled my way out of a submission. I felt like there was a hand in it.”
Yet some sports commentators say assuming God is a sports fan trivializes faith.
Athletes who publicly thank God for victory are often calling more attention to themselves than their faith, says William J. Baker, author of “Playing with God.”
They are selling their goodness, and their brand of faith, to a captive audience, says Baker, who describes himself as a Christian.
“I don’t think it’s the right place and it’s not the right gesture,” says Baker, a former high school quarterback. “It’s an athlete using a moment to sell a product, like soap.”
What many of these pious athletes are also selling is an evangelical, winner-take-all gospel, Baker says.
“There are many similarities between the athletic and the evangelical take on life,” Baker says. “Both are competitive, capitalistic. It’s good guys versus bad guys. You have winners — people who are saved — and losers — people who are going to hell.”
Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Onward Christian Athletes,” says many evangelical athletes who publicly thank Jesus for victory have nothing to say about other issues such as the pervasive use of steroids in sports or racial discrimination against aspiring minority coaches.
“It’s an incomplete Christianity that’s brought to bear on sports, ” Krattenmaker says. “They are blind and silent on the larger moral issues that vex the sports sector.”
When did God become a sports fan?
It’s hard to pinpoint when athletes started invoking God on game day. The late NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White, the “Minister of Defense,” was one of the first professional athletes to routinely thank Jesus after victories during his career in the 1990s.
Baker, the author, says that as far back as 1943, Gil “The Flying Parson” Dodds, an American distance runner, would give Jesus credit for his victories. Dodds signed autographs with a scriptural reference to Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”).
One of the first professional athletes to attract criticism for invoking God after victory was Michael Chang, an American professional tennis player.
Chang won the French Open in 1989 as a 17-year-old underdog. He was booed by a Parisian crowd when he thanked Jesus for his victory at the tournament’s trophy presentation.
Chang, who now helps runs a Christian Sports League in California, says he thanked Jesus not to gloat, but to show gratitude.
“When I go out there and share my faith, I’m not saying God is on my side and he’s not on your side,” Chang says. “The Lord loves everybody, and the Lord is on everyone’s side.”
He says he felt that there were moments during his French Open run when Jesus spurred him on to victory. Chang, who is Chinese-American, says his victory encouraged Chinese people who were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during his French Open run.
“I felt like there was a much greater purpose for the Lord getting me through those matches,” he says. “A lot of people don’t remember that Tiananmen Square was going on.”
‘Jesus wasn’t a metrosexual’
Athletes who publicly thank God for their victories also cite another purpose for the practice: evangelism.
Franklin, the UFC fighter, says his success shows young men that being a Christian doesn’t mean being a pushover.
“Jesus was fearless, not someone you provoked,” Franklin says. “He’s a man’s man. He was a carpenter who worked with his hands. He wasn’t a metrosexual who did his nails.”
Jesus also said, according to the New Testament, that the “last shall be first.” So what about the losers who are trudging off the field as the winners thank God for victory: Is God punishing them for having less faith?
Mike Sweeney, a devout Roman Catholic who plays baseball for the Seattle, Washington, Mariners, doesn’t accept that view of faith.
“If I’m facing Andy Pettitte on the Yankees and I’m praying for a home run, and he’s praying for a strikeout, I don’t think the result is going to show who has greater faith,” Sweeney says.
Sweeney says athletes can sometimes reveal more about their faith when they fail.
“It’s easy being a Christian when you’re hitting .345, but you let me know who you really are when you’re hitting .245 and going through the valley,” Sweeney says.
Sweeney doesn’t pray for victory or point to the heavens when he gets a big hit.
God isn’t as interested in what he says as what he does, Sweeney says.
“Saint Francis of of Assisi says preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words,” Sweeney says. “That’s something I’ve tried to live my whole life.”