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A Tale of Two Prayers

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Jeff Dean

The sports world was shocked Monday evening when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during the January 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. 


The 24-year old Hamlin, a sixth-round pick during the 2021 NFL draft, suffered sudden cardiac arrest after making a play and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. As of Tuesday afternoon, he remained in critical condition. 

Within moments of his collapse, players and coaches from both teams spontaneously gathered and knelt on the field. They bowed their heads in prayer, asking for mercy and healing as their fellow athlete was attended to. 

Many millions of people around the nation joined the players and coaches in praying for Hamlin’s safety and recovery because that’s what good people do. We see suffering and are moved to prayer, imploring God for a good outcome. That is what Americans do and we all hope and pray for the recovery of Damar Hamlin. 

So why do others choose to punish those who engage in voluntary prayer? Joseph Kennedy had coached the Bremerton, Washington high school football team for many years and routinely engaged in voluntary prayer on the field after games. Some of his players would join him in prayer and occasionally these prayers were nearly 60 seconds long.

For this crime, Kennedy lost his job in 2015. In firing Kennedy, the school district said they have an obligation to “protect” students from this voluntary display of faith and prayer following football games. 


The good news is that Kennedy will return to his job following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year affirming his constitutional right to pray on a football field, like those in Cincinnati did Monday night. 

I don’t know what football players pray for before, during or after a game. I suspect they thank God for keeping them and their fellow players safe from injury, for their health and skill and strength as a player, perhaps victory when appropriate. It would not be unlike the prayers spoken before rodeos in Fort Worth, Texas, when those in attendance fold their hands, bow their heads, and ask God to keep safe the cowboys and cowgirls participating in the event. 

The comparisons between the response to Damar Hamlin’s heart attack and Joseph Kennedy’s post-game prayers are not perfectly analogous. They do, however, show how school districts like those in Bremerton and elsewhere are so grossly out of step with mainstream America. 

Mainstream Americans pray. Data from Pew Research shows that more than three-fourths of us pray, with varying frequency. They pray to the God of their faith, including 55% of those surveyed who pray every day.

People pray for different reasons and in different ways. But whether these people be Christian or Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or adhere to other faiths, they pray. Prayer is the glue that connects people of faith with their beliefs and their God.


With so many people praying so often, whether it’s for the life of an NFL player or anything else, what would compel someone to oppose that? The Bremerton school district and others like it are indisputably out of step with most Americans but they are well aligned with many totalitarian governments across the globe that prohibit, restrict or otherwise persecute prayer and the free exercise of religion. 

A September, 2021 report from Pew revealed that, “In 163 countries (82%), government authorities interfered in worship in ways such as prohibiting certain religious practices, withholding access to places of worship or denying permits for religious activities or buildings.”

If anyone ever needed evidence of the exceptional nature of the United States, these data provide it. America’s founders guaranteed the free exercise of religion and with the exception of certain localities like Bremerton, we have remained faithful to that founding principle. 

Institutions and individuals who seek to eliminate or restrict demonstrations of faith are denying the innate nature of most humans. Karl Marx and other totalitarians throughout history have long demeaned prayer and religion as the opium of the people but they are evil and wrong. 


Prayer is not an opiate. It is hope and strength and gratitude, all of which are attributes of a fine and compassionate people. But there are those in America who do not want us to be a fine and compassionate people. It is these people who we must confront and correct, just as Joseph Kennedy did. 

The Bremerton school district and other authoritarians may not be praying for the recovery of Damar Hamlin but millions of normal, decent Americans are. In doing so, they are reflecting the benediction of the apostle Paul in his letter to the people of Thessalonica: “Pray without ceasing.” That is a good thing to do. 

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