On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute released the results of its survey, in which they asked 1,033 Americans a range of questions involving religion, sports and the Super Bowl. Most of the findings were so unsurprising as to not even inspire a yawn from a tired youngster forced to read it by a parent with questionable child-rearing tactics.

A lot of Americans watch football. A lot of Americans go to church. Most Americans believe that going to church is more important than watching football. It doesn’t matter if Americans cheer for the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers or the Heavenly Host; they’ll probably watch the Super Bowl. America! Football! God! Super Bowl! Yeah!

Among the dull conclusions gathered by the survey was one stand-out: More than a quarter of those polled believed that “God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event.”

To atheists, agnostics and presumably many believers, the notion that the theoretical creator of all would take an intervening interest in the distractions of his supposed subjects is worthy of a special type of scorn. Imagining an all-powerful being lending a guiding hand to a pitched baseball, spiraled football, shot puck or thrown basketball seems a ridiculous suggestion that could only be made by someone who places too much importance on the outcomes of sporting events or clings to a delusional idea of what might constitute a deity’s obligations.

To the 27% though, athletes are the agents of God. Instead of pointing to the beauty of randomness or the evidence of neuroscience, they abide by God working in mysterious ways as a means of expressing confidence in an otherwise solutionless conundrum. This principle is important, because for the faithless 73%, curious as to how God might influence the results of a sports event, it offers a hint for what we might wish to search in order to understand this belief.

Mike Trout winning a baseball game, LeBron James winning a basketball game, Tom Brady winning a football game or Alex Ovechkin winning a hockey game isn’t very mysterious. Those are all exceptional athletes who consistently perform at a high level, presumably without need of assistance from an even more powerful being. In order to see God’s handiwork, we need to find difference-making performances from players who don’t typically perform in a manner that offers their team value.

Major League Baseball

In baseball, finding players touched by God is rather easy. We simply gather the worst players in the league – batters with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) less than 85 (with 100 being the average hitter’s contribution) and pitchers with an earned run average (ERA) over 4.50 (with 4.01 being the average pitcher’s ERA) – and then look to find positive win probabilities added (WPA). These statistics measure the total value of a hitter’s entire offensive production (wRC+), the  amount of runs a pitcher gave up over nine innings (ERA) and the extent to which a player’s production influenced their team’s chances of winning (WPA).

Only three qualified players in all of baseball match this criteria:

  • Darwin Barney, 2B, Chicago Cubs;
  • Drew Stubbs, CF, Cincinnati Reds; and
  • Clay Buchholz, SP, Boston Red Sox.

These three players were among the worst regulars in all of baseball in 2012, but somehow managed to make a positive difference in the likelihood of their respective teams winning games. They’re baseball’s mysterious ways.

National Football League

In the NFL, the performance of offensive players can be measured by a statistic called Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which according to Football Outsiders, values the player’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Similarly to baseball, when we compare this number to win probability added, which imeasures how the impact every play makes on the outcome, we come up with a list of players whose performance was far below average, but still managed to increase the chances their teams had of winning.

  • Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans;
  • Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars;
  • LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles;
  • Donnie Avery, WR, Indianapolis Colts;
  • Benjamin Watson, TE, Cleveland Browns; and
  • Dallas Clark, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

These six football players were among the very worst at their position this past season, but through the help of God, still contributed more to their team’s chances of winning than losing.

National Basketball Association

Determining the hand of God in basketball gets a little bit trickier because there isn’t a win probability statistic readily available for individual players. What we can compare is how players performed in clutch situations (fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points) to how they performed overall.

One player stood out from among all the others during the 2011/2012 season. Patrick Patterson, a power forward for the Houston Rockets, played better than Lebron James in clutch situations last season, but overall, had a player efficiency rating that was worse than A.J. Price’s. The Rockets, overall, were worse off having him on the floor than on it, but in late and close games Patterson played remarkably better. This is perhaps best witnessed by his shooting a 65% field goal rate in clutch situations compared to a 44% rate overall.

The only explanation: God’s intervention, working through Patterson.

National Hockey League

Hockey is similar to basketball in that there isn’t a win probability statistic readily available for individual players. However, there are other numbers that reveal God at work. For instance, PDO, the sum of the shooting percentage and save percentage while a player was on the ice, tells us how friendly or unfriendly to goal-scoring the environment in which the player was playing.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. We could suggest that God blessed Rich Peverley of the Boston Bruins, Chris Kelly of the Boston Bruins and Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators with the most fruitful goal-scoring environments last season, or  we could say that despite consistently playing in stingy goal-scoring environments, the Lord raised the level of play of Andrew Ladd of the Winnipeg Jets, Alec Martinez of the Los Angeles Kings and David Booth of the Vancouver Canucks to rank as some of the best players in hockey in 2011/2012.

However, we might also look at Franz Nielsen of the New York Islanders, a successful, but unremarkable player, who scored nine gamel-deciding shootout goals last season, and had the best scoring percentage on shootouts among all players who had more than a dozen chances.

Clearly, this must be God playing a role in determining a winner.

Of course, the idea of using the reasonable to explain the unreasonable is done with a tongue firmly planted in a cheek. However, as preposterous as the thought seems, I can kind of understand it. Humans typically feel the urge to assign meaning to the most random things. When something that happens isn’t easily explained, why not imagine it to be the hand of god? Is that really all that more ridiculous than imagining that a particular baseball player is more “clutch” than another?

It’s a bit more comforting to think that there’s a benevolent celestial pilot out there in control of plays like this:

That’s because the alternative is to believe in an unromantic and random occurrence that symbolizes how undetermined and adrift our lives might truly be – a frightening prospect to many of us. It’s also generally easier to imagine that divine intervention led to something like this occurring …

… rather than a complicated alternative explained by neuroscience which involves athletes – with their hours and hours of practice that actually alter the brain’s anatomy - typically performing better in these type of situations because their brains adapt faster and act more efficiently in order to find superior solutions to changing circumstances.

A sense of pride is often attached to the human pursuit of meaning. We imagine it to be a defining characteristic with positive attributes. However, our thirst for understanding is too often quenched by the most readily available and easily consumed of Kool-Aids.