Prayers and the Ateneo-La Salle games

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). This piece was published in the August 17, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

It’s usual to find Catholic-born Pinoy athletes—from Manny Pacquiao to the unfamiliar varsity player of an also-ran team—pray or do the sign of the cross before, during, and after a game.

Saying prayers is undeniably part of Pinoy life.  Prayers are ubiquitous even in politics, supposedly a secular matter. An indelible imprint of Philippine people power and Cory Aquino is the belief in prayers. Good politicians like Among Ed Panlilio pray so they can govern wisely. Even the bad ones—represented by Gloria Arroyo—also invoke prayers to run for public office and to hang on to power.

In the field of sports, we often hear winners thank God for their victories, though I presume some losers also pray to the same God.  It has in fact become a “tradition” in Philippine sports, especially during preparations for foreign competition, to include prayers in the training.

Peping Cojuangco, the Philippine Olympic Committee head, said that since the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, the Philippine team has made it a practice to attend first Friday Masses.  For the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, the Filipino athletes attended three Friday masses. And the result, as Cojuangco interpreted it, was winning then over-all championship.  For the 2007 games, Cojuangco said,  “we only went to two Friday masses. The result…we won a lot of gold medals but somehow we didn’t make enough gold medals.”

The lesson Cojuangco learned then was to increase the number of First Friday masses attended. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cojuangco and the Pinoy Olympians took part in five first Friday masses. Cojuangco’s wish then was: “Whatever we’re asking for in these first Friday Masses, will somehow be answered.”  The answer did not come in the form of medals.

Do prayers work then?  If so, in what ways?

The scholarly and the scientific among us are skeptical about using prayers to gain a favor.

In end-March 2006, The New York Times reported a long-awaited study (which came out in the American Heart Journal) that raised doubts about the power of prayer.  The author of the news item, Benedict Carey, wrote:  “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery.  Worse,  “patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations that the prayers created, the researchers suggested.”

Be that as it may, some critics argue that prayers should not be a subject of scientific study.

In sports, say in basketball, can we determine—and measure—the effectiveness of prayers in winning games?  The fabled rivalry between Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle makes an interesting case study.  The Ateneo-La Salle games are always unpredictable.  The most favored team—favored because of objective factors like talent, skills, experience and coaching—can lose anytime.

The record of Ateneo-La Salle games shows that being endowed with talented players and a good coach and having sound basketball fundamentals are not enough to ensure a victory for the advantaged team. In the previous game between the two, La Salle—expected to lose—came close to achieving an upset.

What factor, for the underdog, can be used to neutralize a team’s advantage in terms of endowment and technology?   A possible answer:  Hail Mary and Lasallian prayers boosting spirits (Animo La Salle! Animo Ateneo!).

Prayers, like cheers, can give the team confidence, boost teamwork, and induce the team to play with greater effort and intensity.  Can we measure all this?  Can we, for instance, use the calories expended by the players as a proxy for effort or intensity.  But we have to control other variables; other factors can explain intensity (e.g., the threat of losing the perks of being an athlete, the need to win a bet, the desire to show off to a girlfriend, etc.)

In other words, it’s useless to show empirical proof on how prayers can affect a game.

But let me offer an unscientific explanation but a not-so-wild guess as to how prayers can favor one team over another. Let’s suppose that both Ateneo and La Salle pray with the same frequency and vigor. Let’s suppose, too, that Ateneo is the current favored team because it has the advantage in technology (the basketball fundamentals) and resource endowment (talent, height, experience).  My guess is that the disadvantaged team, La Salle, would receive greater marginal benefits from the effects of prayers in terms of better teamwork, more confidence, and greater intensity.

The prayers are an input to improve the technology. For the favored team (already in possession of high quantities of basketball technology), the input of prayers would have less marginal impact on the game’s outcome (law of diminishing returns?). This perhaps explains why any Ateneo-La Salle game is exciting and unpredictable.

But wait, it might turn out that Ateneo has an advantage even in the prayers department.

How can that be?  Father Bienvenido Nebres can summon the Ateneo alumni whose prayers will be heeded.  The alumni forming the prayer brigade must include the following: Mike Arroyo, Iggy Arroyo, Romy Neri, Joseph Estrada, Joe de Venecia, Boy Nograles, Ernie Maceda, Celso de los Angeles, among others.  To be gender-sensitive, include Merceditas Gutierrez.

Why them?  I recall my friend’s response when I expressed concern over his wife who was then suffering from a serious ailment.  My friend George said that thanks to the prayers of his classmates, his wife is recovering.  George added that his class is full of sinners, and God listens to sinners.

Postscript: I can still hedge my bet.  In the event that Ateneo were to lose the Sunday game to La Salle, it could mean that Mike Arroyo et al. were either not praying at all or praying for other things—like their salvation.

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