VATICAN CITY and CHAPEL HILL -- God announced today that He will cease immediately taking a position on specific sporting events, including, of most significance locally, the college basketball playoffs. The announcement came directly as a "Word from God" to Pope Benedict XVI, as he mediated before Vespers yesterday evening. Pope Benedict, in his weekly appearance on the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica, made the proclamation on behalf of God to an obviously disappointed crowd composed of devout pilgrims, ordinary Roman citizens and curious tourists of all faiths from around the world.
"After millennia of considering the prayers of both players and fans, God said that there was simply no way any longer to be impartial, even for Him, God Almighty," said Benedict.
Here's the way He put it: "St. Johns plays Notre Dame, for example, how is anybody, including me, going to do right in that situation? Priests, nuns, small children, grandmothers are all praying fervently for their team. I try to be fair, I really do, but any way I go there are players with broken hearts, cheerleaders with tears in their eyes and coaches with curses, and rightfully so, on their lips. This just couldn't go on."
Benedict was emphatic, however, that God was not saying that He was stopping listening to prayer in general.
"God made a point He would still answer prayer in other domains. For example, God said, He will continue to answer prayers for the sick, if only intermittently. God pointed out that it is a rare occasion that one petitioner is praying for healing and another, equally devout, is praying for death for the same person. It happens, He said, but only now and then."
Benedict continued, "But, God said, to consider for a moment pre-game locker room prayers for any tournament game, with dozens of guys praying on both sides, many of them sincerely. ‘How in the heck am I supposed to deal with that?’ asked God."
"Back when it was the Christians versus the lions," Benedict said, "God said He felt could adjudicate those contests fairly. But when it's the Lions versus the Bears, and you've got entire, albeit only nominally Christian, cities praying on each side, that's a whole different matter."
TIVO, said God, is what finished it for Him. "When people started praying over digitally delayed broadcasts, ‘That’s about enough,' I said."
As late as the 1960's, when Catholic boys were earnestly crossing themselves before shooting free throws, God said, according to Benedict, He thought that was "kind of cute." But once it became just a ritual, and then when "believers on both teams started asking me to cover the point spread, then I just wanted to quit."
Benedict said he had emailed this "Word" to former University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith before revealing it to the College of Cardinals late last night. Smith, said Benedict, was already familiar with the decision.
"God passed it by me," said Smith, "and I reluctantly agreed. He said that the real deciding event was the Georgetown-Carolina NCAA Division I basketball tournament regional final. With all the nuns on one-side and all the Baptist school children on the other, he just couldn't handle it. With about seven minutes left, He said He stopped watching."
Then Smith added, "God made it clear He is still a Tar Heel; He's just stepping back from in-game management of outcomes. One factor that God said weighed heavily on Him were the bedeviled and demonized souls at places like Duke and Wake, who were falling farther and farther away from God as they failed to see any Divine favor coming in their direction -- especially at 'crunch-time' in close games."
According to Smith, people should not get confused about what this means, or make it any bigger than it is. "God said He will not stop blessing the Tar Heels any more than He will be changing the sky color from Carolina Blue. Chapel Hill hasn’t moved anywhere, said God, it’s still the southern part of Heaven," relayed Smith.
Pope Benedict also wanted make sure that the general populace understood that God was making a clear distinction between the efficacy of prayer on games of skill and on games of chance.
"With games of skill you can work, train, study and prepare, so you don't really need me, the way I look at it. On games of chance, well, what else have you got? Winning the Powerball lottery, hitting double zero on a roulette wheel, making a draw to fill an inside straight, without divine intervention, what chance do you have?"
Gary D. Gaddy once attended a Sunday school class taught by Dean Smith. At the time he felt very close to God.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on March 29, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy