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Religion and Sports

Between the revelation about Darius' ongoing faith journey, Jerry Stackhouse refurbishing a church for his minister mom, a couple of diaries at this site, and scattered discussion elsewhere, this has apparently been the week for the topic of religion in sports.  A couple of days ago I asserted in the comments section to one of the posts that in this country "the intersection between religion and sports has always been a curious one."  Frankly I've been running that over in my mind since I typed it.  From what I've observed the statement is valid, but the "Why?" eludes me.  Perhaps it is simply a reaction to so many of the moments when the two have been publicly combined turning out (in my view) awkward to the point of being unsettling...doing justice to neither discipline and ending up with the interviewer mercifully rushing on to the next question.

It is not my intention to rehash Darius' statement here.  That's had about as much discussion as half of a throw-away sentence merits.  And I think a broader theological discussion of any stripe is well beyond the scope of this blog, not to mention my desire.  Nevertheless the issue is a live one, and thus merits some consideration.  You can't ask a person of faith to wholly check it at the door just because they're an athlete, any more than you could divorce anyone at any job from some intrinsic part of their makeup.  But how do you make such principles support the foundation of your calling rather than overshadowing or contravening it, or worse, letting your job make you contravene your principles?  In my perception, athletes who also identify themselves as people of faith struggle with this question a lot.  Before the subject passes entirely, I wanted to take a stab at theorizing what, at least to my eyes, would approach both disciplines with integrity (and maybe bring a lot more ease to us fans who have to watch this process unfold).  I know most other blogs probably wouldn't touch this kind of stuff with a ten-foot pole, but then maybe I'm a little bit crazy that way.

Disclaimer:  Though I'm trying not to over-identify with any particular faith system here, like most folks raised in this country I can't help but be influenced by Judeo-Christian roots when thinking about religious matters.  If that colors things a little you'll have to forgive me.

It seems to me in order to have both congruity and compatibility between athletics and one's faith, one would be well-advised to take the following into account:

1. Making sure to play fairly, with honor and respect for the rules, the opponent, the officials, and one's teammates.

2. Making sure to recognize and apologize when that didn't happen.

3. Making sure to honor your commitment to give your all every moment you're out there and to try your best (within the rules and limits of the game) to win.

I think this is often misunderstood by people who think there's a dichotomy between competition and faithfulness.  In a world-wide, daily-life context they might be correct, but when everybody has willingly narrowed their world to the scope of the court for the express purposes of entertainment and competition, the rules of the court, not the world, apply.  Thus the definition of "faithful" in this context may look different than in daily life.

Consider a group sitting down to play a game of Monopoly.  The goal of the game is to leave your companions penniless and hopelessly in debt to you.  Obviously in the real world a person of faith might have ethical qualms about such a thing.  But consider what would happen if you landed on my Boardwalk hotel and I responded in a compassionate way in the larger sense:  " would be unethical for me to take your money.  Why don't you retain enough to keep you going until you're on your feet again?  And here, have a sandwich."  It would only take a few instances of this "compassion" until the game completely broke down.  The players would leave unsatisfied and probably consider the whole endeavor a waste of time.  You may have done something that seemed faithful but in the context of the event it was actually unfaithful in that it ruined everyone's common purpose and good time.  These, in the end, were the real goals of the game.

Similarly so the field of athletic endeavor.  Imagine a player saying out of compassion, "Poor Carmello hasn't scored yet tonight.  To be fair let's step out of the way and give him an easy bucket."  In doing so he would be letting down his teammates, coaches, the franchise, everyone watching the game that night, and even his opponents.  When he signed a contract to play for the team, it implied doing everything he could to help that team achieve its purpose...namely winning.  As such this charity would be a breach of faith.  Now imagine how much more of a breach of faith it would be if his negligence came not out of misplaced compassion, but simply out of laziness or not caring.  It seems to me a faithful athlete, an honorable athlete, would be invested in demonstrating that he was keeping his word, honoring his commitment, and pursuing his calling in every moment available to him.  As such fouling hard, jamming with authority, and trying your best not to let that S.O.B. in yellow and purple score on you may very well be the most faithful things you could do in that context.

4. Making sure if you make public mention of your faith in the game context that you do not misrepresent who your Higher Power is or what (s)he does.

I'll confess this has always been a sticking point with me.  I think I'm OK with, "I thank God for giving me this opportunity..." but I start to break out in a rash when people start thanking the Almighty for personally-delivered, game-winning touchdowns.  I always envision the fans on the other side, or worse, that little sick kid in the hospital wearing a losing cap who already wonders if God hates him because he's sick and now hears the news that God personally tripped up his favorite linebacker so the opponent could win the game and crush his little hopes to powder.  That God's either a real bandwagon rider or just plain mean.

In a town where I used to live there was a big billboard on one of the main drags featuring an apparently prominent high school wrestling champion in action.  The text read something along the lines of, "God taught [Wrestling Hero] to be a winner at our church and you can be one too!" Somehow I always resented the implication that God wasn't just as much with the guy he pinned, or the geek in the chess club, or the migrant worker's daughter walking to the McDonald's across from that billboard to try and get a job--people who had no chance at winning or glory by those billboard standards.  And I hear that implication echoed in most faith-based, post-game interviews, which is part of why they make me squirm.

Surely there must be room to speak of such things if they're that important to you.  I can handle that.  But is it too much to ask that the assertions be considered and moderated a little, or at least contain some reflection of your God's compassion (if any) for folks who don't win too?

5. Making sure you don't use your faith as a promise of future growth or better conduct.  After all, you're human and you might mess up, eh?  If faith is that important to you, it seems to me you wouldn't want that messing up to be blamed on it.  I'm a little rusty, but isn't there something somewhere in the New Testament about just letting your yes be yes and your no be no?

To be clear, I'm not saying that athletes have to possess or show faith, or even that they should. I'm just trying to deal with the reality that some do and some will.  And since that's going to be true no matter what, I think we'd all be better off if the marriage between the two were a little more...well...faithful.  It would sure make it easier to swallow.

Anyway, I think the topic is intriguing and worthy of some discussion...more so since it's rarely broached.  I'm not trying to solicit confessions, affirmations, OR condemnations of anybody's particular beliefs in response to this post.  Some people find faith important, others don't, and those that do usually differ on what it's all about.  All that's fine...and also somewhat beside the point.  Maybe the best way to frame the issue would be to envision an athlete coming up to you and saying, "Look...I'm a person of faith who's struggling to combine that with my athletic career and it's not an option for me to abandon either.  How can I integrate them so as to be honest but still comfortable and palatable to you as a fan?"  How would you answer them? Any particular do's and don'ts for you? How far is too far?

That should be something that anyone can talk about fairly no matter what faith you embrace or even if you don't embrace any at all.

--Dave (