We see religion and sports converge time and time again. But should they really go hand-in-hand?
Religion and sports seem to go hand and hand. It’s easy to see comparisons between religion, sports, and sport fandom. They both have rituals and produce feelings of unity, identity, and community. But its not just a thematic similarity. Religion and sports, very often mix in practice. Prayer circles before games are extremely common. Players will often thank God for their on-field successes. Articles discussing this phenomena are legion, and can some examples be found here, here, and here.
American football might be the clearest example of the tight association between religion and sports. In addition to the similarities to religion mentioned above, American football in particular seems to be connected with Christianity and has religious-like rituals. The wildly popular former NFL player Tim Tebow seemed to epitomize the NFL’s association with religion with his enthusiastic and explicit support for evangelic Christianity on and off the field. Football fans are also highly religious, with 1 in 4 Americans believing God will determine who will win the Super bowl and over half think athletes with faith are rewarded with success.
Because of the highly religious nature of America and the strong connections between sport and religion, it is difficult to find openly non-religious athletes. However, there have been several professional football players that speak publicly about their lack of belief.
Former Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe might be the most public about it; he was even a speaker at the American Atheists Conference in 2014. Kluwe openly describes his religious beliefs as “cheerfully agnostic” and is also a big proponent for gay rights. Kluwe straightforwardly explains that religiosity is entrenched within football and has even argued that it might be easier to be a criminal than an atheist in the NFL. He has also said hat it is difficult to be nonreligious in the NFL and definitely something you have to keep to yourself.
Former NFL running back Robert Smith Jr. has also admitted to being an atheist, but hasn’t been overly public about it. He did object to religious groups using professional athletes to spread their message. Smith goes on to say:“Spread religion on its own merits. Don’t try to sell it with high-profile athletes.”
Current NFL running back Adrian Foster alsohas been rather public about his questioning of religion. He has stated that he is teaching his daughter about various religions, but won’t tell her to believe in any particular religion. He says that “if she chooses none of the above, I’ll be fine with that as well.”
Atheists in America suffer from a huge stigma, and it would be easy to avoid controversy by keeping their beliefs to themselves.
The courage these athletes have to speak out about their beliefs is admirable. Just as openly gay athletes have challenged homophobia, openly atheist athletes can challenge bigotry towards atheists. People have the freedom to believe what they want, but they cannot use their beliefs to infringe on the rights of others.
NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has been a huge supporter of gay rights and has also publically expressed his lack of belief. I recently had a Facebook discussion with Ayanbadejo about his religious nonbelief and he summed up his experiences as a nonreligious athlete beautifully:
“I’ve always been my own person and never feared being outspoken on issues. A lot of guys would pray and talk about their religion yet they would continue to do so called sin, and wipe the slate clean since Jesus forgave. It was such a contradiction to me.”
Never fearing to be your own person and being outspoken about what you believe in are values people of all faiths should agree with.
I have no problem with athletes thanking God during interviews or even having prayer circles. What I do have a problem with is when athletes are treated differently for their beliefs if they don’t want to talk about God or join a prayer circle.
We have – or should have – a separation between church and state in this country. Both on and off the playing field, the real separation I’d like to see is the separation of how someone is treated and what they believe.
Photo: Flickr/Jeffrey Beall