Religion in Sports

Tim Tebow

Last night, millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the Super Bowl, which saw the Baltimore Ravens knock off the San Francisco in an epic battle of will and dueling shifts of momentum, the fulcrum of which was a puzzling 34 minute stretch in the 3rd quarter when half of the stadium lost power. Given that the location for last night’s game was New Orleans, this occurrence gave rise to many a Mardi Gras/Hurricane Katrina joke:

Last night’s game featured no shortage of storylines, from the brothers Harbaugh coaching against one another to the rise of 49ers’ young phenom quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But the story that got perhaps the most press in the two weeks leading up to the big game was that of Ray Lewis, the ferociously passionate star middle linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens. A Baltimore win stood to be the culmination of not only a storybook season, but of a career for the embattled Lewis, a man who may-or-may-not have been involved in a murder around the time of Baltimore’s last super Bowl win in 2001. Always a well-respected but fiery competitor, Lewis has worn his emotion and his religion on his sleeve for years. Given what was believed to have been a career-ending torn triceps during the regular season, the fact that he was able to play in the postseason at all was somewhat miraculous, a fact not lost on Lewis, as Baltimore’s improbable playoff run gave him just the podium he needed to essentially provide sermons for the American public anytime a camera or a microphone were within earshot of him. This all begs the question: what place should religion hold in sports?

Religion is one of those topics in our society that, while very pervasive, often gets the hush-hush treatment. When you go on a first date, it’s one of the topics that one is often advised to steer clear of. Why is that, though? Most likely because it’s an incredibly polarizing topic that has driven millions of people to war. Or something like that.

I love sports. As someone who has been raised a Christian, I have no qualms with someone professing their faith, whatever it is. I do, however, recognize that the line between tasteful mention and overkill is razor thin, and in a public media forum such as sports, that line can be easily trampled. Over the month or so that led to last night’s win, many sports fans would argue that Ray Lewis played jump rope with that line. His uncanny ability to have a scripture and some tears ready whenever a camera were around made many people roll their eyes, especially in lieu of his status as an “alleged” murderer who had managed to circumvent any criminal punishment.

Another athlete who’s been subject to much criticism for his evangelical usage of his faith is Tim Tebow, though his proselytizing is juxtaposed against his unorthodox and widely-believed-to-be-questionable skillset, especially for someone who gets paid to play quarterback. The more that Tim Tebow succeeded against all convention for how a quarterback was supposed to play, the more opportunity he had to spread his faith, and the more he did that, the more people turned on him. And even as a fellow Christian, there are admittedly times when athletes who can’t open their mouths without a scripture cocked and loaded make even me roll my eyes. Obviously, I say that without knowing these guys personally, and in the case of Lewis and Tebow, I even believe that they are genuine. But the eye-rolling comes because it just seems too convenient at times. Much like when actors win some sort of award and begin their acceptance with “I’d like to thank God…”, it’s a contrivance that can often come off as opportunistic and exploitative, as if it’s apart of their contracts. It’s a cheap pop, tantamount to a pro wrestler shouting out the city hosting the event, or interviewing child survivors during the WORST MASS SHOOTING IN U.S. HISTORY. Oh, wait a minute…

My guess? Athletes and other celebrities know what some of the easiest ways to generate good will are, and while whether they are saying things out of sincerity or not is purely speculative, they know that they are working in a profession that makes them spokesmen and women, one way or another. So the question is, can religion cross over into mainstream media (sports, entertainment, etc) without becoming cumbersome and polarizing? I believe that it can. For every Ray Lewis and Tim Tebow, there are guys like A.C. Green, a longtime journeyman NBA player in the late-80s and 90s who never hid his Christian beliefs, but also didn’t allow them ever become something that defined him negatively. It’s wrong to say that someone should stifle their personal beliefs, but it is also incorrect to say that there aren’t less divisive ways to spread the word (no pun intended).

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