When Sports and Religion Collide

Jabber HeadSenior Analyst IFebruary 20, 2009

Sometimes, religion will cause a disruption in sports. We usually overlook connections between athletes and their faith until someone sacrifices one for the other, or when they make a show of it on TV.

It's obvious that the Christian majority is more willing to make sacrifices, as many sporting events happen on Sunday and the holiest of Christian holidays.

But for other sectors of the spiritual world, the decisions aren't that easy, and regardless of their choices those athletes will face scrutiny for their priority.

No one ever questioned whether Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Sunni Muslim, partook in the ritualistic December fasting in observance of Ramadan. It didn’t matter, as long as his sneakers were laced and on the court for the scheduled games.

But in 2004, when Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green chose to skip crucial games in the closing month of a heated division race between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he was heavily criticized by fans who believed his salary should direct his priority.

Others, especially in the Jewish community, praised him for choosing to observe Yom Kippur instead.

The culmination of religion and sports is clearly visible on collegiate playing surfaces. Catholicism rules at institutions such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Loyola.

Brigham Young athletes are typically older than their NCAA counterparts, as these Latter-Day Saints often embark on two-year religious missions before completing their academic and athletic commitments.

We have Southern Methodist, Texas Christian, and a slew of other schools founded by faith. With many of them offering athletic scholarships and opportunity to advance to higher levels, the high school athlete is sometimes faced with priority issues.

This was recently evident with Hawaiian linebacker Manti Te’o (LDS), who banked his athletic future on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (Catholic) without giving much consideration to BYU (LDS). It was an obvious choice for a young man looking to be launched to professional playing fields.

Brigham Young will make you a better Mormon, but chances are the Irish will make you a better football player, or at least grant you a national stage on which to audition.

This all brings me to Eitan Chemerinski. Of course, you’ve never heard of him. Few know of the 6-foot-9 forward, and, as his coach puts it, “he’s the best player no one has ever seen play.”

Chemerinski attends Jewish Day High School in Rockville, Md. ,and is soon headed to Cornell to play in the Ivy League.

He spent his entire life honoring Shabbat, meaning from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, he observed the period of rest without participating in any activities.

He will now sacrifice religious tradition to appear on the Cornell roster and attend their classes, with his family making academics the new priority.

Today, I’m agnostic, but as a high school senior faced with decisions of faith, academics, and sport, and being a devout Catholic at the time, religion ruled over all.

You often hear of the strength, power, and influence of religion, but when I read the stories of young men and women putting aside years of tradition and faith, you realize religion isn’t as high on a list of priorities as many make it out to be.

Faith only has strength until something more promising comes along. It’s the complete opposite of most teachings, which imply that you live for the afterlife and not for today.

Your religion can bring you closer to God and reserve your seat in the heavens, but through sport, you can move closer to financial security and the comfort that comes with it. Material comforts are not normally espoused in religious teachings.

For Shawn Green, he put his faith above the game, teammates, and fans, but his is a rare case. For most athletes, the power of opportunity and advancement is far greater than childhood teachings and old traditions.

After spending years being told that something "must" be honored and respected, suddenly, in the Chemerinski household, their son’s acceptance to Cornell University makes the ritual not nearly as important as before.

So, for the sake of argument, I pose this question: Regardless of religious affiliation, would you be willing to accept the risk of conversion for yourself or children if it meant acceleration through sports?

If you think the answer is easy, let’s rephrase it. If you are Christian, would you be willing to allow yourself or your children to attend a Muslim institution, operating under the teachings of Islam (attending Mosque, Koran classes, and daily prayers), if it increased the opportunity to compete at the professional level or produce a degree to ensure tremendous future earning potential?

The latter leaves more to ponder, but it’s similar to what many Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim families face when their children receive scholarship offers and acceptance to Christian-based schools outside of their worship.

You can lean on the strength of religion for years...until that one moment asserts itself, and you realize wealth and security is much stronger.

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