Religion in Sports

Whether it’s the sign of the cross, the point up to the skies or the genuflect after a score, overtones of religion in sports is not uncommon. Often, religion can be thought of as a personal or private matter. As long as the athlete performs to expectations, what they do and believe is their choice. However, what happens when sports and religion intersect? In this article about religion and sports, we’ll explore the role of religion and how it affects various athletes’ ideals and beliefs. We’ll also look into which religion doesn’t allow you to play sports in certain conditions and how religious athletes have responded.

What role does religion have in sports?

Historically, religion and sports were closely intertwined. Sporting events often had ties to religious ceremonies or festivals. These events acted as powerful symbols or metaphors of the transcendent. For example, the Olympic Games, held by ancient Greeks, were more of a festival or a celebration for their gods rather than merely a sporting event. While sports have become more secular today, religion still continues to have an impact. On a psychological level, studies have shown religion and spirituality enhance performance in sports. As with any human beings, athletes face their fair share of challenges and often cite religion as a key factor in overcoming their adversities.

Stories of devoted athletes who hold fast to their faith, even when there may be a conflict between the two, demonstrates the importance of religion in sports today. Additionally, observers are noticing the parallels of the fanaticism of modern-day sports to religion itself, asking the question “are sports a religion?” And while religion in America is in decline, the number of sports fans is on the rise. While cathedrals once were the primary spaces for communal gatherings, they have since been replaced by modern sports stadiums.

How does religion affect sport participation?

Are there instances when religion may affect sport participation and have there been cases when religion requires an athlete to sit out of a game? This issue of religion and sport participation ultimately boils down to the belief and values of the athlete.

Most religions have some sort of restrictions and expectations. These can include:

  • Clothing restrictions
  • Days of worship
  • Religious festivals and holidays
  • Periods of fasting
  • Interactions between different sexes

As we’ll see from some of the real-life examples below, each athlete made their own decision how they responded when faced with a conflict between their sport and religion.

Effects of religion on sports: some examples

Hakeem Olajuwon

As a devout Muslim, Hakeem Olajuwon observes the Islamic festival of Ramadan by fasting for an entire month. In 1994 and 1995, the Houston Rockets were playing in the NBA championships during Ramadan. Despite his fasting, Olajuwon still helped lead the Rockets to back-to-back championships.

William Hopoate

William Hopoate gave up a million-dollar contract in 2011 to pursue missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After two years of missionary work, he continued his career in professional rugby. At first, Hopoate announced he would not practice or play any games on Sundays due to his faith. However, he later reversed his decision and decided he would play on Sundays.

Sandy Koufax

In 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ star pitcher and future Hall of Famer sat out Game 1 of that year’s World Series to observe the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The Dodgers went on to lose the game to the Minnesota Twins, 8-2, although they ultimately won the Fall Classic in seven games. Koufax was named World Series MVP after throwing two shutouts in Games 5 and 7.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards was a British triple jumper having won Olympic, World and European championships. At the time, he held strong Christian beliefs and refused to compete on Sundays. Because of this belief, Edwards lost out on the 1991 World Championships. Interestingly enough, in 1993, he changed his mind after discussions with his father, a clergyman, and decided it was not against his faith to compete on Sundays.

Brigham Young University/Eli Herring

Brigham Young University (BYU) is owned and run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and does not permit any of its sports teams to practice or compete on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath. In 1995, Cougars offensive lineman Eli Herring penned a letter telling NFL teams not to draft him because he wouldn’t play on Sundays. The Oakland Raiders drafted Herring anyhow in the 6th round and offered him a contract worth $1.5 million, which he declined.

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