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What does faith have to do with sports? A lot, it turns out

Sport as sacrament. Loving your opponent as yourself. Athletics for the sake of the soul.

Not the usual fodder for sports radio or television shows where declarations of faith by an athlete are often greeted at best with a patient silence.

Some commentators even press for a line separating sports and religion, and ridicule or dismiss athletes such as Tim Tebow who talk about their faith.

But as issues from racism to doping to violence on and off the playing field gather increasing public notoriety, so, too, are philosophers and ethicists directing their lofty attention to the connection among sports, faith and the common good.

The current edition of The Journal of Sport, Ethics and Philosophy is a special issue on sport and spirituality.

Consider some of the thoughtful perspectives that weigh how religious ideals can be a source of pro-social behavior in an arena where fame and money fuel a winning-at-all costs mentality:

Taking out the trash – talking: Philosopher Shawn Graves of the University of Findlay makes the case for “a Christian ethic for sport that takes loving all individuals as the fundamental moral imperative.”

Such an ethic, he argues, “seems to unequivocally condemn the violent acts, the use of racial, ethnocentric, and homophobic slurs, and the systematic, state-sponsored and lab-driven doping programs” spotlighted by the ban on Russia in the recent Winter Olympics.

“Each of these counts as a failure of love, a failure to labor to promote the flourishing all individuals, including all opponents.”

But such an ethic would also extend further to such areas as rejecting trash talking, taunting and the argument that fighting in the NHL should be an accepted part of the game.

“Imagine the perpetrator attempting to convince the victim that the offending behavior was driven by love for the victim,” Graves notes.

Faith, hope, love: Michael Austin, chair of the department of philosophy and religion at Eastern Kentucky University, set himself up with the formidable task of arguing these central Christian virtues can be seen and cultivated in sports.
But he is not talking about athletes who hope for a big payday or promote their celebrity in acts of self-love.

“Those who profess to be followers of Christ should seek to exemplify a faith in which one entrusts oneself to God, even if it means sacrificing athletic success for something more important.” In sports, Austin argues, this can be reflected in acts of selfless play and trusting one’s teammates and coaches.

In terms of hope, he notes that religious athletes may become more open to the idea that lasting hope rests only in the divine as they learn to deal with winning and losing, their own physical limits and the finiteness of their careers.

Austin also believe that if it is cultivated, the virtue of love can flourish in sport.

To illustrate the point, he shared the standard pre-game, question-and-answer routine employed by football coach Joe Ehrmann at Gilman School, a private boys school in Baltimore. ‘“What is our job as coaches?” he asks. “To love us!” the boys yell back. “What is your job?” “To love each other,” the boys respond.

A non-Christian’s response to Christianity in sports: Welcome the good.

Christianity “is not and cannot be an internal and integral part of any sport.” says Ivo Jirásek, who explores the philosophy of sport as a professor of physical culture at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

And like other writers in the special issue, the philosopher raised as an atheist declares, “The Christian use of sport does not automatically mean the achievement of ethically preferred values.”

But where the sacred and the profane can meet for the common good is when a Christian brings the best of faith to the playing field. This, Jirásek argues “dramatically increases the odds of fair play, friendly relationships with teammates as well as opponents, etc.”

Far from jeopardizing the internal values of sport, Christian athletes living up to the ideals of love of neighbor would find cheating, corruption, foul play or doping to be unthinkable – “all this would reduce their love for their opponents.”

“In real life, this goal is probably unachievable, Jirásek notes, “but it is an ideal that a Christian should strive for every day. If this effort is successful, it will be of benefit not only to other Christians, but also to worshippers of other religions, agnostics and even atheists.”

No one is saying religion makes faith-based approaches immune from major transgressions; just witness the sex-assault scandal involving the football program at Baylor University, a private Christian school.

Nor are scholars arguing that religious principles such as faith and hope have not been twisted to promote a winning-at-all-costs mentality justified by the idea that God chooses sides.

But what they are suggesting is that religion, for good and ill, has an impact in how many people lead their lives. At its best, the pursuit of religious ideals is associated in many studies with pro-social behaviors such as lower levels of bullying, violent crime or cheating, and higher levels of expressing concern for others.

In groundbreaking interviews with 104 former or current NFL players, sociologist Eric Carter of Georgetown College found high levels of unhappiness and deviant behavior. What made a positive difference, the study found, was faith in God and access to a religious support system. Overall, 72 percent of the players who reported that they were happy with life also reported that religion was an important support mechanism.

But let’s not turn back from the high-minded ideals of philosophers to our regularly scheduled sports programming and its ethical excesses too quickly. First, it may be wise to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about the intersection of sports and religion.

One might even say that learning from new research, and not rejecting the role of faith out of hand, is just a matter of leveling the playing field.

Image by Ed Clemente Photography, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image by Keith Allison, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by eren {sea+prairie}, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Jon Marshall, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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