God and the game: Religion and sports

Spring is traditionally when summer sports — both professional and amateur — heat up. Major League Baseball begins, basketball fans fixate on the Final Four in March, and millions of fans deck themselves out in team regalia to watch. Professional basketball gets serious, too. With sports come stories, often with a faith or ethics angle — whether about the personal faith of players and coaches, the appropriateness of praying for a team win or even the morality of competition itself. This edition of ReligionLink offers a variety of sources and background on the long and storied relationship between sports and religious faith.

Recent developments

In sports and religion

  • Half of Americans say supernatural forces influence sports, according to a January 2014 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among the survey’s other findings: “Football fans are more likely than other sports fans to report praying to God (33 percent vs. 21 percent), to believe their team has been cursed (31 percent vs. 18 percent), and to perform rituals before or during games (25 percent vs. 18 percent).”
  • The International Basketball Association banned players from wearing religious headwear such as turbans, yarmulkes and hijabs, causing some players to protest.
  • Some charter schools, which are run by nonprofits with government funding, participate in Christian league sports. At least one First Amendment watchdog group says this violates the Constitution‘s prohibition on government endorsement of religion.
  • Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, was cut by the St. Louis Rams before the season. When Sam was drafted, many players, coaches and fans reacted strongly, some citing their Christian faith in their response.

In sports and ethics

  • In July 2014, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was suspended for two games after being charged with beating his fiancee unconscious in an elevator. The term of his suspension — lighter than what the NFL requires for players caught smoking marijuana — raised the question about the message professional sports sends to its fans about the value of women. Update – Ray Rice was cut from the Ravens and suspended from the NFL when new video of him punching his then-fiance surfaced.
  • Hurdler Oscar Pistorius had to go to court to win the right to complete at the 2010 London Olympics with his high-tech prosthetic limbs. Other amputee-athletes are continuing the fight to compete with nonhandicapped athletes. The most recent to take on this battle — and lose it — was Markus Rehm, a German track star with a prosthetic leg. Should amputees with high-performance prosthetics be allowed to compete with other athletes? If so, who should pay for the latest technology? The athlete? The athelete’s team or country? Can we weigh fairness in sports with nondiscrimination?
  • In August 2014, the NCAA created a two-tiered system for college athletics that would allow some student athletes to earn money while playing for amateur college teams. Many critics cried foul, saying the system sets up a kind of unequal major and minor league of college athletics.
  • A growing number of National Football League players say they are concerned about brain injury. Critics of the NFL say it has been slow to address the problem and stingy when it does. The issue is making itself felt in youth sports, too, as parents must choose whether to let their children play full-contact sports. Who is morally responsible for protecting players — the players themselves or the league?
  • The next two FIFA World Cup competitions will be held in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Both events have attracted controversy. Russia faces global disapproval and sanctions for its handling of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the ongoing uprising in Ukraine. In Qatar, critics say the Cup is already plagued by charges of bribery and unfair labor practices, including the use of slaves. Should countries at war or potentially in violation of human rights be awarded global sporting events? To what extent should sports, politics and human rights concerns mix?


  • Read a Sept. 30, 2014 story by Dave Skretta of the Associated Press about Husain Abdullah, a Muslim safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, who was penalized after dropping to his knees in prayer during a game. Abdullah took a year off from the NFL to complete the hajj, the obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
  • Read a Sept. 11, 2014, story by USA Today‘s Dan Wolken about the removal of crosses from the football helmets at Arkansas State University.
  • Watch a Sept. 8, 2014, New York Times mini-documentary called “Pastor with a Punch,” about the rise of mixed martial arts ministries at Christian churches.
  • Read an article from the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic about a program that aims to foster a positive environment in youth sports instead of the win-at-all-costs mentality that sometimes prevails.
  • Read an essay by Melanie Rainer in the September 2014 issue of Christianity Today‘s Her-meneutics reconciling the violence in football with the redemption of Christianity.
  • Read an Aug. 29, 2014, Washington Post story about how religion shapes football, and vice versa, at the University of Mississippi.
  • Read an Aug. 21, 2014, USA Today story about big spending by Liberty University on its athletic program, which the school views as an important tool in its evangelistic mission.
  • Read a July 9, 2014, essay by Chett Pritchett, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, about his discomfort with public expressions of religion at sporting events.
  • Read an April 21, 2014, article in Canada’s National Post about Montreal Canadiens fans paying their Catholic diocese $1 each to light virtual prayer candles for their team.
  • Read a March 24, 2014, news item from The Huffington Post about coach Phil Jackson’s Zen Buddhism and its possible effect on the New York Knicks.
  • Read a Feb. 27, 2014, New York Times story about the Oklahoma City Thunder’s custom of holding a pre-game, public invocation. It is the only NBA team — and one of only a couple major men’s pro teams in general — to regularly do so, and the practice has drawn criticism as well as praise.
  • Read a January 2013 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute on how Americans think about the role God plays in athletics. Fun fact: three in 10 Americans believe God plays a role in the outcome of sporting events.
  • Read a Nov. 24, 2013, story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about religion and football at Clemson University, a public university.
  • Read a June 1, 2011, essay by Sadhguru J. Vasudev for The Huffington Post about the relationship between sports and spirituality.
  • Read an Oct. 1, 2010, essay by Alastair Gornall in New Lotus about how the peaceful principles of Buddhism coincide with contact sports.
  • Read an April 27, 2010, essay by Varun Soni in The Huffington Post about how following the Los Angeles Clippers affected his Hinduism.

Religion and sports online

  • Jewish Baseball News

    Jewish Baseball News, where the motto is “News and stats on Jews with bats,” tracks professional baseball players of Jewish heritage from farm teams to the major leagues. It maintains a list of current Jewish baseball players. Scott Barancik is the editor.

  • Jewish Sports Review

    Jewish Sports Review is a bimonthly, subscription-only online publication that covers Jewish sports figures — both on the field and in the front office. It also covers Israeli sports. It is based in Los Angeles, and Shel Wallman is the editor.

  • Muslim Women in Sports

    Muslim Women in Sports is a news blog about Muslim women who play professional and amateur sports around the world. It is the personal blog of Sertaç Sehlikoglu, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge in England.

  • Ummah Sports

    Ummah Sports is an online news site dedicated to the intersection of Islam and sports and is based in Seattle. Austin Burton is the editor.

Sports ministries

  • Baseball Chapel

    Baseball Chapel is a Christian ministry to baseball players that provides chapel leaders to all 210 major league and minor league baseball teams and estimates 3,000 players participate. The site maintains a list of active and retired players who endorse it. It’s based in Springfield, Pa., and Vince Nauss is president.

  • Fellowship of Christian Athletes

    The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, based in Kansas City, Mo., is the leading Christian organization for professional and student athletes. The ministry aims to evangelize through sports and has members sign a “Competitor’s Creed” to be on “Team Jesus Christ.” The FCA was founded in 1954, and its “huddles” meet regularly on nearly 8,000 junior high, high school and college campuses for prayer, Bible study and other activities. Les Steckel, a former National Football League coach, is president and CEO. Steckel was head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and was the offensive coordinator for two teams that reached the Super Bowl: the New England Patriots in 1986 and the Tennessee Titans in 2000.

  • Sikh Sport Association

    The Sikh Sport Association organizes sporting events for Sikhs and tracks Sikh athletes in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. It is based in Danville, Calif., and the organization maintains a list of contacts by sports.

  • Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ USA

    Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ USA is a national Christian ministry that partners with local churches in the U.S. to focus on youth. The national office is in Dillon, Colo., but there are offices all around the nation, which it breaks down into four regions. The ministry has overseas branches in New Zealand, Switzerland, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada.

    Contact: 864-674-7452.
  • Third Coast Sports Foundation

    The Third Coast Sports Foundation is a sports ministry that works with major and minor league baseball teams to provide Christian acts for “Faith Nights” or “Faith Days” at ballparks. The foundation is based in Nashville, Tenn. Brent High is president.

  • The Way

    The Way is a Christian ministry to youth via sports camps in Europe. It is based in Fort Gibson, Okla.

College and university centers

  • National Christian College Athletic Association

    The National Christian College Athletic Association is a nonprofit that promotes intercollegiate sports among Christian schools and Christian athletes. It covers 100 Christian colleges and universities, 13,000 student-athletes and 850 coaches. It is based in Greenville, S.C., and Dan Wood is executive director.

    Contact: 864-250-1199.
  • Neumann University Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development

    The Neumann University Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development focuses on the role religion can play in the development of the athlete. It hosts sporting events, conferences and other special events on the subject. Neumann is a Catholic university in Aston, Pa. Lee M. DelleMonache is the institute’s director.

  • Spirituality and Sports

    Spirituality and Sports is a program of the Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It focuses on the spiritual aspects of competition and athletics through speakers and special events. Shawn Sorenson is its director.

National sources

  • Albert Mohler

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president and a prominent American evangelical. He can be contacted through his website.

    In February 2014, just before the Super Bowl, he wrote an essay lamenting the decline of religion and the rise of sports culture in America.

  • Michael Serazio

    Michael Serazio is an assistant professor of communication at Boston University, in Boston, Mass. In January 2013, he wrote an essay for The Atlantic likening sports fans’ use of team icons to religious totems.

  • Sohaib N. Sultan

    Sohaib N. Sultan is Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton University. In July 2014, as part of a series of Ramadan reflections for Time, he wrote about why Muslims should avoid food waste.

  • Owen Strachan

    Owen Strachan is an assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. as well as president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He writes Thoughtblog, a blog about Christian theology, politics and culture.

    In Sept, 2013, he wrote an essay for Christianity Today asking whether Christians can or should watch football because of its violence.

Regional sources

In the East

  • Kent Berghuis

    The Rev. Kent Berghuis is senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, and an affiliate in theology at Palmer Theological Seminary in King of Prussia, Pa.

    He co-authored a paper, with Matt Blackmon, titled “Would Jesus Play Texas Hold-Em? Reflections on Religion and the World Poker Tour.” The paper explores intersections between religion and the growing popular phenomenon of poker-playing, including a World Poker Tour pro who looks like and calls himself “Jesus,” and religious computer icons chosen to identify players on popular online poker sites such as PokerStars.com.

  • Herb Lusk

    Pastor Herb Lusk is a former Philadelphia Eagles tailback who is thought to be the first NFL player to kneel and pray in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, in 1977. Since 1982 Lusk has headed the congregation at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

  • R. Laurence Moore

    R. Laurence Moore is a professor emeritus of American studies in the history department at Cornell University and author of Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History.

In the Midwest

  • Rachel Allison

    Rachel Allison is an assistant profession in the department of sociology at Mississippi State University. She is the coordinator of a session called  “Soccer and the Politics of Inequality,” which will look at the social and racial issues raised by professional soccer and the FIFA World Cup, at the 2014 conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.

  • John Gibson

    The Rev. John Gibson is an associate pastor serving at St. Dominic Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wis. A story about how his love for soccer and the church combined in his call appeared in the April 17, 2014, edition of the Catholic Herald.

  • Charles Honey

    Charles Honey is a religion and education reporter and columnist for the Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts.”

  • David E. Prince

    David E. Prince is an assistant professor of Christian Teaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. and pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.

    In Sept. 2013, he co-authored an essay for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention defending the violence of football and aligning it with Christianity.

In the South

In the West

  • Blake Burleson

    Blake Burleson, senior lecturer in religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has expertise in sports ethics and world religions.

    He teaches a course on ethics and contemporary sport and another on religion and sports.

  • Craig A. Forney

    Craig A. Forney is assistant professor of religious studies at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif. He is the author of The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball and Basketball.

  • Phillip Larsen

    Phillip Larsen is a Christian and a writer based in Yukon, Okla. In October 2013, he wrote an essay for Ethics Daily that questioned holding up as heroes football players who misbehave off the field.

  • Hugh Poland

    Hugh Poland is the author of two Christian devotionals on baseball, including Intentional Walk. He is a writer and music minister in Houston.

  • Joseph L. Price

    Joseph L. Price is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. He wrote the article “Religion and American Popular Culture” for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1996) and has taught a course on religion and film. He is the author of the 2006 book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America and editor of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, a collection of 14 essays, six of which Price wrote. They include “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival” and “The Final Four as Final Judgment: The Religious and Cultural Significance of the NCAA Basketball Championship.”

  • Frank Reich

    Frank Reich is a former college and NFL star quarterback and from 2003 to 2006 was president of the Charlotte, N.C., campus of the Reformed Theological Seminary. He is now a motivational speaker and speaks about the relationship between prayer and athletic contests, often in the context of his own record of “miraculous” comeback victories. He lives in the San Diego area. Contact through Premiere Speakers Bureau.

    Contact: 615-261-4000.
  • Jeffrey Scholes

    Jeffrey Scholes is assistant professor of religious studies in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He has written a number of articles about sports and religion and is co-author of Religion and Sports in American Culture.

International sources

  • Atletas de Cristo

    Atletas de Cristo, or Athletes for Christ, is a Brazil-based international organization of Christian — usually Pentecostal and evangelical — athletes. Its purpose is to “bring the Gospel to the world through the athlete.” Brazilian soccer players have been known to flout FIFA’s rules against proselytizing via clothing at games.

  • Olivier Bauer

    Olivier Bauer is an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the Universite de Montreal and the author of Hockey as Religion: The Montreal Canadiens.

  • Robert Ellis

    Robert Ellis is principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and a member of the faculty of theology and religion at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Games People Play: Theology, Religion and Sport.

  • Abdelhak Hamiche

    Abdelhak Hamiche is an associate professor at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. He wrote an article for The Peninsula about the meaning of sports within Islam.

  • Lincoln Harvey

    The Rev. Lincoln Harvey is a lecturer in systematic theology at St. Mellitus College in London and the author of A Brief Theology of Sport, which posits that “sport has everything to do with our deepest identity.”


  • Sports Ministry Network

    The Sports Ministry Network is a project of Youth With a Mission England, a Christian ministry, and it reaches youth via cricket, soccer and other sports. Paul Baker is the network coordinator.