It was sometime between 2003 and 2006, and I was a freshly minted member of one of the three NBA teams for which I played sparingly almost a decade ago. Practice was over, which meant that I was relieved, for I had survived another day of pretending I belonged in a place (the NBA) that I thought I probably did not (because, as I learned in the three years I spent in and out of that particular sports league, I was not quite good enough to play in that league).
Inside this NBA team’s grandiose locker room, which was equipped with carpet that was softer than any my parents ever had, two televisions that were bigger than televisions have any right to be, and lockers made of wood polished so well that I could evaluate my too-skinny body in them, I was approached by one of my new teammates.
He was smiling. He looked like he wanted to talk to me. And I was excited, for this didn’t usually happen. Most of my teammates didn’t know my last name.
He said, “Hey, so, tomorrow, before the game, we have a-“
A party? A dinner? A tradition that involves booze and drugs and women of questionable repute?
I hesitated, checking his eyes. Was he messing with me?
He was not messing with me.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “But, uh, thanks.”
“OK, well, let me know if you change your mind!”
My teammate walked away, and sat down at his locker, and changed his clothes, and went home to his kids, and woke up the next day, and came to the game, and before that game, true to his word, led a prayer circle.
And this would all have been well and good if I didn’t come to know over the next few months, after observing the way he treated fans, team officials, and complete strangers, that this teammate, like many of the “religious” teammates I met before him and would meet after him, was completely full of shit.
I was raised in a small town in Kansas. My family went to a Methodist church most Sundays. The beginning of each sermon at Grantville United Methodist was marked by the Greeting, during which my family and others got up out of their pews to shake the hands of the people around them. What came after the Greeting featured God and Jesus and that burning bush thing occasionally, but the Greeting seemed emblematic of my church’s unstated mission. It appeared to me that we went to church mostly to meet up with some decent people who genuinely cared about each other.
With this quaint vision of what religion should be, I left Grantville for the wider world. At Iowa State University, where I played basketball and graduated with an engineering degree, my view of the actively religious remained largely untarnished; the kids who went to church on Sundays were well-meaning (if not particularly interesting to talk to) and the athletes who tried to secure my attendance at their Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings were similarly well-intentioned (if also bland).
But then I left college for the pros, and my view of the religious athlete began to crumble.
The guys with crosses emblazoned on their deltoids were also the ones cheating on their wives. The guys who said prayers before dinner treated fans like they were Untouchables. The guys who thanked Jesus after games were the same guys who played hardball on contracts so they could spend the money on cars, cards, and jewelry.
The worst part: not only did my religious teammates fail to practice the humility, selflessness, and generosity their religions called hallmarks, they were using the idea that they were humble, selfless, and generous to sell tickets and jerseys.
I no longer attend church, Methodist or otherwise. This is because I have long since given up on believing in God. That fact is not important here; my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) have no bearing on the fate of the world.
What might be important is this: thanks in large part to the ways I’ve seen religion used and abused in sports, not only do I not go to church, I’ve learned to take a dim view of religion in general. But I don’t think it has to be this way.
Not every athlete who claims to be religious is lying. One of my teammates on the ABA’s Kansas City Knights, a hyper-religious fellow from the University of Missouri, remains one of the best humans I’ve ever met.
Nor is every athlete religious; I had some teammates who were just as atheistic as I.
However, we were exceptions; most athletes, like most people, are religious.
And it is their right to be so.
It is not, though, their right to quietly undermine the religions they purport to follow, whether by appearing in police blotters or by displaying on-court attitudes that can only be called selfish and egocentric. This is called hypocrisy, and just as we take to task such hypocrisy amongst politicians and priests, we should do the same with religious athletes.
Behavioral consistency is difficult to achieve.
But them’s the breaks. If the religious athlete is going to reap the public goodwill that results from an ostentatious embrace of his faith, then we should expect his behavior to correspond all the time.
Not just when he wants us to believe that it does.