Religion and Sports
Fighting Faith: African American Athletes and Conversion
For other players, it would be Christianity that provided the most support for their spiritual and athletic aspirations. Basketball player A.C. Green, of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns, gained notoriety within the NBA for his Christian beliefs, and his well-publicized, celibate status. According to Green, teammates consistently tried to send women to "trip him up," but Green held to his vow of celibacy, which ended in 2002 with his marriage. Green, now retired, organizes abstinence talks and other activities for youth through his A.C. Green foundation.
For others, focus on the prosperity gospel would relieve them of their material prosperity, replacing it with the prosperity of association and support. Evander Holyfield, who had the misfortune to have his ear partially bitten off by Mike Tyson, found solace and bankruptcy by following after the prosperity gospel televangelist Creflo Dollar. Holyfield gave millions to the evangelist, which crippled his divorce proceedings and caused his multi-million dollar Atlanta home to go into foreclosure. Holyfield's insistence that he would pay his tithe before paying his mortgage set off a firestorm of criticism from the press.
Yet Holyfield is not the only athlete to give money to evangelists. In an ESPN expose of Paula and Randy White, divorced leaders of a large megachurch outside Tampa, Florida called Without Walls, many luminaries such as baseball payers Darryl Strawberry and Gary Sheffield, and football stars Michael Pittman and Derrick Brooks graced the pews and gave of their earnings to the ministry. The critique of the Whites' ministry was that they specifically targeted athletes in order to gain financially. Yet athletes eager to sort out their spiritual lives sought the Whites as a way to increase their public profile, and also to assuage the public perception of athletes as less than stellar role models.
For all athletes, religion can benefit their spiritual and physical performance, but their religious convictions and affiliations at times put them under deeper scrutiny than does their given sport. For black athletes, who have already crossed the color line in virtually every sport, the hurdles they cross by being believers within a secularized sports arena are many. Yet their determination to bring their faith into the public arena serves as a reminder that at times, religious goals do not always mesh perfectly with the world of sports and embodiment.
If African American athletes, are, to coin a scriptural phrase, to run the race in such a way as to win, then the race for acceptance and acknowledgment begins with the recognition that at times, faith and political action go hand in hand for those who choose to wear their faith and life on their proverbially rolled up pugilistic sleeves.
Anthea Butler is currently Associate Professor of Religion, University of Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to Patheos.