If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you’re not supposed to participate in competitive sports. An issue of the Watchtower made that clear a decade ago: “… if measuring ourselves against others — their feats or advantages — stimulates feelings akin to envy or competitiveness, beware! These are negative emotions, incompatible with God’s thinking.”
But that doesn’t seem to apply to Serena Williams.
Williams, who won her sixth career Wimbledon title last week, has consistently given credit to “Jehovah God” for her success. In interviews, she has explained that her faith prohibits her from voting and from dating outside the Jehovah’s Witness community. Her competition schedule and high public profile probably prevent her from knocking on neighbors’ doors on Saturday mornings, but she’s devoted to her highly-regulated religion otherwise.
But that’s the problem. The Jehovah’s Witnesses discourage any behavior that distracts followers from devotion and proselytizing or puts them into extensive contact with nonbelievers. That explicitly includes competitive sports, which numerous church publications have condemned as a dangerous path for Jehovah’s Witness kids.
They tell stories of teenagers led astray by involvement in school sports teams. They spent all their free time practicing instead of praying or studying, fell under the influence of teammates who partied and dated. And, inevitably, the desire to win consumed their thoughts. The Jehovah’s Witness Blog, an anti-JW site, quotes several passages from a 2011 Watchtower article about a girl named Arielle who joined her high school handball team.
Unexpectedly, the game itself began to corrode my spirituality. Handball filled my mind and heart… The climax came when our opponents were awarded a penalty shot in one game. I was poised to defend the goal. Before I realised it, I had prayed to Jehovah to help me block the shot! This incident made me realize how much my spirituality had suffered.
It’s not just Arielle’s focus on sports that the story condemns. She’s also not supposed to pray to Jehovah to help her succeed — or give God credit when she wins. But those are exactly the priorities that Williams talks about when she brings her religion onto the tennis court:
I have to thank Jehovah God for this,” Serena Williams told the crowd after receiving the trophy at the Australian Open in January, her sixth win there. “I was down and out and he helped me today and I just said prayers, not to win but to be strong and to be healthy and in the end I was able to come through so I have to give the glory to him first and foremost.”
She states that she prayed for health and strength, not specifically to win, but it’s splitting hairs. Obviously, the Jehovah’s Witnesses will never censure Williams, because she provides such a positive public face for them. But when she draws attention to her faith, she’s drawing attention to a double standard — unlike most members of her restrictive religion, she gets to pick and choose which rules to observe.