Is the NBA ready for CCB? Contemporary Christian Basketball?

When the Kobe Bryant sex scandal first hit the headlines, one of the first things that NBA insiders began discussing was its impact on his multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts. But the discussions had a twist. While some worried that a sexual-assault rap might hurt him, others decided that this might actually boost his stock “on the street,” in the urban marketplace of hip-hop, macho credibility.

Clearly, the NBA is a highly tolerant environment, when it comes to the personal lives of its superstars.

But what if a hoops phenom was a born-again Christian, one who saw the court as a platform for evangelism and, oh my God, even the advocacy of conservative moral beliefs? How would this affect sneaker sales? Will this hurt the NBA brand name? What’s next? An “I love this game” NBA ad featuring Franklin Graham?

This was the issue raised in a feature over at focusing on this year’s high-school verson of LeBron (King) James. Dwight Howard is a 6-10 power forward and everyone agrees that this young man is a star on the rise. But what about those hymns he sings? What about that 10 Commandments poster in his room? Is the NBA ready for a stud who says things like: “I want to be able to speak to non-Christians so that I can get them saved or change their lives around.”

This is not a new issue. There have been stories in the past about born-again tensions in major-league baseball locker rooms. People have asked if a linebacker can be as tough as he needs to be when he is involved in Promise Keeper rallies on Saturday with some of the players that he needs to crush on Sunday. But it is Howard’s openness about his evangelistic goals that has some people freaking out. Can the NBA tolerate this kind of intolerance? The feature notes:

“This is the first time an athlete will be able to overcome what (former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson) couldn’t do,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the Reebok executive. . . . “David was a leader in the crusade of being religious and being a great athlete, but Dwight’s plan could work because we’re in an era of niche marketing. He’s taking a stand saying, ‘I’m going to do this and some company is going to buy into it,’ and that fact is that these companies have millions and billions of dollars to brand Dwight as their hero.

“If he’s as good as I think he will be, he’ll be the perfect role model for this segment of the population.”

To state it crudely, does the NBA need to consider the impact of those box-office numbers for The Passion of the Christ? Can professional sports afford to be “Left Behind” in this age of niche marketing?

Maybe that would work. But maybe, notes ESPN reporter Darren Rovell, it would not. Everyone knows that there are believers out on the court. But the jury is still out on whether that is good for marketing.

About 50 percent of the league’s players attend at least one service during the season and seemingly every team has a player who considers himself a devout Christian, said former ABA and NBA guard Claude Terry, executive vice president of the Pro Basketball Fellowship, which oversees the NBA teams’ chaplains.

“I would hope that Dwight’s beliefs wouldn’t hurt his chances to market products,” Terry said. “I would think that marketers would want to embrace someone with such values. At the same time, I can understand that we live in an age where people are supposed to be tolerant of the choices others make and it could be interpreted that he is imposing his beliefs on them.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • joseph

    My son has a book about “Christian” NBA stars. Featured prominently in the book are David Robinson and A. C. Green. Also featured in the book is Kobe Bryant.

    I dislike the idea of celebrity Christians. I remember how quick PK was to promote Gary Busey and then came the reports of him using and beating his wife.

    If one is going to have celebrity Christians, they ought to use someone who is truly heroic like St. Antony, Eric Liddell, or Mother Teresa–not someone who simply has a good jump shot or crossover dribble. The guy in the NBA who interests me the most is Dikembe Mutombo who has spent millions of his own dollars trying to build a hospital in the Congo.

  • Brant Hansen

    There is a certain advantage in conferring hero-status to those already dead. Scandal much less likely.

    Is it just me, or do sportswriters, as a general rule, seem to be more understanding of religion? There are certainly exceptions, but it does seem like I’ve seen SI pieces, for instance, that treat evangelical athletes with more than grudging respect.

  • Anonymous

    Really, it doesn’t matter but:

    The Onion had a headline once (I can’t seem to find it now on their site) that said: Jesus Returns To The NBA.

    Thank you, thank you very much. I’m here all week.

  • dw

    Being a Christian athlete poses a lot of problems.

    – Athletes have a strong celebrity status, and this means they tend to attract hangers-on that want a piece of the action. The easiest way to get that piece is to offer all sorts of temptations to the athlete, including sex and drugs.

    – Athletes who publicly invoke the name of Jesus whenever they win a game polarize public perception. “You thank Jesus for the win, what about the losses? Did you lose because you sinned or because you can’t hit?”

    – Athletes are coveted by religious groups but often dropped like hot stones when they fall. This happens with Christian musicians as well, I’ve noticed.

    A number of Christian groups such as FCA and AIA have recognized the problems with being a Christian and a professional athlete, and with this they’ve sought to minister to them. The pressure is immense to perform on the field and to toe a very tight line spiritually.

    I think the public looks on Christian athletes now with a jaundiced eye. Part of it is, “When are we going to find out he’s a pedophile?” I think that there’s still some problems with interpreting what being a Christian actually means in sports. In hockey, do you turn the other cheek when you fight? In baseball, how does your faith affect your sabermetrics? In football, does it mean anything to espouse a God of Peace on what is affectionately called a “battlefield?” Or, in Kurt Warner’s case, are you using your faith to make excuses about your effectiveness?

    How does following Christ form and transform your play on the field? I wish someone would answer that.

  • hoekstra

    A few thoughts:

    1. Whenever I consider “Christian athletes” I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about the speck of sawdust vs. the plank in my own eye. This right after the “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. …With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

    2. Of course it damages us when Christian athletes fall, because it hurts the body of Christ. Just as a bruise or scar changes the way we look, so also a “visible blemish” tarnishes the Church’s image. But we can help heal that if we react accordingly. As fellow Christians, we need to “love the sinner, but not the sin.” If they truly repent, they at least know where forgiveness comes from–God, and hopefully their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    3. I wonder, with all the other pro-athlete (non-Christian) scandals going on, doesn’t “secular” society view these things as blemishes on its own image?

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