USA Today basketball writer Sam Amick recently wrote a good, objective article about the effect of overt religion on NBA teams, sharing stories of how coaches have used their religious convictions in leadership. Examples included Mark Jackson (Christian) and Phil Jackson (Buddhist/Eastern mystic), who have shared their faith rigorously, and Doc Rivers (Christian), who has done so in a more private way. Amick said that some coaches see religion as a unifying force while others see it as divisive. (Mark Jackson was fired by the Golden State Warriors earlier this week.)
Over the years many sports figures like Tim Tebow, A.C. Green, and Jeremy Lin have publicly professed their Christian beliefs. Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf stood firmly and openly by their Muslim faith. Phil Jackson earned the nickname “the Zen Master” for his use of meditation and other mystic practices. All of these instances, though, are expressions of personal belief and do not really answer the question: What is the professional place of religion in sports? Does religion belong in the locker room?
As Christians it is easy to defend the Mark Jacksons and Tim Tebows who boldly proclaim their faith in every context. But would we react the same way if it were a Muslim or a Mormon? Would we find it reasonable for a Muslim coach to encourage players to go to the mosque with him the way Jackson encouraged his players to attend church with him? Is it OK for a coach’s religious beliefs to be woven overtly into his standards for players? It could threaten players of different faiths by making religion a professional requirement, where a disagreement or differing convictions could lead to discipline or demotion.
Amick’s article reveals an important principle of faith in the workplace: Religion, in a professional context, should be a private entity with public effects. It should influence individuals in their morality, work ethic, and engagement with others. Christians should be respectful, honest, and hard working. We should pursue excellence in all we do, and in sports this exhibits itself as a competitive drive and an effort to be the best athlete, teammate, or coach.
In a secular workplace, like professional sports, it is highly questionable to use religion as a motivational tactic or standard of behavior for others. Such expressions should be reserved for one-on-one conversations in the context of a trusting relationship. To lead with religion is to alienate those of different faiths and to undermine a common goal (athletic success). For committed Christians (and those of other faiths) this dichotomy can be a challenge. As Christians, we know the way to eternal life is through Christ alone, but in an environment open to all faiths and aimed at a non-religious goal, we cannot hold others to an explicitly biblical standard. We must find other ways to show and tell of Christ without muddying the professional waters.