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Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Stephen Curry and the Big Pendulum Swing toward Respect for Faith

Anyone who is paying attention to the sports world will see an increased respect for the role faith plays in athletics.  Some who ridiculed Christianity in the Tim Tebow era seem to have a more open stance in the wake of athletes like NBA MVP Stephen Curry and Penultimate Olympian Michael Phelps acknowledging a personal relationship with God as key to their inward success.

The pendulum swing away from vilipending people who talk about their faith has become even more noticeable this past year with Stephen Curry’s open demonstrations of faith and the transformation of burnt-out Olympian Michael Phelps. The world is taking notice that real faith is aligned with real humanity, just as hypocritical faith is an echo of hypocritical humanity.  Faith, authentic, generous, and humble, has provided a deep sense of meaning and purpose for some of the best athletes in the world.

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul,” is wisdom that is parabled again and again in the sports arena and has no correlation more apparent than in the life of Michael Phelps. To have an athlete of his talent, achievement, and fame contemplating suicide after 18 gold metals bespeaks the necessity for meaning beyond sports.  Phelps found himself in a spiral of self-destruction attempting to ease his inner emptiness with drugs and the trappings of success. Phelps told ESPN that the Christian devotional book The Purpose Driven Life “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”

Sports without life-meaning compared with sports expressed through life-meaning couldn’t have been more obvious at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2009. The lack of meaning and purpose in Michael Jordan’s speech made headline news with telling commentary from ESPN reporter John Greenberg writing in response to Jordan’s speech “I miss Jordan the Hero. I don't really want to know Jordan the Man.”

What exposed Jordan’s speech to be so lacking was the juxtaposition it shared with the other members inducted such as John Stockton, Vivian Springer and David Robinson who all share a profound inner faith. For athletes like David Robinson, sports became a way to honor God not a way to become a god.

What makes the Jordanesque athletes who seek to make sports or themselves a “god” less admirable these days is the modest and profound story of athletes who are not only our heroes but people we would want to emulate in character.

In major sectors of the sports world people are seeing a major move away from ego and toward humility.  The difference faith plays in the lives of great athletes is creating a genuine level of respect in sports journalism. Sports announcers, journalists and commentators are dispensing with the obvious dismissive or scornful tone previously leveled at athletes and instead adopting a more insightful appreciation for the role faith plays in sports. 

Perhaps the reason for the vilification of faith resided in the beliefs that faith and, Christianity in particular, was seen as incongruent with competitive athletics.  Yet in the wake of the desire to demonize your opponent to the point of even physical violence as seen in the likes of the Tanya Harding attack on Nancy Kerrigan or Mike Tyson biting the ear of Evander Holyfield, there is a winsome quality to the  attitude and behavior of respectful Christian athletes who view their opponents with gratitude. Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky after winning gold in the 200 meters finished her race with a sincere appreciation and thankfulness for her competitors. This came right before the clowning antics of South African swimmer Chad le Clos attempting to get under the skin of Michael Phelps.  Humility and gratitude are admirable.  Pride cometh before the fall.

NBA MVP Stephen Curry has been vocal about the role faith has played in his life from the onset, and sports announcers tried early on to silence the role faith played in his life. However, his symbolic demonstrations of chest pumping and pointing to the sky has always shown where his meaning and purpose reside. As sports announcers and media became more tolerant of his expression of faith, announcers began listening and nodding their head when faith was discussed rather than cutting him short.

Respect for faith isn’t just impacting the media world. Curry’s actions have inspired an entire generation to re-think faith and to feel freedom to demonstrate their faith openly.  Walk into a summer camp or an AAU gym and you will find Curry wannabes thumping their chest and pointing heavenward. Though some young athletes coming up through the system may be looking for an edge and are falsely influenced to grab onto the glitter of religion as a staircase to the sports god, those who are paying attention will see faith from the inside out is the difference maker. As athletes move away from faith being a talisman or lucky charm and into a deeper vision of faith as transformative, more and more athletes are finding real purpose in choosing to put God first and view sports as an outflow of their faith.

Respect for the power of faith is trickling down even beyond the sporting world. In the militaristic and often hostile school separation of church and state where discussions of faith are tantamount to treason, dialogue and respectfulness for faith are beginning to emerge.   For example, when Maya Angelou is taught in Detroit public schools, her faith and her poetry are connected hand in glove.

This is great news for people like Coach Danny Beard, senior Vice President for NBC Basketball Camps, one of the largest residential basketball camp training programs.  NBC Basketball Camps is a respected sports program combining training which emphasizes development for the whole athlete: physical, mental, relational and spiritual.   “Athletes are looking for something real that can motivate them from the inside out and I can’t think of anything more powerful and meaningful than a personal relationship with God.” He states the pendulum swing of respect for faith has created a more natural segue between intensive sports training and spirituality. He recalls that in the 1990s to early 2000s there was an understandable uneasiness and skepticism when talking about faith and sports, but this has changed. Beard states, “Athletes have a respect now and curiosity about faith because they understand their own sense of emptiness and can see the hope faith has provided in the lives of their role models.”

With election season on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how the pendulum will continue to swing. Unfortunately, faith and politics tend to be embroiled without good outcomes. Clayton Cornell, professor of politics at Washington State University, shares evidence that many people are actually more influenced behaviorally by their party than by their faith. During a discussion sponsored by Humanities Washington entitled “American Rage: Division and Anger in Politics”, Cornell shared research that people who identify as “Christian” will say they value helping and serving the poor but will vote in opposition to those values to align with a party rather than stick with their faith. He also reported a large percentage of both parties view people who are not in their personal party as dangerous and detrimental to the wellbeing of our country. With faith used as a brandishing sword, the typical result is greater alienation and mistrust.

Pendulum swings are usually a necessary response to misalignment. Hopefully, the era of silence and violence toward people of faith in sports and the demonizing and hatred-laced religiosity in politics is moving in a more respectful and tolerant arc. With the negative example of ISIS intolerance and violence toward Christianity and other faiths as well as the dread of the approaching election year along with the real examples of great athletes becoming good people through faith this might be the perfect catalyst for healthy discussion and a new consideration of faith and its place in our lives.

About NBC Basketball Camps

Since 1971, NBC Camps has been founded on the principles of total athlete development including emphasis on improving skill, developing leadership, growing talent, mental toughness, grit and confidence, and building compentency and personal faith. Summer camps are held in 16 different states and 6 countries. NBC Basketball Camps offer a variety of training opportunities including camps, travel teams, fall and spring training sessions, leadership and coaching seminars.  For more information about NBC Camps please visit www.nbccamps.com.  

This article was written by Chief Operating Office for NBC Camps, J.S. Ferch

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