ESPN The Magazine, the print version of the popular sports news franchise, recently published an article on the Houston Texans’ star running back Arian Foster. Considering Foster is one of the more well-known athletes in the country right now, this isn’t necessarily a surprise – it’s the subject matter of the article that is.
“Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.”
The article itself admits that in the world of sports, this is a little shocking:
“Religion has become so entwined with the culture of sports that it has become its own language. Open Christianity is a subtext that draws players toward one another, even if they’ve never met, as if a single shared belief grants membership to the club.”
The title of the piece, “The Confession of Arian Foster,” is ironic and tragic. Because this is a sports blog with a Catholic perspective (not the other way around), you won’t find a refutation of Foster’s atheism here. If that’s what you’re looking for, check out Brandon Vogt’s post on his website Strange Notions for a logical, point-by-point breakdown of the finer theological points in the article.
Instead, let’s look at three lessons sports can teach us about faith.
Sports and faith require discipline. Whether you are a weekend athlete or a high school standout hoping to earn a college scholarship, you need discipline. It takes discipline to wake up for your 6:00 a.m. workouts or stay an extra 15 minutes in the batting cages after practice. It takes discipline to know your physical limits and avoid injury. Similarly, our faith lives require discipline to make sure we say our morning and evening prayers, pray a daily rosary, or spend 15 minutes longer in adoration. It takes discipline to go to Mass even when it’s “inconvenient” or to make time to study scripture. It’s no accident that “discipline” (disciplīna in the original Latin), is derived from discipulus, the Latin word for “student.”
Sports and faith require respect for proper authority. My last post addressed respect for officials, but the same goes for coaches. In sports, we listen to our coaches because they give us a strategy for success. Coaches motivate, train, and educate us so that we can do well on the field, court, or track. The same is true for our spiritual authority. Parents, teachers, pastors, bishops, and popes all have varying degrees of authority and responsibility for our spiritual success. They instruct us in matters of faith, encourage us to persevere, and give us strategies to attain the ultimate goal of getting to heaven. We have a duty to give them the respect that their positions deserve.
Sports and faith necessitate community. Most sports, being team activities, have a natural sense of community, but even individual sporting activities have some sort of community. Olympic sprinters represent their countries, while NASCAR racers have ownership teams. Sports like PGA golf or professional tennis, which have no team element, still foster a sense of fraternalism or community amongst the competitors themselves. Likewise, we are called to be in communion with Christ, His Church, and our neighbors. We see community most clearly when we receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. It is also evident in our local parish, but we also know that the Catholic Church is a worldwide team. No matter where we might find ourselves in the world, a Catholic church is probably nearby. The best part about this team is that if we do things right, we can attain a victory without end.
Of course, let’s remember to pray for Arian Foster and everyone who has rejected faith. Even though Foster was mostly raised in Islam (whose tenants contradict Christian teaching in many ways), that necessary ingredient of faith is what can allow the Holy Spirit to work. Someone who is closed off to the very idea of faith or religion needs our prayers even more. Additionally, make sure that you know how to discuss matters of faith with those who have disavowed faith entirely. Sports can be a great way to get that conversation started.