God in the Game

Zach Smith

June 27, 2019

Stephen Versus the Game is the most recent TV series to explore the spirituality of a professional athlete—Stephen Curry—in an episode appropriately titled “Faith” (S2:E5). The thirty-minute spot on the Golden State Warriors’ sharpshooter follows a similarly themed episode from Season One with Tom Brady in the episode titled “Spirituality” (S1:E5). But while these episodes offer an inspirational look at the spiritual lives of two athletes at the top of their respective games, they offer little substance for engaging how athletes mix religion with some of professional sports’ biggest issues—like hyper-commercialization, bodily exploitation, or athlete protests of social injustice. 
Stephen Versus the Game adds to the popular exploration of the most prevalent and public forms of two cultures in twenty-first-century America—religion and sport. In fact, public displays of religiosity at sporting events are so common that they often go unremarked upon—whether pregame prayer at Neyland Stadium, postgame thanksgivings after the Superbowl, or interviews with WNBA players. Or, in the case of Steph Curry, basketball shoes customized with a Bible verse (e.g., “Romans 8:28” and “I can do all things…”).
Incidentally, Curry is hardly the only Christian athlete to weave scripture into his game. Former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow famously inscribed “John 3:16” into his eye black, causing the NCAA to create “the Tebow rule” prohibiting such public facing messages, while ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made Bible verses a part of his body art. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz developed the “A01” slogan (which stands for the Christian neologism “audience of one”) and has also put “Romans 5:8” on his game spikes. 
Athletic contests and religious pageantry have been woven together throughout history, with the Olympics of Ancient Greece being perhaps the most well-known example. For much of Christian history, such contests were discouraged based on their connection to “pagan” festivals, as well as the degree to which they might tempt Christians to misplace their attention and affections. When games and exercise were condoned, it was often as a matter of utility for good health. 
During the 1800s, as the British empire expanded and ball games were codified sports, Protestant Christian educators in England began to link Christian piety with strong (male) bodies and virile masculinity. Sporting endeavors and contests, in the context of boarding schools, were seen as a way to encourage the development of a robust Christian manliness, while also serving as a “release” to prevent pubescent boys from the grave sin of masturbation. Women were often actively discouraged from participating in competitive athletic contests altogether. 
In the early 1900s, evangelists like Dwight L. Moody engaged professional athletes like Billy Sunday as a way to attract crowds to revival meetings. Organizations like the YMCA sought to save souls by ministering to—and through—bodies. After World War II, Evangelical sports ministries, like Athletes in Action, were founded specifically as platforms for proselytization. 
As popular notions of spirituality in the US have changed over the last century, Evangelical Protestant Christians incorporated and interpreted sports and spirituality in new ways. Though there is still an emphasis on evangelism, as Tom Krattenmaker has demonstrated in his book Onward Christian Athletesmany Evangelical athletes, like Curry, find inspiration in the words of scripture and prefer to "let their game do the talking"—suggesting that their “actions speak for themselves” and interpreting athletic performances as both acts of witness and worship. In these increasingly individual and experiential articulations of spirituality, moments of flow or “being in the zone” are viewed as experiences of transcendence (though these are not exclusive to Christian, or even religious, athletes). 
The world of professional sports adds another dimension of spirituality for athletes as playing a sport becomes their vocation. As a vocation, athletes interpret their sporting endeavors as part of their ultimate purpose. Here the “Protestant Ethic” of sport mixes with endorsement deals and the celebrification of athletes as sporting and spiritual heroes, affording athletes like Curry the opportunity to put their spiritual stamp on a pair of sneakers.
Asked what “Phil. 4:13” stood for on his new Curry One shoe, Curry replied, “It represents a Bible verse I wear on my shoe. … It’s also my mantra, how I get up for games and why I play the way I do.” The verse, a favorite of Christian athletes, reads “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a mantra well-suited to the athletic point of view with an almost self-help sounding focus on overcoming obstacles. It also resonates with what historian Tim Gloege characterizes as the “entrepreneurial” impulse of Evangelical Protestantism, which emphasizes the individual’s personal relationship with God as the locus of an authentic faith that is evidentially validated by empirical outcomes. In Curry’s case, the evidence is his perseverance through multiple surgeries to come back and drop a mind-blowing 50-plus points on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, not to mention a healthy new Warriors contract and the opportunity to design and sell a signature Under Armour line of shoes. 
But while stories about athletes’ faith are often uplifting and encouraging, further reflection generates questions for how popular mantra’s like “I can do all things…” feed into a culture of sport that consistently fails the standard of an ethic of care. It is a short step from an article subtitle that reads, “Steph Curry proves he ‘can do all things through Christ,’ not just by defying his limitations but through sacrifice” to viewing the body as an expendable tool and using Philippians 4:13 as an excuse to refuse proper treatment for injury and to play while injured. Most youth athletes don’t have access to world-class trainers; they do, however, live with the pressure of “leave it all on the field” and “win at all costs” mentalities. While episodes like “Faith” may offer inspiration, they provide scant insight into how athletes navigate a professional sports industry that often exploits the bodies of athletes—and especially athletes of color—in the name of profit. Nor do they engage with the ways that athletes like Curry, or teammate Kevin Durant, use Bible verses to protest police violence against black bodies. Religion can be used in the name of power, profit, or protest—and sometimes these exist side-by-side. 

Images: The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry points heavenward during a 2016 game against the Boston Celtics (top). Curry inscribes Philippians 4:13—"I can do all things ..."—on his game shoes (bottom).

6a67f997-93cc-4d53-9f65-b0f6e432fc36.jpgAuthor, Zach Smith, is a PhD candidate in Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee where he also serves as the research assistant for the Center for the Study of Sport and Religion. Zach's dissertation research is an ethnographic exploration of Christian mixed martial arts. 

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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