The Tebow Effect: How Pro Athletes Mix Sports and Religion

The Tebow Effect: How Pro Athletes Mix Sports and Religion

Cross-cultural phenom Tim Tebow has officially arrived in New York and the media is all over him. The polarizing gridiron star was recently profiled in the New York Times as an evangelical Christian who often invokes the name of Jesus Christ, yet does so in a media-savvy way—”artful preaching without sounding preachy.” Tebow has no trouble blending his professional ambitions with his spiritual beliefs, but other elite athletes have sometimes found their faith in conflict with their sport.

Tim Tebow: Football and faith
In his autobiography “Through My Eyes,” Tebow recounts his upbringing—his parents are Christian missionaries—and superstar career. This inspirational memoir weaves faith throughout, with Bible verse opening each chapter.

Tiger Woods: Bumbling Buddhist
Raised from childhood as a Buddhist, Tiger Woods has spoken publicly on a few occasions in support of his faith. Most recently he pinned his infidelity and subsequent failed marriage—along with a flailing golf game —to his deviations from the path of Buddhism. “I lost track of what I was taught.” In “The Passion of Tiger Woods,” author Orin Starn takes a far-reaching anthropological approach to understanding the imperfect yet captivating star, and how we, his adoring fans, have treated him.

Muhammad Ali: Prizefighting Muslim
After joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali but did not become any less of a boastful boxer (see: “I AM the greatest!”). Publicly vilified for his refusal to join the military based on his faith, in his spiritual memoir “The Soul of a Butterfly,” Ali contends that his boxing persona was not his real self. It wasn’t until his retirement that he began his “journey of love,” reflecting on his faith in God and the strength it gave him.

Sandy Koufax: The Jewish Fireballer
Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series on account of his Jewish faith (the game fell on Yom Kippur) became a notorious example of the conflict between professional pressures and religion in the world of sports. In “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” author Jane Leavy explores the life of the strong-minded star.

Venus and Serena Williams: Jehovah’s Tennis Stars
When asked if they were in support of now-President Obama while he was running for office in 2008, Venus and Serena Williams officially announced their neutrality on political issues, citing their religion as the reason. Serena openly discusses her childhood in her biography, “On the Line,” from growing up in rough-and-tumble Compton, California, to becoming the top women’s tennis player in the world.

Hakeem Olajuwon: The Ramadan Observer
One of the NBA’s elite big men, 7’0″ Olajuwon played without food or water during the month of Ramadan throughout the majority of his career. “His religion dominates his life,” said longtime teammate and NBA great Clyde Drexler of Hakeem, whose name had been spelled “Akeem” until he changed it to the proper Muslim spelling in 1991. His biography, “Living the Dream,” outlines his rise from pugnacious college star to even-headed NBA great thanks to his devoutness.

Reggie White: The Christian Minister
The late, great Green Bay Packers lineman Reggie White was dubbed “The Minister of Defense” because of the devout Christian faith he exhibited throughout his 15 NFL seasons, subsequently becoming an ordained Evangelical minister after retirement.  He was not without controversy, though, becoming an ally to anti-homosexuality organizations after remarks he made in a “20/20” interview opposing gay and lesbian lifestyle. In his own words, Reggie’s “Fighting the Good Fight” shares his perspective on what it takes for him to “win God’s way.”

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