During a radio interview with TSN today, the question of religion in the locker room was brought up. The impetus: something to do with Roberto Osuna having strength in Christ, which is why he’s either successful, or doing his best, or focusing… or something. Whatever it was, it fell under the umbrella of “all things” as in all things are possible through Christ who strengthens Roberto Osuna.

The question wasn’t so much about Osuna as it was about how touchy a subject like religion is in a locker room setting. IE: How much talking about it is reasonable, does it annoy people, and what do you do with players who are very religious.

First, lets start by understanding that religion and faith are near indescribable unless you’ve held or practiced one. Second, how they’re held and practiced varies wildly from person to person. Third, religious people who are famous often get pulled into stuff that most normal folks would never deal with, and, Fourth, religion mixed with sports all to often becomes “my beliefs are the correct beliefs because God helped me/my team/my role model win today!”

That last part is an ultra dangerous trap many athletes fall into. Actually, it’s a trap many believers fall into as they look for humanistic gauges of success and happiness by which to measure the efficacy of their faith. But I digress.

The sports trap is something I’ve seen many a time. Tim Tebow throws a touchdown, and it’s not his touchdown, it’s Jesus touchdown, and a social win for team Jesus. Pujols cracks a homer and he gives the glory to God. Colt Morton, a former MLB catcher and teammate of mine, when first drafted, would literally go to one knee on home plate and pray after a home run. The conclusion you’re supposed to draw as an onlooker is that faith made all that good stuff possible—so call now and get you some faith!

Ironically, Colt got beaned for doing his post homer kneeling as some pitchers felt such glory-giving was playing the game the wrong way—a completely different religious belief that has more to do with superstition than real faith. But the line of superstition and faith is often blurry in sports. Professional baseball provides a service called “baseball chapel” wherein a local pastor comes to the stadium and gives a small prayer and message service for both the home and away team. It’s aimed at Christians, but anyone is welcome to attend. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen guys show up to Baseball Chapel simply because they wanted to bargain with some higher power, offering to be a better person in exchange for some hits, or clean innings. Hell, I’ve even doe in myself!

Because of the very public nature of sports and the very growth oriented nature of most major religions, many athletes are tasked with broadcasting their religious persuasion through the mouthpiece of their socially interesting job. Many religious groups—in my case, evangelical Christian groups—feel that the whole reason God puts you in professional sports is to magnify your ability to reach people for His Kingdom.

Think about this for a second: The most powerful being in all creation can’t get his/her/it’s message out without the help of a successful professional athlete or, at the very least, an officially licensed broadcast of whatever sport it is they play. That’s a pretty pathetic Supreme Being, if you ask me. What does he/she/it do when MLB blacks out games?

Worse still, it insinuates that high profile jobs are more important to furthering the religious cause than non high profile jobs. Like, if you had to choose between two people to convert, go for the person with the most Twitter followers (and hope that one you missed follows the other).

The truth is, a religious, quasi famous person isn’t so much blessed as they are burdened with being on a public stage for other religious people to point at and say, “you’re not doing it right. You didn’t say the right things. You didn’t push your beliefs when you could have. You messed up and we all saw it!” Or, worse, “you’re sports success is validation that my God is real!” –>Why is that worse? Because believing that sports success is a validation means lack of sports success is…

Furthermore, the religious fame game is intrinsically hypocritical. In a past conversation with Ben Zobrist, one of THE BEST examples of the faith I’ve ever met, he lamented at the irony of how he’d ben asked to speak at a Christian men’s conference on how you don’t have to be famous to be a servant of God precisely because he was a famous Christian athlete.

A locker room is like a family. You can’t get away from letting people know what you feel and why, but you also don’t have to beat everyone over the head with it. That goes for every subject by the way, not just religion. Some are more annoying than religion, actually. I’ve had teammates who started MLM schemes while playing. Guys who had travel website affiliations and wanted us to open our own affiliation under his bigger affiliation. Guys who sold specialty supplements, and offered to set us up under his umbrella. Hell, Hunter Pence’s brother, Howie, sold me a share of an oil well!

When I was first drafted, I did a lot of Christ Through Concussion (hitting teammates over the head with a Bible) evangelism. My teammates got sick of it quickly. The net result was more fights than conversions (there were no conversations), and the evangelism process boiling down into one side trying to prove the other wrong.

My advice to zealous locker room inhabitants is practice listening. Or, if you want me to dress that up in spirit-speak, preach the gospel and when all else fails use words. Care about your teammates first, talk about your faith last. Support them in the context that is acceptable and relevant. Don’t force spiritual encounters that are not relevant. Try to empathize and see what variables shape your teammate’s world view. Don’t worry about broadcasting a belief system, worry about being a good teammate and a friend. Once you’ve given them all you have on that front, if they ask why you’re so supportive, then share your message—if you don’t own it and live it out ahead of time, your message will just be the hollow words of a person who no one has any connection to or respect for, outside of your temporal playing results.

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