Culture of Hoops

Assessing the Situation: What is Religion’s Role in Sports?

Professional sports has served as a medium of interaction between altering races and religions since its value as a commercialized product was fully recognized. Competition between cities, countries, and nationalities has become bigger than the product itself — and almost always leaves room for disclosed controversy between players and teams. While the promise of unwavering unity between a fan base and its chosen franchise has become expected of successful leagues, the relationship between a league and its players continues to appear unsteady.

The case can be made that race relations between nationalities, for example, have become an increased source of dissonance in the platform. Racial stigma is infinitely — and instantly attached to players in each of the United States’ major professional leagues, while each league itself claims to be wholly supportive of origins and religious views of its players. An athlete’s cultural and religious background is readily available information upon entering an association, as tangible and necessary as vertical leap.

The consumer wants to believe that racism has died off in sports, but how can we truly know if it has? There is no tell-all litmus test capable of showing, with even slight certainty, that racial tensions are being cured simply because professional athletes are expected to act professionally. They are human, subject to the same animosities — no matter how seemingly inappropriate — as every fan. Sports can provide a voice of discrimination between players and fans themselves, and can introduce athletes who fail to represent the publicly anticipated open – mindedness of profitable teams. The question, despite what every fan wishes to believe, is not whether the athletes themselves have racist tendencies — they are as humanly imperfect as any fan. The burden of proof will always be on the respective league. It is a product, and will be held accountable.

The NBA has evolved into a self-proclaimed leader in the push toward racial acceptance in sports, while the NFL remains interested in birthing scandals out of thin air in an attempt to make us all hate Roger Goodell (and it’s working). So the expected progressivism in American leagues holds the NBA to the same appropriations as every other: Is enough being done to rid lingering racism in a lucrative league which claims to champion diversity?

Religious belief and background, too, has an equally important place in the conversation. Sure, religion’s role in sports may not be noticed as consistently as is Floyd Mayweather’s repulsive appeal to certain boxing fans, it may not even be talked about regularly by nationally respected entities — but it is present, as crucial in some players’ lives as the details of a contract. Every pro sports league in the world, especially those with moral — or fiscal — interests in a non-discriminatory image, have certain players whose lives are defined by exterior views on their religion.

The NBA may be the solitary best league when it comes to appearing as accepting and open-minded as we all hope our sports will eventually become. When Donald Sterling was outed as an insane racist, Commissioner Adam Silver banned him for life, like a bald Superman. Sure, there were a lot of other things at play in this decision: Silver had just become commissioner and the Clippers were finally nearing a full domination over the Los Angeles fan base while in a huge playoff series. Still, the league gave itself a reputation which had been fleeing sports, maybe forever.

Religious tolerance in sports appears to be equally as important. Professional soccer friendlies consistently feature Israeli flags being presented by fans in stands, as a means of showing both national and religious pride. Whereas an NFL stadium would likely implode upon an instance of formidable Jewish pride being presented, the NBA’s end-game is to invite such an exemplary act (I think), regardless of what its players may believe.

So we see that a professional league is fully responsible for proving its progression into an age of tolerant sports: one in which racist owners, players and coaches have no footing, no presence, no say in any matter.

There’s a reason, too, that the NBA has geared its product toward such toleration, and has proclaimed an abhorrence of discrimination. American nationalism is as present in NBA arenas as it is in any other major league through the country — but each player’s personal nationalism is equally as prevalent.

The Gasol Brothers’ representation of Spain is as appreciated as is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s love for Greece. Each is subject to human ignorance with regard to origin, but it is less prevalent in this league than ever before, and it’s because the fan has demanded it. The same can not be said for other leagues.

Omri Casspi, an Israeli, and Jewish player on the Sacramento Kings believes the league to be highly progressive, stating that when it comes to the players, there is a legitimate commitment to toleration.

“I love [the support] everywhere we go, especially at home. In big cities like New York and Los Angeles, the support is tremendous. Every time I see an Israeli flag or people who have come to support me, it’s remarkable.”

My conversation with Casspi raised the question which should be asked of every professional league: Is it a fan’s responsibility to urge openness among a franchise and a league? Everyday NBA fans in cities like New York and LA have a full expectation of non-discrimination (we saw it from the disdain that every Clippers fan immediately felt for Donald Sterling), which could be the solitary reason that this league pledges to such open-mindedness. Without the fan, the association could be permissive of religious and nationalistic animosity between players, coaches, and organizations. If a city’s fan base holds views rooted in tolerance, it is only increasing incentive for the franchise to appear as open as possible.

Still, the individual cases of racism surrounding sports are far from dead. The prospect of killing off all discriminatory tendencies is nice, and may be working, but such an intense mixture of cultures will always berth animosity — regardless of the league’s intentions.

When I asked if he remembers feeling discriminated-against at any point in his basketball career, Casspi had only one major, yet short, example:

“There was one time that somebody put a swastika in Sacramento on one of our murals,” said Casspi, citing this as the solitary instance of intended racism toward his religion.

Reciting the story of this case didn’t seem to bother Casspi. In fact, no aspect of his life as an NBA player seems to have been fully defined by his race of religion. As should be try with any man, he believes, his spirituality — and country of origin — do not define his professional life.

Regardless, cases of extreme racism are nearly impossible to ignore, especially when they involve a league as refined as the NBA.

Despite what some fans may think of Casspi’s religion, his pride has existed through his time in the NBA. He feels the league has provided a medium of representation — a platform useful for reaching youth in his home country.

“I’m trying to be the best basketball player I can be and be the best role model for young players back in Israel. I carry a flag of Israel everywhere I go.”

Casspi recognizes the American nationalism which defines professional sports domestically, and which has remained prominent in the NBA, evan in an era of international expansion.

While the league’s movement toward equilibrium remains consistent — and has drawn the backing of nearly every formidable voice in the league — there have been cases of animosity between sides of the spectrum with relation to religious differences in basketball.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly Chris Jackson, was a former Denver Nuggets guard — and later a Sacramento Kings player — whose religious speaking-out engineered the collapse of his career. He would not stand during the national anthem, citing it as counter-action against his dominant, Muslim viewpoint. He began receiving suspensions as a result of his religious protest — a peaceful, albeit unpatriotic protest, and gave living proof that United States nationalism still fully dominates sports — regardless of how open-minded and religiously tolerant a league may be.

Abdul-Rauf’s case is vastly different than those of the modern-day pro athletes with religious origins wavering from prominent Christian ones, but it is just as applicable. Equilibrium between orthodox and progressive points of view on the matter has not been reached — not even by the NBA’s proclaimed perfection.

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