Bottom of the Lineup

Jewish Light Editorial

“Indeed, the range of health-related, behavioral, and social outcomes with which religiousness is associated is both provocative and puzzling.” 

— Michael E. McCullough and Brian L.B. Willoughby, “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explana-tions and Implications,” Univer-sity of Miami, 2009. 


Religion often plays a major role in sports. Some athletes pray for God to intervene to make them strong, competitive or wise, and we see pre-game group prayers all the time on television. But have you ever seen a baseball player point to the heavens after he’s popped out?

Fans may say their teams are divinely inspired to win; in other words, God chose their team over the opponents. After a loss, though, we don’t usually hear the explanation about why it didn’t work out so well.

Then there’s the question of what role faith plays in keeping athletes on the straight and narrow. Do those who have a deep-down conviction have a better chance to avoid temptations like steroids? For those who are fans of the exceptional television program, “Friday Night Lights,” they’ll recall the high school star running back Smash Williams, who despite his religious upbringing, fell prey to performance enhancing drugs.

Religion seems to be front and center when things are going well, or even after a contemplative recovery, but not so much at the point of catastrophe. So the Hebrew Hammer, Ryan Braun, was pleased to embrace his Jewish patrilineage during his climb to stardom (as, quite frankly, were most Jews, including us), but maybe not as he copped a plea on bad steroid behavior. Typically, it seems, when celebrities are nailed for bad conduct, faith is not their first utterance.

Albert Pujols, on the other hand, recently relied on his Christianity in explaining why he has not used PEDs. Threatening legal action against former Cardinal Jack Clark, who said he knew that Albert PEDs, Pujols responded as follows:

“It is irresponsible and reckless for Jack Clark to have falsely accused me of using PEDs. My faith in Jesus Christ and my respect for this game are too important to me. I would never be able to look my wife or kids in the eye if I had done what this man is accusing me of.”

We don’t question anyone’s religious beliefs or sincerity, Pujols included; that’s really up to them, as it is to everyone. What bothers us about the way religion pokes its head into the public consciousness of sports is how utterly situationally and judgmentally it so commonly is utilized.

Pujols’ statement, whether he means it this way or not, would have you believe that faith can somehow makes us immune from mistakes. When examined along with Braun’s collapse, this is wrong on at least two counts.

First, there are plenty of folks with strong religious convictions – almost all, actually – who fail and fall. Faith, while a guidepost to keep us on the straight and narrow, is nowhere close to a guarantee of moral and ethical behavior. McCullough and Willoughby, in the article cited at the top of this editorial, discuss the quantitative aspects of whether religion leads to better behavior; it’s good reading, but the research provides some fairly mixed results.

More problematic, however, is when religion is only seen at the apex and not at the nadir. For while faith can help us through avoidance of problems, and lead us, as is said, to resist temptation, practically everyone will at some point not avoid and not resist. Certainly the already-fallen Ryan Braun, and no doubt the seemingly impregnable Albert Pujols.

Conviction helps us with the down times as much or more than during the good ones. There’s danger in throwing religion and faith into the public consciousness as a one-dimensional tool that helps one side win, or demonizes the opponent, or is only cited with bravura when things are going well.

Ryan Braun is going to have to live with many things in the aftermath of his PED punishment — cheating, lying to his teammates, to the public, to his team, maybe even, for all we know, to his family. We surely hope he can find solace in whatever faith means to him personally, for it is in those times that the measure of conviction can be found most humbly and meaningfully.