Athletes look for religious support

Each meeting of the Christian group Athletes in Action begins with one member introducing him or herself. Last week, it was a freshman, peppered with questions by her teammates and friends:

“Ligers or Tions?”

“Nunchucks or Bowstaff?”

Finally, “What’s your favorite thing about Athletes in Action?”

“The people,” she responded tentatively.

A groan erupted from the crowd. That, apparently, is what everyone says.

As athletics and religion increasingly intersect at Yale, more students are looking for ways to reconcile the two lifestyles. While Christian athletes have recourse to Athletes in Action, no comparable organizations exist for those of other religions, and some even find that their athletic pursuits and religious traditions conflict.

Athletes in Action is the only group on campus that caters specifically to Christian athletes, and it has been active for more than a decade as the sports-specific ministry of the larger national organization Campus Crusade for Christ. There are almost 100 chapters on various college campuses throughout the country. Some of AIA’s more famous national projects include a touring basketball team and ministries with the National Football League, but the group’s footprint at Yale is limited to a Bible study group and a weekly meeting.

A typical meeting features a group sing-along of contemporary devotional songs — highlights include “Waves of Mercy” and “God of Wonders” — followed by a senior’s presentation on his Christian journey.

“We only know what we know,” said Tolliver Wills, the director of the Yale chapter of Athletes in Action. “We each process life in a certain way. And each individual here has a story.”

After the presentation, the group takes part in an “affirmation,” taking turns saying their favorite thing about the speaker. This typically takes 10 minutes, with at least half the group speaking. The average attendance is about 30 people, but as many as 50 people cycle through from week to week.

Most notable is the absence of any real athletic component to the group’s activities. As Colby Moore ’09 says, “It’s not like we’re comparing Bible stories to sports or anything.” In fact, the AIA meetings are not so different from similar meetings held by Yale Students for Christ or any number of other Christian groups on campus. The difference is in the sense of community. As student athletes, AIA members said, they feel more comfortable opening up to other athletes instead of a mixed bag of Christian students at Yale.

With more pressure to succeed — academically, financially and athletically — Wills said, he sees more and more students turning to religion in search of a new definition of success.

“There’s a kind of spiritual resurgence happening at Yale,” Wills said, “and part of it is these God-like expectations that are placed on students.”

For athletes, this means breaking away from jock stereotypes and embracing their spiritual side.

Matt Plummer ’09, a linebacker from New Jersey, is active in Athletes in Action, as well as Yale Students for Christ. He wouldn’t look out of place at a Thursday night frat party, though he might feel out of place. One of the largest problems he faces as a religious athlete is the social conflict between the cross and the keg, he said.

“On the football team, everybody in my grade is in a fraternity,” Plummer said. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the question is how to show that you love God and be obedient to him in an environment where most of the people that you spend five to six hours a day with are doing things that are not in line with that.”

Although AIA has its roots in evangelism, its goals on campus lean more towards social support than proselytizing. In meetings, members try to avoid any contradictions between their commitment to sports and their faith, and for Plummer, there is really no contradiction at all.

“Disciplining ourselves physically helps us to be disciplined spiritually,” he said. “Like the discipline to get up early in the morning and read your Bible or pray. And disciplining your body to refrain from doing things.”

But while AIA offers support for Christian athletes, competitors of other religions are left without any way to address their own concerns about the intersection of religion and sports. Muslim athletes in particular face a different array of difficulties, beginning with the very food that fuels their bodies.

Mustafa Hammond ’08 plays on the club basketball team and is an observant Muslim.

“The biggest problem is just the eating restrictions in Islam,” he said. “When we go traveling to places, it’s kind of tough to find a place where I can get a decent meal to make sure I’m good for the game.”

As a Muslim, Hammond can only eat meat certified as Halal. He can get a fish sandwich at most places, he said, but if the team ends up stopping at a Wendy’s, he’s forced to make do with only French fries.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan presents an even bigger challenge. Forbidden from consuming food or liquid during daylight hours, Hammond said, he goes to many practices on an empty stomach and cannot drink water to rehydrate himself. He practices just as hard as his teammates, but does so on an empty stomach, he said. He also runs the risk of passing out from dehydration.

“But I’ve been doing that since playing basketball in high school,” he said. “If it’s really a problem, I just skip practice.”

Perhaps because of this, Mustafa is one of only a handful of observant Muslims involved in athletics at Yale. If religious observances go unaccommodated, a sport can quickly become a challenge to the athlete’s faith.

Moshe Sarfaty ’08, a varsity squash player, faces similar pressures. Sarfaty is hiloni, a semi-secular Jew, but he is also part of the Chai Society, a Jewish group on campus. He misses practice to organize Seders for the High Holy Days, but that is where his observance stops.

“If I can’t come to practice, they respect that I have Passover,” he says. “But then again, I’m still playing on Shabbat.”

With a match every Saturday, keeping the Sabbath is simply impossible.

“That’s probably why you don’t see any orthodox Jews on the team,” Sarfaty said.

The squash team is one of the most international teams at Yale, as well as one of the most competitive. Holding practice six times a week, the team demands total commitment from its athletes. Sarfaty remembers Ahmed Khattak ’08, a Pakistani student currently studying abroad, who ran into religious troubles similar to Hammond’s. When Ramadan came, Sarfaty said, Khattak was faced with a tough decision. His religion demanded one thing from his body while his team demanded another, Sarfaty said, and given the long duration of Ramadan, missing practices would mean being cut from the team. Khattak kept his observances his freshman year, going to practice on an empty stomach, but by his sophomore year the prospect of a month of dry practices was too much for him, and he broke his observances by drinking water, Sarfaty said.

Faced with a choice between their faith and their team, religious athletes must prioritize one or the other. For AIA’s Plummer, the answer is clear.

“Physical training is of some value,” he said. “But godliness has value in all things.”

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