by Jennifer Bryson
May 29, 2019
An important contribution of sports to culture is providing a shared civic space in which we can come together with all our differences and disagreements and still agree to play a game together. This is wonderful. But today, efforts to roll back religious freedom threaten to bring exclusion and division even into the field of sports.
Some of the most direct ways religious freedom questions arise in sports include players wearing religious garb with uniforms, games played on holy days and days of fasting, and use of the body for prayer during games (sign of the cross, kneeling, etc.).
Today we are also seeing controversial political movements conflict with religious precepts in sports. For example, some teams now try to require players to wear political symbols, such as the LGBT rainbow, on the team uniform. But what happens when a player objects, with a conviction that wearing such a symbol would violate his or her conscience? This happened to a Catholic Croatian soccer player in Germany and to an Evangelical Christian American in the U.S.
Another issue is that the central role of the body in sports puts the controversy over transgenderism front and center. For Catholics involved with sports, with an understanding of the human body rooted in the deepest realms of our theology, debates around transgenderism will bring many new challenges but also an opportunity.
As for the challenges, it remains to be seen what will happen when local, state, or even national legislators pass laws trying to force schools, including private religious schools, to allow a male child who says, “I identify as a girl” to compete on a girls’ team, use the girls’ locker room, and put girls at physical risk due to having a larger, stronger male involved in play.
As for new opportunities, the embodied nature of sports offers us an opportunity to proclaim the reality of the human body, male and female. Doing so is an act of respect for God our Creator, the One who made us male and female. As Pope Benedict XVI explained in a 2007 speech to the Austrian National Ski Team, “sports must be rooted in a holistic view of the human person…”
As the politics of the sexual revolution now extend into sports, religious freedom matters not only for the protection of girls’ sports at Catholic schools, but also for protecting the voice of Catholics to bear witness to the theology of the body, to reality itself.
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Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D. is the founder of Let All Play, a sports and religious freedom advocacy project. She is author of the 2019 report, “Let All Play: Yes to Soccer, No to Politics.”