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Faith and Sports—Are Tim Tebow and Jabari Parker the Exceptions?

Not really. They're following in the footsteps of successful devout players that reaches as far back as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

I have the opportunity to teach two sports history courses for National University and one of the topics in sports history is the rise of religious sports heroes.

In the early 20th century, there was a lot of misunderstanding and fear of religious groups that had emigrated to America. For example, one of the early famous Jewish baseball players was Hank Greenberg. He was a standout player in the 1930s and 1940s. He was awarded several prestigious baseball honors including American League MVP, was a five-time All-Star and he entered the baseball Hall of Fame in 1956.

Greenberg also received national attention when, in 1934, he chose to refrain from playing baseball on Yom Kippur, which is a religious day for the Jewish faith. This was a particularly tough decision because Greenberg’s team, the Detroit Tigers, was in a close pennant race. Despite his absence, Greenberg still had loyal fans who respected him for his decision.

Later, another Jewish baseball standout, Sandy Koufax, refrained from playing on Yom Kippur, but because of the trail blazed by Hank Greenberg, Koufax and other religious players did not face as much criticism for their decisions.

Sport has come a long way since the early religious sport heroes (New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow has become known for his prayerful kneeling—Tebowing—during games) but in modern times, it seems that those with similar principles are few and far between.

We don’t often hear about NBA or NFL players not playing on the religious holidays or requesting the opportunity to observe the Sabbath. So the question is, do you have to give up one to have the other?

This is a question that Jabari Parker, arguably the best high school basketball player since LeBron James, is asking himself. According to an interview and article by Sports Illustrated, Jabari Parker is one of the best basketball players in the country and one of the nicest young men you will ever meet.

For instance, after winning his varsity basketball game, Parker was observed serving water to the junior varsity team, instead of taking interviews or hanging out in the hall. Here is a kid being recruited by the best colleges in the country and he is serving water to the JV.

Besides being an outstanding player and nice boy, Parker is also a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When Mormon young men turn 19 years old, they are asked to serve a two-year mission for the church. Parker, being a devout Mormon, certainly will give this a lot of thought. His challenge will be that if he leaves for two years, could that negatively impact his basketball career?

Whether Jabari Parker serves a mission or not, it sounds like this is a young man who has been able to blend his religion with a successful career in sports. His high school coach has worked with him over the past four years to make sure he can attend church each Sunday whether they are on the road or at home.

This is an example of how coaches and players can work together to make religious beliefs work despite the crazy competitive world of sports.

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