Pray to play: Examining a culture of religion in sport

Varsity football prays in a huddle before running out of the Viper at Dragon Stadium to face Stoney Point. The team performs this tradition before every game.
Varsity football prays in a huddle before running out of the Viper at Dragon Stadium to face Stoney Point. The team performs this tradition before every game.
Ella Berkey

They’re all warmed up. After running around the AstroTurf field and practicing the same monotonous drills, the team comes to the sideline for one final huddle. They gather, their hands braced on each other’s backs, the stadium light shining on the group like a spotlight, smokey sweat glistening on their foreheads, the loud noise of heartbeats accentuated by adrenaline and sugary electrolyte beverage. Then, the captain leads the group through a prayer, a moment of silence and calm before the madness of gameplay.

Before sports games, athletes often find time to pray before games, however, this prayer could have the capacity to make non-religious or non-Christian students uncomfortable. Despite this, students remain respectful of all religions and fight to keep athletic organizations an accepting place for all beliefs and ethnicities. 

“I know a few followers of Judaism,” senior football running back Zaid Oliver said. “Majority of our team is Christian. Not everyone on the team believes in God, but they remain respectful of religious players.”

Before every game, the football team does a group prayer, where every God fearing man comes together to pray after they run out from the large Viper together. While there would be no consequences for not taking part in this, players may feel a social pressure to take part in a prayer of a religion they don’t believe in. However, Oliver, a member of the Islamic faith, states that the team embraces an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere no matter religion.

“Never have I ever felt uncomfortable on my team,” Oliver said. “Everyone treats each other with so much respect and holds each other in high regard. We feel safe with each other, and I believe that this closeness will take us to the state championship.”

Last year, the football team advanced to the DII 6A state championship, being edged out in the final stage by DeSoto. This year, the team has a 6-0 record, currently sitting at first in the district. Oliver is passionate about football; additionally, he is passionate about God and a member of Muslim Culture Club, for him, making dua is an important part of his game day routine to remain close to God.

“I can always learn, improve, and grow as a follower of Islam,” Oliver said. “I believe a good relationship with God is determined by how consistent you are learning, praying, and communicating with God.”

In May 2023, Texas state legislature passed Senate Bill 763, stating that unlicensed religious chaplains are allowed to provide school children with mental health counseling, including unlicensed volunteer chaplains. The new bill was criticized by democratic members as a method of evangelizing children and adding Christianity to non-religious educational institutions. While this bill does not state that chaplains are allowed to explicitly lead prayer and by definition a chaplain can be of any religion, adding chaplains to schools still has the capacity to make atheist students uncomfortable. 

“I like to listen to Christian music before games,” senior basketball player Mark Fletcher said. “[praying] helps me stay focused while we’re warming up and helps my nerves.”

Fletcher is a student leader of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). FCA is an organization on campus that encourages students to grow their Christian faith and find community through sport and God. While this organization fosters the principles of faith, acceptance, and kindness for student members, it also has the capacity to further exclude non-Christian athletes on campus. 

“Religion doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think it makes my teammates uncomfortable either and if it did, I would want them to tell me. Everyone prays together before the game; one of my teammates is Hindu and he prays with us, we’re accepting of everyone’s religion.”

Despite a Christian majority, prayer before games does not need to be synonymous with Christianity. Dana Zohny is a member of the track and field team; Zohny runs the 100m hurdles as well as the 300m hurdles. Furthermore, Zohny is an officer of Muslim Culture Club on campus and chooses to wear the hijab. Zohny praises her coaches and teammates for creating an inclusive environment where she can remain strong in her faith and run her fastest. 

“Coach Sully does a great job of making sure that everyone is really understanding,” Zohny said. “I wear the hijab and I need to modify the uniform and wear pants and a long sleeve shirt.”

Despite this inclusion on campus, students sometimes face xenophobia or religious persecution when traveling to other schools for tournaments or meets. Zohny recalled one interaction that made her uncomfortable.

“I wouldn’t call it Islamophobia,” Zohny said. “However, they started yelling at me in Arabic and I didn’t know who these people were, I didn’t know whether I should be scared or motivated.”

Zohny went on to clarify that the students in the stand were not from her school and not of Arab descent. Being a minority has the potential to make a student feel alienated or misunderstood, despite this, athletes and students alike worship freely on campus and don’t feel ostracized for doing so. 

“I’m strong in my Muslim faith and I spend a lot of time showing my devotion to God,” Zohny said. “Before meets, I make dua. It’s not a prayer, but we put our hands up and ask God for what we want, for example, I ask God to not trip over my hurdles.”

Like Oliver, Zohny also makes dua before every race or game. Dua means invocation and is described by Islamic Help UK as “asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly”. Similar to how Fletcher listens to Christian music and reads his bible to grow closer to God, students of other religions freely worship and embrace religion. Diversity can be used to unify students instead of drive students apart; according to some, diversity and difference in religion, ethnicity, and beliefs may even make a team stronger.

“Being around different religions and beliefs has never made me uncomfortable or fearful,” Oliver said. “I think that it gives us a stronger bond, we’re all brothers on and off the field and obtain each other’s respect even though we may have different morals, we want to understand and learn from each other, rather than disregarding each other.”

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About the Contributor
Katherine Dale
Katherine Dale, Editor
Katherine Dale is a junior and she is thrilled to be Sports Editor on the Voice. In her free time, she enjoys reading, spending time with family, and listening to music. On campus, Katherine is involved in Choir and UIL Academics. She has two black cats, Betty and Bonnie, that she loves dearly.

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    Aisha RashidOct 12, 2023 at 11:49 am

    Amazing article, Katherine! I loved reading about the different beliefs among high school athletes.