Entangled with faith: The NCAA’s ties to religion

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The NCAA represents more than 460,000 student-athletes in 24 sports from 347 different universities. As one of the most recognizable and expansive organizations in the country, the NCAA has adopted the ideology of the separation of church and state — but this has had negative effects on some athletes.

The NCAA has demonstrated that stance by implementing policies such as Rule 9-2. The rule in the official NCAA football handbook penalizes players for any excessive displays of celebration, which has, in past cases, included kneeling or motioning up to God. But the truth of the matter is that faith has found its way into sports on many fronts, making this rule restrictive.

At private institutions, especially those with religious affiliations, faith is an integral part of the school’s history and everyday life. That bleeds over into the athletic departments as well. Take one of the most famous and successful football programs in history, Notre Dame — a heavily Catholic university.

While Notre Dame, like many other denominational schools, welcomes all and any religious beliefs, traditions rooted in faith are still a big part of team culture. One such example is the team mass that the players have attended before each game since 1920. Alabama football takes part in a team mass and prayer ahead of kickoff, too.

In both of those scenarios, the schools themselves should legislate how their respective programs choose to integrate religion into their team culture. The NCAA has not attempted to inhibit any practices behind the locker room doors, but it must make an increased effort to promote inclusivity on the field as well.

One case in which the NCAA has stepped in is at BYU. As it is known for being a Mormon school, the NCAA has specifically accommodated the Cougars’ athletic programs by allowing them to prohibit athletic competition on Sundays. But it should be noted that in 1998, the NCAA reversed its ruling on the “BYU Rule” and blatantly disregarded the religious freedom of one of its member schools.

There is a common thread here — one of the most prominent religious ideologies within schools and teams in the NCAA is Christianity. But the NCAA must be more accommodating to athletes and players of all faiths, not just Christianity. When considering other religions, such as Buddhism or Islam, the NCAA must uphold the standards it has already set out.

Many athletes have made significant strides to change the culture within competitive sports. Noor Ahmed, for one, broke barriers for competing in college golf while wearing a hijab. The NCAA must stand in solidarity with these inspirational athletes, encouraging and welcoming them to practice their faith while competing.

Years earlier, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir became the first female basketball player to wear a hijab in a game at the University of Memphis. Yet Abdul-Qaadir was still required to obtain a waiver from the NCAA in order to wear the “head decoration.” Even when her request was approved, Abdul-Qaadir ran the risk of penalty in the game if the referees found her hijab to be of danger to other players.

Ahmed, Abdul-Qaadir and many other Muslim athletes in the NCAA should not have to jump through hurdles in order to exercise their right to wear a hijab. This certainly remains an area in which the NCAA could improve upon its policies.

Sports and faith will forever be entangled. But as the overall landscape of the country and world continues to evolve, the NCAA must adapt to truly stand as an organization that fosters religious freedom for all.

The NCAA has put policies in place to remove itself and its member schools from any religious attachment, but it can’t and shouldn’t control religious practices within programs themselves. For many athletes, faith is an important part of their lives — just as sports are.

Charlie Griffen writes the Tuesday sports column about the evolution and current trends of college athletics. Contact him at [email protected].