Last month, I read an article on Jabari Parker. Parker is a high school senior at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. We can talk about his stellar stats and elite athleticism that make people believe that he’s the best high school basketball player since LeBron James. We can talk about his humble nature, mature personality and perspective on life, and the importance he places on his education. But there’s something special about Parker that the article I read focused on: his faith. Parker belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Parker is Mormon, and apparently, this is a big deal.
I feel like lately, especially with the emergence of athletes like Tim Tebow, faith has been put front and center in sportslandia. Tebow is outspoken about his faith, creating a polarizing effect when it comes to where fans believe the appropriate place is for religion in sports. His pro-life Super Bowl commercial put a spotlight (or target) squarely on him as the poster-child for a new breed of athlete, one who is open about his very personal views on some controversial topics.
Shawn Green is a former major league baseball player. He’s also Jewish. He is well-known for regularly sitting out games on Yom Kippur. This was a yearly reminder for fans that some baseball players take their faith seriously (for better or worse, since he has sit out games before with playoff implications). When it comes to Tebow or Green, sometimes having faith means making those unpopular decisions.
Let’s talk for a minute about Steve Young. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Steve Young? Probably that he was an amazing quarterback. Most fans also might know that he is a direct decedent of Brigham Young of LDS. But that’s not why he’s well-known and it will never be the thing that defines him in fans’ eyes. Young was born in Salt Lake City, went to BYU, and his last name is YOUNG, and I still forget he’s Mormon sometimes. I’ll never forget that Tebow is a Christian. I’ll never miss a chance to point out during a press conference, his references to God and Bible passages. Young is a football player, Tebow is a Christian. That is a product not only of my own views on sports and religion, but a product of the decisions that each athlete has made to present themselves to the world.
So, what’s the big deal with Jabari Parker? This fall, Parker will decide where he wants to go to college (please, don’t choose Duke..). However, in 2014, he will decide whether or not to serve a mission, as most Mormon men do. Many Mormon athletes do not. Young did not. Parker is undecided. It’s apparently easy to have faith. It’s harder to stay faithful to your religious commitments. I don’t think Parker will serve a mission. I believe he will declare for the NBA Draft. But I also think that those who talk the talk should walk the walk. So as much as I disagree with Tebow’s religious absurdity, I can respect someone who is willing to stand by their beliefs, even if it is unpopular to do so. I respect Green for sitting out games in observance of his religious holidays. I personally won’t respect Parker any less if he chooses not to fulfill his mission. But if I was a member of the Mormon church, I might. I think it is important that if you define yourself based on your faith first and profession second, that you act accordingly. Otherwise, honestly, you’re just like every other athlete then who goes to church on Easter, prays in the huddle and thanks God for win streaks. And that’s not a bad thing. So when Parker decides what to do about serving the church or playing basketball, he’ll be making a decision on whether to be remembered for his faith or his career. With his overwhelming talent and dedication to the game of basketball, many think he would be insane to step away from that. I think that if Parker is as committed to his faith as he claims he is, he should prove it. Young, despite his roots and obvious devotion to his religion, chose career over faith. It shaped how we remember him. Without making that choice, Young may have never been the great quarterback that he ended up being. It’s not wrong that Young chose football over fulfilling his religious obligations. It just reveals priorities.
Martin Luther King Jr once said that, “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase”. Sometimes having faith takes a little bit of courage. But in Parker’s case, will it be the courage to step away from basketball to prove faith to his church or will it be the courage to let his profession define him, rather than his faith?