Sophomore forward Malaya Johnson’s mother, grandmother and uncle were all big supporters of her local church. They held executive roles and brought Malaya along with them from when she was a baby.
She sang. She read the Bible. She helped with Communion. She did it all.
For as long as she can remember, religion has been a key aspect of her life. As has her sport, basketball.
“Every aspect of the game is intertwined with my religion,” Johnson said.
Her teammates and coach are part of that, but really, it goes back much further.
Religion and athletics have gone hand in hand for decades. A football player scores a touchdown and crosses himself. A baseball player hits a home run and points to the sky. A runner wins a big race and the first thing he or she says afterward is, “I’d like to thank God.”
An NCAA report conducted in 2011 found that 75 percent of student-athletes identified with a Christian religion. Just 13 percent of respondents said they weren’t religious.
Striking the balance between faith and sport can be difficult for some, especially at the collegiate level when athletes are tasked with adjusting to their new school, being away from home and assimilating to their new team’s culture.
But the foundation formed before college can be vital for those athletes, as can the resources available.
Transitioning to college
Rising sophomore quarterback Daniel Thompson arrived at Elon confident in his faith, a product of his Bible Belt upbringing. Then once football camp started the fall of his freshman year, the quarterback saw a decline in his faith. He’d return to his room at night dead tired and wouldn’t read his Bible as often.
Now that the season’s over, he’s refocused and “instead of trying to fit God into [his] schedule, [he’s] starting to work [his] schedule around God.”
Thompson said his religion helps “keep things in perspective” when it comes to football. He listens to Christian music before games and makes sure he finds time to worship outside of practice.
“In the moment, competition is hard. Religion and sports is hard,” Thompson said. “When you get in the heat of a moment, you might say something you don’t mean, think something you don’t mean or do something you don’t really mean.
“My relationship with Christ is a lot more important than my relationship with football. When you [think about] that, it makes you think about it during the game. I don’t want something in this game, like a dumb mistake I make, to affect my walk with the Lord or how people see Christ in me.”
University Chaplain Jan Fuller said the regimen and discipline of athletics can create a parallel to Christian life with regard to practicing and taking action rather than just speaking. She said being on a team and either having that faith or seeking out information about faith can help an athlete’s transition to college.
She doesn’t see athletes as more or less religious than anyone else, but said there’s a certain “fervor” one can sense around a team, one that sometimes directly ties in with religion.
“I think there’s a particular way in which the bonds of the team either bring out the best or the worst in players,” Fuller said. “Religion is a place to be the best they can be in a whole way.”
Teammates can play a role
When Johnson, a native of Mount Airy, North Carolina, arrived at Elon, she was scared for her faith. She worried, with her practice schedule and classes, she wouldn’t have the time to be spiritual and practice her faith.
A few teammates and an influential coach changed that.
The women’s basketball team holds open-invite, non-mandatory Bible study sessions on the morning of road games. Many players are also involved with the Gospel Choir and the newly-formed Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
Through these opportunities, Johnson found an outlet for her faith and a way to help manage her busy schedule with her beliefs.
“I can’t remember the last time I had free time to go to church, and that’s something I enjoy doing,” she said. “FCA is the one time a week I can let go, not worrying about basketball, not worrying about school, just talking with the Lord.”
Her teammate, senior guard Josepha Mbouma, first convinced Johnson to come to Bible studies and Gospel Choir.
Johnson was hesitant, since she was new to Elon and struggling to fit in. Now she’s an active participant of the 15-person group that puts on multiple performances per year.
“Everyone’s so open [on my team],” Johnson said. “Nobody’s afraid to keep it in. With any discussion we have, people can voice opinions and be heard.”
That was key for Johnson when choosing a college.
When visiting Elon, Johnson and her mother met with head women’s basketball coach Charlotte Smith. Smith immediately struck Johnson and her mother as someone in tune with her faith, which stood out to them.
Smith participates in the Bible studies on the road. She’s outspoken about her relationship with God, and she authored a book titled, “When Coaches Pray: A Guide for Every Minute of the Game of Life.”
“I can talk to Coach Smith about anything,” Johnson said. “She’s great at explaining things and breaking down things in a religious aspect so you can understand it. Even if it’s just about life, she can tie life situations into religion.”
Smith’s father was a preacher, so she grew up in the church, too. She remembers being there for hours on end, even sneaking out to grab some snacks at the candy store across the street.
In the 1994 national championship game, when Smith played for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she recalls moments during the game where she stopped and thanked God for the opportunity.
She hit a shot at the buzzer that game to give the Tar Heels the victory.
When Smith played in the WNBA, her team had chapel before every game. Being able to share her faith with her players now is important to her.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “In those moments, I’ve been able to be transparent and share some real things that happened in my life. For example, the death of my parents and how my faith helped me deal with that.
“It gives me an opportunity to show I’m not just a coach — I’m a human. I have feelings. I have emotions. I go through some of the same things you deal with. It’s created a real genuine and close bond.”
Religious demonstrations by athletes
One of the most prominent examples of religious athletes in recent memory is ex-University of Florida and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.
He famously wore “John 3:16” on his eye black during games, and was extremely vocal about his faith when speaking to the media. He’d frequently mention his mission trips, both past and planned.
A 2014 study by Grey Matter Research and Consulting found just 19 percent of people react negatively to such “demonstrations of faith” by athletes. Forty-nine percent react positively, while 32 percent are indifferent.
“It’s passion more than anything,” said head football coach Rich Skrosky. “We know as athletes we have a platform. If you feel strongly about something … And you know you have a platform on which to share that passion, they can do so.”
Thompson and Johnson both said it has to do with the genuineness behind the actions.
Brian Cavanaugh, teaching instructor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at East Carolina University, was drafted to play professional baseball and eventually released before rediscovering his faith. He agrees with Thompson and Johnson, noting that it’s very evident that Tebow isn’t faking anything.
“You only see it when something good happens,” he said. “That’s the biggest issue. When things are going good for them, it’s easy to say thank you. But when things are going bad, you don’t see them rejoicing. I think that’s the biggest negative.”
Putting it in perspective
Johnson’s much more open with her faith now than when she arrived on campus. She’s brought friends to church with her when she’s home for breaks.
She also remembers a high school classmate specifically wanting to discuss her faith with her, something Thompson said he dreams of doing with an opponent.
“After the game, we’re going to be friends,” Thompson said. “If someone were to come to me and say, ‘I really want to talk more about this Jesus guy’ … I would take a loss every game my four years at Elon if someone were to talk to me like that. Jesus is so much bigger than football. When football isn’t a sport anymore, he’s still going to be there.”
Johnson said her passion for basketball and her work ethic within the sport have made her stronger in her faith, something that she notices every day.
“On a daily basis, I remember how blessed I am,” Johnson said. “I have this family on my team outside my family at home. I have a coaching staff I can go to for anything. All of the bonds I have outside of basketball, I see that I wouldn’t be here without the Lord.”