I Want To Thank God for Allowing My Team to Win: An Analysis of Sports and Christianity

Featured Image Credit: The Economist

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Twitter has become my #1 social media platform. It’s unrivaled in its ability to transmit news (or a funny meme) to a large audience as quickly as humanly possible. However, Twitter has become something else for me: a place to find inspiration for a good research project. I am always on the lookout for a good idea that I can write about on Religion in Public. Well that happened earlier this week when my former grad school colleague, Dan Bennett, retweeted an idea proposed by Michael Altman.

As soon as I read it, I knew I had to follow up on it. I’ve written a few posts about Twitter on the blog, including looking at how the word “evangelical” is used on the platform, and gauging the sentiment of tweets that contained evangelical in the wake of Alabama special election. So, I’m familiar with looking at the content of tweets, but this question was something else entirely. This one required me to find a way to analyze the content of a lot people’s Twitter bio, something I had never done.

The first task was to find a list of athletes’ Twitter handles. That wasn’t an easy proposition. A few websites track Twitter analytics, but they aren’t easily scraped. Eventually I stumbled on to a breakthrough. Twitter has a function called lists, which allows a user to aggregate a collection of accounts based on a common theme. Using that as a starting place, I located the players’ association Twitter account which lists a lot of their former and active players.. One of the services that organization provides is a list of a lot of their players (active or former). Here’s the NBA Players list. That was perfect. Using that as my dictionary I scraped the lists of players from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League. I am going to say clearly: this is not the perfect way to collect this data. But, honestly, I wasn’t willing to put in much work for this.

I scraped the lists of all four associations, then isolated Twitter bios that contained at least one Bible verse (some of them actually contain two or three verses). Here’s how that breaks out by league:

The results here are crystal clear: major league baseball players are far and away the most overtly religious group of athletes of the four major sporting leagues. It’s not even close. Of the 1,265 players on the Twitter list, 109 of them included Bible verses. The rate for NFL players was about half that at 4%. Of the 359 NBA players on the Twitter list just three included a verse from the Bible. What was even more shocking that was for the entire sample of NHL players, 403 of them in all, not a single one had a Bible verse.

I don’t want to speculate too much about what could lead to this discrepancy. Some of it is likely an artifact of not grabbing the entire sample or some athletes just choosing to not have a Twitter account. I do think that the finding related to baseball players is not a data collection anomaly. Just taking a quick look at the biographies that MLB players provided makes a pattern clear: a lot of them grew up in a rural setting or at least attended college away from a large population center. Many of them mention hunting or other outdoors sports. MLB has gone out of its way to be politically neutral in recent years, and has been roundly criticized for that stance by some organizations. It doesn’t take too much of a theoretical leap to consider that lots of baseball players are white and were raised in rural areas. That is where evangelicalism is the strongest. Also consider the reality that baseball players are a superstitious lot. This wikipedia article contains some odd rituals.

Only the other hand, I think I have a theory why NHL player bios are completely devoid of references to the Christian Bible. The NHL is getting better and better at recruiting its players from all over the world, most notably Scandinavia and Eastern European countries. In both regions, religious commitment is some of the lowest in the world. In fact, 76% of Swedish citizens claim no religion, and 75% of the Czech Republic indicates that they are not religious. It just so happens that both of these countries provide a good number of players for the National Hockey League.

So, which verses do athletes prefer? The clear winner is from the letter to the Philippian church when Paul writes, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Another popular choice was Proverbs 3:5-6, “ Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Other popular selections are from the book of Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” These verses are not just popular with athletes, by the way. In fact these verses are all listed on the top 100 most read verses on Bible Gateway, the most popular Bible site on the internet.

This was kind of a silly project and was more motivated by the technical challenges than the theoretical ones, but there are still things to be gleaned here. Major League Baseball players are different than those in other leagues. They are much more likely to be professing Christians. That might have to do with racial and geographic considerations. There is much less public faith in the world of hockey. That could be driven by the fact that hockey players come from more secularized countries. Evangelicals love when athletes profess their Christian faith. Tim Tebow might be the most outspoken Christian athlete in recent memory. On the other hand he was a mediocre quarterback, and an even more mediocre baseball player for the Mets’ minor league affiliate. His effect on ticket sales was not mediocre: gate receipts were up by 12.1% last year. I don’t want to be a cynic but there is a reality: evangelicalism represents a tremendous marketing opportunity and some baseball players may just be playing to their audience, and the fans seem to like it.

If you want to check out the full list of Twitter bios that contain Bible verses, here it is.

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