Things got real when he pulled his own copy of Our Daily Bread out of his pocket and explained that he keeps it on him at all times.
On October 29th, students fidgeted in the basement of Saint Mary’s Student Parish, entertaining themselves with meager attempts at stand-up comedy as they eagerly awaited the arrival of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein. After what seemed like a small eternity, Coach Beilein swept smiling into the room to a wealth of applause, despite having just left his team’s evening practice.
As someone who has listened to Beilein participate in a plethora of sports talk radio shows and watched countless ESPN interviews, I consider myself fairly well-informed on our basketball coach’s career. I suppose I’d never pondered what kind of person John Beilein is off the court. Perhaps that’s why I was caught slightly off-guard when he introduced himself to the roughly 100 students occupying the basement of Saint Mary’s and said that he was thrilled to have an opportunity to “help young people know that it’s cool to be Catholic!”
Mainstream America rarely discusses sports and religion seriously at the same time. I specify seriousness here because we all have the occasional tendency to ascribe dramatic wins and losses to divine intervention (I’m truly not sure to what else we could attribute Game 5 of this year’s World Series). In general, however, we rarely seriously discuss spirituality in an athletic context without getting a little uncomfortable. If you need an illustration of this, perhaps the Tim Tebow controversy circa 2011 seems the most fitting.
Indeed, when we do address the concepts of religion and sports concurrently, we frequently place them in conflict with one another. For example, the Washington Post raises the question, “Are Americans shifting their spiritual allegiances away from praying places and toward playing places?” Authors Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard suggest in the piece that “As faith attachments weaken, sports fill a psychological and cultural vacuum.”
Perhaps this is why I found it refreshing to sit back on Thursday night and listen to Coach Beilein talk so frankly about his faith. Although much of the conversation rested on his own personal spirituality (things got real when he pulled his own copy of Our Daily Bread out of his pocket and explained that he keeps it on him at all times), Beilein also ventured into discussing the manner in which Catholicism enriches his own coaching methods. “Adversity is good stuff,” he said, going on to explain that when he’s challenged as a coach “It’s in God’s hands. Don’t worry about it; God has a plan.”
I wish that more people had the opportunity to hear Coach Beilein speak, because it occurred to me that college students more than anyone could benefit from hearing the counsel of a man who has managed to integrate his faith so seamlessly into his everyday life. Beilein embodies the idea that religion and prayer are simply one part of our character, yet also have the capability to significantly improve all other aspects of our lives.
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Furthermore, throughout the discussion, it became evident to me that the concepts of religion and sports are by no means awkward, disconnected, or murky for Coach Beilein – much less mutually exclusive. Rather, basketball and Catholicism remain two integral parts of who Beilein is as a man. They fit together naturally, and both allow Beilein to live what he described as a “purposeful type of life”.
Catholic or not, spiritual or not, the idea that spirituality and sports don’t have to be in constant competition with each other is one we should embrace. Who knows, maybe Luke Scott wasn’t that far off when he said, “I believe God is a sports fan.”