This week, a 40–year-old man named Jonathan Irons walked out of prison, free of the chains that bound him for over half his life. He was innocent the entire time. The video of his freedom walk is the best thing you will see online this week, or next, or the week after that.
The big story behind his release was reported by ESPN’s Katie Barnes. Why? Because it’s a sports story, sort of. The price of Irons’ freedom was the basketball career of Maya Moore, perhaps the greatest woman baller of all time. Like Michael Jordan, Moore suspended her WNBA career in her prime. Moore did it for what she called her “ministry dreams,” including devoting herself full-time to advocating for Irons’ release.
So this is also a religion story. After a powerful two-section opener, Barnes arrives at the story’s turn:
Why was one of the greatest players of all time willing to never step on a court again — and to leave behind one of the WNBA’s great dynasties — for the sake of what could well be a lost cause?
The answer, in a word: Jesus.
Barnes devotes the middle of her article to Moore’s faith background. The prosperity gospel televangelist Creflo Dollar gets a mention here, because Moore and her mother lived in Atlanta and attended Dollar’s church during Moore’s formative years. Barnes links Moore’s belief in lost causes in part to Dollar’s teaching that faith in God helps people overcome adversity, which might be the first good press a prosperity preacher has received in a few decades. Moore’s “faith in God, and in justice,” writes Barnes, “gave her the strength to walk away.”
Barnes also connects Moore’s faith to the way she plays the game: “her faith has been as integral to her athletic success as her skill itself.” Note that distinction, and the strange, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it claim: Moore’s basketball skills are just one reason for her on-court success. The other is her religious fervor.
Sports reporters often struggle to deal with the religious element of players’ lives. If faith comes up at all in sports media, it tends to be represented as something that has little to do with the way they play. It might be an aspect of their personality or their weird private lives or maybe even their retrograde social views–but it has nothing to do with what happens during the games (even as players are forever crediting God for what happens during the games).
I’ve long felt this was a big missed opportunity for sports coverage. Faith = drive. Belief in the supernatural can be the difference between a player who makes it and a player who doesn’t. More, it can be the difference between a missed shot and a made shot, or a dropped ball and an immaculate reception. Take David Tyree’s famous one-handed helmet catch. He didn’t just thank God for that catch. He claimed that the catch had been prophesied.
(I’ve got notes on this for days. About 10 years ago, when I was writing my dissertation, I procrastinated in part by working on a book proposal about faith in sports. Tim Tebow gave me lots of fodder and an ebook along the way. Alas, the larger book project went the way of Tebow’s football career, minus the miraculous moments in between.)
But back to the other faith claim in Moore’s story–that her decision to leave basketball and fight for justice is also a matter of faith.
This, too, is something that doesn’t always get fleshed out in stories on the Maya Moores of the world. But here again: Faith = drive. It’s true for many top athletes, and it’s true for many justice fighters and equity workers.
In 2017, I started writing and producing media and events on local inequity issues in San Antonio, Texas. Back then, I would have told you that part of the problem was that not enough people were paying attention to economic inequality and segregation, and not enough people were committed to under-resourced local neighborhoods. I’d still tell you that today, but I’d also tell you this: Lots of people are doing the hard work, and to a surprising extent, the people who are doing the hard work are people of faith.
I can show you who is caring for the most vulnerable people locally. I can show you who is mentoring underprivileged students and who is pulling together funds to make sure families have food and shelter. I can show you people who are founding creative nonprofits and sustaining vital institutions for people experiencing poverty. I can show you local police trying to heal wounds, and local activists fighting City Hall for protections against Big Development. I can show you who is ensuring refugees have shelter and orphans have adoptive families.
They come from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems and even political commitments. But many of them have one thing in common: some type of deep religious faith and practice. Not all, but many. It’s what pushes them into the work in the first place, and it’s what keeps them in it when the going gets tough. Not all of them have what you might call a traditionalist faith, but you might be surprised at the number of people who are advocating for the poor, joining Black Lives Matter marches, and, say, leading their church’s prayer ministries.
Barnes’ reporting also suggests that Moore’s commitment to faith-fueled justice is a prehistory to Colin Kaepernick’s higher profile protest against police brutality. Months before Kaepernick took a knee, Moore and her WBNA teammates used a pre-game warmup and press conference to call attention to Black Lives Matter. “The events of 2016 showed her that she could have an impact on issues of criminal justice publicly,” writes Barnes.
From Creflo Dollar to Black Lives Matter as a way of life, and at great personal cost. It’s bracing stuff, and it’s weirdness fits the weirdness of the world. For all the sad and broken stories we hear about religion in the world today, there’s also this: If Maya Moore wasn’t so devoted to Jesus, and if she hadn’t heard a thousand megachurch sermons about how God can help you do big, hard things, Jonathan Irons would still be in jail.