God and Basketball at UConn

With eight national championships and an Olympic gold medal, Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach, is idolized by Connecticut sports fans. This is why Catholics attending Mass last Sunday at St. Mary’s Church in Milford, CT were so startled to read criticism of the popular basketball coach in their weekly bulletin.  Few criticize Coach Auriemma—especially not in a column from a pastor in a parish bulletin.

But, there it was—a column written by St. Mary’s beloved pastor, Rev. Aidan Donahue, describing Auriemma’s views on religion as “faulty and unbalanced.”  In his letter to his parishioners, Father Donahue explained that he was moved to write the column after reading about Coach Auriemma’s comments on religion in sports.  Auriemma had made the comments in response to a growing controversy that first arose after Ernest Jones, the new assistant football coach at UConn, stated, “We are going to make sure that players understand that Jesus Christ should be at the center of our huddle.”

Appearing to want to distance himself from the new assistant football coach’s outspoken religiosity, Coach Auriemma told a reporter for the Hartford Courant:

I don’t give a crap about religion when it comes to sports…In fact, I think it’s stupid.  I think everyone that goes on national television, and is asked why do you win, says “I want to thank God.” Really? Like God gives a crap that you made 18 jump shots.  I have always had a problem with that.  I have a problem with people showing their religion in public.  I have a real problem with that. And, I don’t care what religion it is…ever since I left high school, and ever since I have been a head coach, I don’t pay any mind to that stuff. We don’t pray in the locker room.  We don’t pray in the hotel room, pregame or after a game.  If you asked me the religion of my players, I would say I have no idea.  I really don’t care.  It’s none of my business.  And, I have tried to keep it that way.

Father Donahue conceded that he had no problem with Auriemma’s assertion that God may not care about sports. The pastor agreed with the coach that “God probably has more important things to tend to.”  What Father Donahue was responding to was Auriemma’s assertion that he has a “problem with those who show their religion in public.” As the pastor wrote:  “For him, religion is entirely a personal and private matter, something to be left in churches, synagogues, mosques, or behind closed doors.  Seemingly for him, religion has no place in the public square.”

Father Donahue knows well that Catholicism—the religion Coach Auriemma was raised in—calls us to be witnesses to Christ and our faith in him.  In his bulletin column, Father Donahue reminded his parishioners, “We are all disciples of Jesus by virtue of our baptism. We are all called to be mission-minded followers of the Lord.  That means that we are not to compartmentalize our faith.”

It is not an easy road for all Christians, and Father Donahue knows that.  The controversy itself shows how perilous it can be to speak publicly of one’s faith.  When UConn’s new assistant football coach—a coach who was hired from Notre Dame—claimed that Jesus Christ would be in the huddle, the university’s president Susan Herbst was quick to respond. In a letter to the Hartford Courant she assured readers that at UConn:

We value everyone in our community, and treat each person with the same degree of respect.… It should go without saying that our employees cannot appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work at the university, or in their interactions with our students.  This applies to work-related activity anywhere on or off campus, including on the football field. 

Still, there is at least one coach at UConn who suggested that it is possible for athletes or their coaches to acknowledge their personal faith—without offending those players who are not believers.  UConn men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie told a reporter for the Hartford Courant:

I just use religion by being who I am. The players know I’m a God-fearing man, but at the end of the day we do work for a state school and you can’t be preaching that.  My faith is up there and the guys know that.  Every day I praise God, and I praise Jesus Christ and everybody knows that.  I speak at different organizations, I have great friends all over and I don’t feel any barriers.  I believe in my God. He keeps me stable and on the right path and I just want to be a shining light for that.  Whatever somebody else believes, they believe and I respect that also.

According to the Courant, “Coach Ollie’s mother Dorothy is an ordained minister in the New Birth Baptist Ministry Church in Los Angeles and he sang with a gospel group as a youngster.”  When he first arrived on the UConn campus in 2012, Coach Ollie made reference to the importance of his faith in his first press conference September 13, 2012.

While it is not likely that Coach Auriemma will ever explicitly invite Jesus to be a part of his pregame preparations, Auriemma invited his Huskies players to experience a taste of his heritage at the Holy Savior Club—the Italian Club in Norristown, PA—at a special pre-game meal earlier this week.  Missing the irony of the fact that the team was eating at a club called “Holy Savior,” the Delaware County Daily Times reported that on Monday, January 27, on the eve of their game with Temple University, the women’s basketball team was “treated to a true Sunday Italian feast.  Common to the hometown of Montella, to which the people of the Holy Savior Club and Auriemma’s family share their heritage, the feast was prepared from scratch as it has been for generations.” 

This setting could be the best way to begin to share one’s faith—sharing a meal and a conversation about what it was like growing up as a Catholic child in an Italian-American community. Father Donahue is right, though. Catholics are called to be part of the new evangelization and we have to begin these kinds of conversations—but it is difficult for many of us to speak openly of our faith. We can learn how to do this from our Evangelical sisters and brothers.  But, until then, sharing a meal and a story or two is a great start.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)