The New Orleans Hornets are currently one of two teams (the Oklahoma Thunder being the other) that start each game with an Arena-wide, pre-game prayer. This strange occurrence is a hybrid of religious zeal and moneymaking, as the Hornets sell this slot of proselytizing to the highest bidder. While I’ve been told that anyone can pay for the privilege of delivering this prayer, and, indeed, we’ve heard Jewish Rabbis come forward multiple times, nine times out of ten it’s a Christian prayer. In contrast, I have yet to hear an atheist step on the hardwood and dedicate a few moments to reason and logic, wish the players well, admit that each player’s health is a motley mix of conditioning and pure chance, and wish them the best. Instead, we are subjected to a game day prayer to Jesus (no, they rarely say his name, but they almost always say something similar to “In Your Name We Pray,” it’s not hard to read between the lines) to ask the big guy in the sky to bestow good health to the players on both sides of the floor. What’s missed in the well wishes is the excessive entanglement with religion in a place where it is simply out of place.
The Hornets, as opposed to, say, LSU, or Benjamin Franklin High, are a private institution, not run by the state or any of its many subdivisions. This means, strictly speaking, many Constitutional provisions that would guarantee freedom, equality, and non-discrimination do not apply to the Hornets; that is, unless the team determines that such values correspond to its corporate mission. Private institutions, otherwise, are, in part, free to espouse whatever values they want. For example, you’ve no doubt seen Chick-Fil-A around town. They have an expressly Christian value-system built into their corporate ethos, and have even been known to fund anti-gay causes. The New Orleans City Council can’t do that, but Chick-Fil-A is free to hate whomever they want.
The rub is that the Fourteenth Amendment allows Congress to prescribe prophylactic remedies, such as Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) laws, and these statutes can touch even private institutions. The basic gist is that employees cannot be discriminated in the workplace because of race, religion, sex, nationality, etc. There is a “religious organization” exception, i.e., if the organization’s purpose and affiliation is overtly religious, such as a church, or if the company’s or charity’s articles of incorporation state a religious purpose. The NBA is not one of these groups. As such, its non-discrimination policy reads:
Equal employment opportunity is a fundamental principle at the NBA. Accordingly, the NBA’s EEO Policy provides that all employment decisions will be based on merit and valid job qualifications and will be made without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, alienage or citizenship status, ancestry, marital status, creed, genetic predisposition or carrier status, sexual orientation, veteran status, familial status, or any or status or characteristic protected by applicable federal, state or local law.
I added the emphasis to the above quote. So how is this relevant to the Hornets? Because the NBA owns the Hornets. Therefore, every single Hornets employee is an NBA employee. Hornets’ blogger, Joe Gerrity, was recently brave enough to question the Hornets’ pre-game prayer. Although the poll Hornets247 ran concomitantly with that article is gone, approximately 65% of people were in favor of the pre-game prayer, about 25% were against it, and the remainder didn’t care. But that is precisely the point of anti-discrimination statutes: to preclude a majority of people from discriminating against the minority.
For Christians whose beliefs are in-line with the pre-game prayer, it is an innocuous blessing. For those of opposing beliefs, it may be less so. And for those that believe in no higher power, but instead rely upon science, logic, ethics, and reasoning to guide their lives, the entire thing is a travesty. The point is not which side is “right.” The point is, if it is opposed by as many as a quarter of the people who care, it should be done away with, regardless of NBA rules. Why stir such strong sentiments when they are ultimately irrelevant to the product produced by the NBA?
Regardless, the NBA’s own anti-discrimination policy forbids the pre-game prayer. Similarly, if my private, non-religious employer decided to start the work day with a prayer, there is no doubt that it would violate the tenets of the EEO Act. It is harassment. Plain and simple. If you’re a Christian, it probably is not. If you’re a non-Christian it is. End of story. This is the part that is difficult for the dominant, Christian majority to get: some people are offended by your religion.
Think about this: if we were talking about basketball at a public school, like either of the aforementioned LSU or Benjamin Franklin High, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that an opening prayer would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion”), which is applied to the states and their subdivisions by the Fourteenth Amendment. There are a number of similarly decided lawsuits related to high school football games that are squarely on point. This is because governments and their many subdivisions are precluded from favoring any religion over any other religion, or even favoring believing in any religion over believing in none at all.
If a pre-game prayer at a public school is viewed as religious coercion, excessive entanglement with religion, a message sent to a minority that they are outsiders, or an establishment of a “normative” religious belief (all language used by the U.S. Supreme Court), why, just because the Hornets are a private organization, would the team want to do something so blatantly discriminatory, when it doesn’t need to go there at all? Basketball should be inclusive, not decisive; sport is about bringing together people of all sorts to witness elite competition, to see others striving for physical perfection: not an opportunity for ecumenical proselytizing to a captive audience.
Arguably, sport is the antithesis of religion. It involves physical contact, facts, strategies, cause and effect. Religion involves intangibles, faith, and suspension of disbelief. Players cannot afford to trust in god they won’t get hurt; they have to stretch and condition. Players can’t just pray they make their shots; they practice, practice, and then practice more. Nor do coaches read the Bible in search of parables in lieu of drawing up X and O plays. The prodigal son doesn’t know how to defeat a zone.
Many players and coaches are religious, and that is fine. That is their personal belief. But in opposition to religion; where people are supposed to merely trust that their traditions, priests, and God have their best interests in mind and are subsumed by acquiescence to belief in a omnipotent benevolence, no questions asked; NBA players and coaches cannot afford to simply do what has always been done: they must evolve,they must innovate. To be elite in the NBA, players and coaches have to watch game film, strategize, and think through each game plan and opponent: reasoning their way to success, practicing and honing those strategies on a daily basis, and executing them all at the highest level to achieve victory. Thus, unlike religion, basketball is palpable, responsive, and falsifiable.
So even were the NBA not the Hornets’ owner, it is clear that religion has no place in the NBA. But seeing as the NBA is the Hornets’ owner, and all the team’s employees are Hornets employees, exposing them to religious prayer before every game is a form of religious intolerance; because, as the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, religious discrimination is not just favoring one religion over any other, but favoring belief in religion over non-belief. Twenty eight teams in the NBA get it right. Two do not. One, the New Orleans Hornets, is owned by an organization professing non-discriminatory principles. Yet, the Hornets’ pre-game prayer violates those principles every home game.
Forty-one times a year, the Hornets and the NBA offend me and many others. Maybe more this year if the team makes the Playoffs. It needs to change.