Hornets Hype

In a basement. In our pajamas.

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.

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14 Responses to “Hornets Pre-Game Prayer Violates NBA Rules and Good Sense”

  1. Chuck Frye says:

    I just stopped following you. Why are you so angry. Always the atheist preaching tolerance and showing none.

  2. Thank you, I couldn’t agree more!

  3. I submit, Chuck, that as an atheist MW has practiced tolerance by sitting through a prayer to something he doesn’t believe in for 41+ games a year for 4 years running.

    I’m not sure what your definition of the word is. Unless he’s pitching his beers at Christians and yelling while everyone else is praying, in my opinion he’s been tolerant.

    Maybe the question is, why are YOU so angry that someone does not share your beliefs?

  4. Great write up. It is refreshing to see some reason and an understanding of the exclusion that majority rule brings about.

  5. Good one. I covered a CBS article based on this in a Bee Bite today.

    Look for that article if you didn’t see it.

  6. Just to clarify, I agree with mw, not Chuck.
    We get religion shoved down our throats enough, it has no place at a sporting event.

  7. Comments on both sides of the issue are appreciated. The fact that both sides are here to argue, as when the question was raised over at Hornets247, shows that religion has the capacity to be divisive. By the very nature of theism, each religion demands absolute loyalty to its deity or deities, and implicit in that is a hostility to others; but, because there are so many Christians in this world, they sometimes fail to grasp this.

    We are all free in this country to watch any basketball game we like, follow any team we like. We can vote how we want, speak freely, and worship according to the dictates of our consciences, no matter where that might lead us. So to have an NBA team conflate itself with belief generally,puts those that don’t believe in an awkward situation. That is what I oppose, not people that believe.

    Funny how asking for tolerance and respect of my beliefs, and those of others like me, can have some label me as “angry” or a “particularly atheist” person. But I won’t apologize for refusing to sit at the back of the Arena and keep quiet.

  8. stormsurge says:

    Im entirely with mW on this. Im not an atheist, more an agnostic. What irritates me about the prayer is the perceived social stigma in not-participating. It doesnt actually matter if the stigma is really felt by the participant in the stands sitting next to the non-participant. Someone who chooses not to participate in the prayer is an ‘other’. Some people will actually say something too. Im ex-military and get pissed when people dont shut up or act right during the Pledge (mW!), but thats my loyalty to the country coming out. Loyalty to ones God is similar, if not explicitly stated. I can even use the Pledge corrolary to prove the point. There may be non-Americans in the Arena. At least a) the United States of America is provably real and b) you are within its confines.

    So, I think the question isn’t ‘why not’? as much as it is ‘why’?

  9. Oh my, yes, we are horrible talking during the anthem offenders. Sorry. More often, though, I find myself showing up late, not because of religious or political reasons, but because there’s so much STUFF before games. I come at this more from the perspective of, why do we need more of it? Anyone who feels the need to drop a few words of prayer for the win or the health of the players is still free to do so privately.

    Side note: Does anyone remember the pre-game minister who ACTUALLY PRAYED FOR THE WIN? In my recollection it has only happened once (because, hello, tacky! And really presumptuous to assume God loves our team over the other one, and IMO all sorts of wrong). I think it might have been during the ’08 playoff run. I remember I cringed because I just knew he had jinxed us by doing that.

  10. NOEngineer says:

    I’m an atheist who considers the prayer and others like it to be a free exercise of religion. I think that the government has overstepped its bounds when it prevents the exercise of religion, unless in that exercise the rights of others are being infringed. Town Christmas trees should not be banned. Contrary to modern opinion, there is no right to be comfortable 100% of the time. To call it harassment or discrimination is borderline ridiculous. The Constitution states that the Federal Government cannot establish a religion, or prohibit people from exercising their religion. The courts have extended that principle too far, in my opinion. We are not guaranteed freedom from speech, freedom from the press, or freedom from religion. Tolerating others’ religious expression is part of being a mature member of a free society.

    For the invocation, every fan has the option to show up late, step outside, plug their ears, ignore, go along gracefully, or be offended I guess. The same thing applies to the chicken dance, Brittney, the Mardi Gras baby, or any number of potentially uncomfortable happenings during the game.

    How about an article on basketball one of these days….

  11. @NOEngineer, what people often forget when they discuss government “prevent[ing] the exercise of religion”, and label banning public entanglement with religion an “attack on religion”, is that the Constitution creates a balance. Yes, the Establishment Clause bars ANY endorsement of religion, and is what causes people to find enforcing those Constitutional rights “anti-religion.” But, the counter-balance to that is the Free Exercise Clause, which says any person can practice ANY religion, and the government can’t do anything about that. It’s checks and balances.

    And until the Hornets stop praying publicly before games, this article IS about basketball. But I do agree insofar as this shouldn’t be a necessary conversation on a basketball blog.

  12. Final food for thought, from the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, writing about the Greek gods of the time, but I would argue are nonetheless pertinent questions to our time:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

  13. So basically what your saying is because you and 5 other people are atheist, 17,000 people shouldn’t be able to openly pray in front of you. This is a free country and you have the freedom to believe what you want. Religious people have the freedom to do what we want too, if that includes prayer, then so be it. Your in a arena with thousands of people and 99.9% of them are praying. If you don’t want to, then sit down, shut up, and have respect for the people that are. just like we respect the fact that you think differently. you see, equality isn’t about changing ourselves because others don’t feel the way we do, its about respecting differences and living with them. I respect what you do and do not believe so I would not try to talk to you about god or anything like that, but don’t tell me that I cant say a prayer in your presence because it “offends” you. I find that just as offensive.

  14. @Jake: statistics show closer to 15% of people are “unbelievers.” Probably 3% or so are pure atheists. So we’re talking 510 to 2,550 people. Not to mention any non-Christians present. Nonetheless, I understand that Christians are a vast majority. That’s fine. As is Christians being offended by my, and others’, disbelief. No problem.

    My point in this post, however, is that a pre-game Prayer violates NBA rules. Also, insofar as the Arena is owned by the state, it is a questionable legal practice. But most importantly, religion has proven over its long history to be a decisive factor in the human experience; so why insert it into an Arena where every fan should be focused on one thing: a Hornets victory. It just doesn’t need to be there.

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