Practicing Religion and Athletics

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Photo Courtesy of Portola Cross Country

As the air grows tense and the timer ticks down to its final seconds before the big race at the CIF Southern Section Division 3 finals, the varsity girls’ cross country team gathers in a circle to lock hands in prayer to boost their spirits and calm their nerves. Junior Kaeli Smith leads the prayer, which has been a tradition of the predominantly Christian varsity girls’ team for a year.

Akshay Raj, Assistant Features Editor

At Portola High, several athletes participate freely in their religious beliefs alongside their sports. While religion is by no means a staple of sports, various teams across campus are accepting of and encouraging towards different beliefs held by teammates.

“I’m a Christian, and a lot of the girls on my team are Christian,” cross country runner and junior Kaeli Smith said. “We pray before our races because it unites us but also because it gives us a sense of serenity, so it’s not just our own strength that we’re running off of. It gives us a sense of peace and comfort and reminds me that I can do it and I have my team”

Prayer is one of the many ways religious beliefs are apparent through athletics. Some religions, such as Islam, require certain articles of clothing to be worn at all times, including when playing sports.

My teammates and coaches are extremely supportive and understanding. I was lucky enough to be immersed in an environment where diversity is encouraged and never encountered any sort of prejudice because of what I wore.”

— Sabreen Alam

“My religion most directly affects sports in regards to what I wear when I play. One aspect of my religion involves wearing hijab, a type of head covering, and full sleeves and tights under my regular uniform.” junior varsity lacrosse player and sophomore Sabreen Alam said. “Personally, I am so used to wearing hijab that I do not feel the effects when I play sports. I find that since I wear this type of clothing daily, it is not much of a change for me to adjust my uniform to fit my religious requirements.”

However, religion does not always mesh so cleanly with high school athletics across the country. In Oct. 2019, a 16-year-old Ohio student was disqualified from a high school cross country race for not receiving special permission to wear her hijab prior to the event.

Alam, as one of the few athletes on campus who wears a hijab in addition to other uniform modifications during sports, has found support through her teammates and coaches despite the controversy and these differences. 

“My teammates and coaches are extremely supportive and understanding,” Alam said. “I was lucky enough to be immersed in an environment where diversity is encouraged and never encountered any sort of prejudice because of what I wore.”

Undeterred by the stereotypes and national controversy that surround the topic of religion in sports, encouraging students’ unique beliefs at Portola High serves as motivation to athletes and maintains the spirit of diversity. 

“Religion should never be a barrier when participating in sports,” Alam said. “In my opinion, Portola’s sports program, the lacrosse program in particular, has done an extremely good job with encouraging participation from a wide variety of religious groups.”