Whether it’s the NCAA title game or a Friday night high school game, Josh Rosen won’t be crediting Jesus Christ after leading his team to victory and will still be loved respected and accepted by his religious teammates and coaches. The landscape of religion in locker rooms in the United States is changing and it’s a beautiful thing.
Rosen is a junior at St. John Bosco High School (California). He is widely considered the No. 1 one quarterback prospect in the country for the 2015 recruiting class and has committed to UCLA, after receiving offers from Michigan, USC, Texas, Notre Dame and more.
He is an articulate, intellectual player who is confident enough to admit that he still feels a bit jittery before the big game.
“I’m nervous before every sporting event whether it be pickup basketball or tennis against my sister,” he said recently.
This reminds me of my Boston teammate, Curt Schilling. Curt told me that he was nervous before every single start he made, dating back to Little League, and got hives the night before big starts.
Josh, however, faces a challenge that Schilling didn’t. He attends a Catholic high school and is the son of a Quaker Christian mother and a Jewish father. Josh also professes to be an atheist. I asked his football coach, Jason Negro, about the impact of Rosen’s beliefs.
“We certainly welcome it. We’re not just a school for Catholic boys,” Negro said. “We are a Catholic school for all boys. Everyone’s common theme here is just be a good person. When you leave here do you represent your school and yourself well?”
Great athletes, independent of their religious leans, can find plenty of common ground. The clubhouses of our major sports remain overwhelmingly Christian, but we can all benefit from another’s traditions.
We can learn from the beliefs of a teammate. More importantly, we can learn about them and be a better locker-mate as a result of our comprehending what makes them tick. Our relationships improve and our records on the field, theoretically, follow suit. After all, a QB who is accepted by the men with whom he stands shoulder to shoulder is more likely to perform.
I experienced this in my MLB career. I identify as racially Jewish, although I don’t practice religion. I am exceptionally proud of my heritage, but I identify most closely with being a member of the human race. Still, throughout my career, I was the only Jewish player on nearly every single team I played for.
In fact, out of the hundreds of men I shared locker room space with in professional baseball, I can count the men with Jewish blood on one hand. Of that group, two identified as Jews culturally.
With every new team, at every level, there was always the moment of truth. Nobody knows you’re Jewish — because without a yarmulke, how does one tell? — or in Josh’s case, Jewish, Quaker Christian and atheist. How do you bring it to light when you’re the only one in the group without being totally awkward?
In fact, out of the hundreds of men I shared locker-room space with in professional baseball, I can count the men with Jewish blood on one hand.
The question always comes up even though Christianity is universally assumed of a white man with light eyes. I always wondered in baseball, and frankly, continue to do so now, how people are going to take the news.
My Christian friends on the MLB teams that I played for attended baseball chapel on Sundays. Baseball Chapel is an international ministry recognized by Major and Minor League Baseball and is responsible for the appointment and oversight of all team chapel leaders (over 500 throughout professional baseball). Every week, usually before games, chapel is held.
The invitation to attend Baseball Chapel was always extended to me, and once in a blue moon I accepted. After all, attending synagogue does not make one a Jew and listening to a chapel leader speak does not make one a Christian.
Joining teammates in prayer is not an endorsement of their religious beliefs. How many of us without Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds have taken a yoga class and chanted “OM” even though it has Hindu origins? I am not an alcoholic, yet I love the serenity prayer, and I think it’s remarkably beautiful and poignant.
I asked Rosen how he has handled these moments in the clubhouse. His answer was filled with maturity and wisdom beyond his years.
“It’s not like it bothers me at all. I just kind of stay there and be respectful,” he said. “Why be disrespectful if, in my opinion, they are just saying some words to encourage the spirit?"
The ability to be respectful of others and accepting of differences is a prominent theme in the NFL right now. In light of the Michael Sam story, I had to ask Negro how he would feel about coaching a gay player.
“You know what, if he can play, I don’t care,” the coach said. “I think that would be the approach of all his teammates as well, hopefully, that would be the approach. Our world is changing. It’s changing daily. It’s changing by the minute. We have to be more sensitive and understand that we are not all a certain way.”
There remains awkwardness about anything different, whether religion or sexual orientation. With open dialogue and encouraging athletes to communicate authentically about who they are, that awkwardness will begin to dissipate. Our differences and our discomfort with them is ultimately what makes us alike and can bring us together as a human family.
Assuming Rosen’s arrival in the NFL five years from now is certainly putting the cart ahead of the horse. It will not be an easy road to walk. Even at UCLA, he may face, like I did along the way, men like Chad Curtis, who attempted to scare me into conversion by suggesting that I would burn in hell if I didn’t accept Jesus as my lord and savior. Imagine how a man like that might approach an Atheist leading his team onto the field.
Being open about his atheism may scare off some companies who wish to align themselves with more vanilla, easily marketable athletes less likely to offend the religious population. He could cost himself a few shekels.
However, along this road, he’ll encounter a host of caring, forthright men who touch him with their devotion and faith. He’ll earn the respect of those men and of the nation with his authenticity and candor.
Rosen is poised to acquire quite the platform in the next few years. It’s already exponentially more powerful than the majority of our country’s high school students. He is a brilliant kid who comes from a family devoted to debate, a mind fascinated by astrophysics, an NFL level pedigree and a lack of belief in any gods.
“I would absolutely love to take some strong stances on issues and use the platform I could potentially have in the future as a means to stand up for what I believe is right,” he said.
In a country where we sensationalize every negative comment and publicize intolerance at every opportunity, Josh Rosen and his coach, Jason Negro, are a breath of cool, reassuring fresh air. We can put our faith in our youth, our sports and the future of the locker room environment.