Religion in Sports

Diversity and Inclusion director DaWon Baker leaves his Memorial Stadium office door open, making himself available to talk to Husker athletes or coaches about diversity and its uses for them.

Baker holds one of the newest positions in the Nebraska Athletic Department, joining in 2018. He talks with student athletes about a variety of issues relating to diversity.

His discussions help give an athlete an identity that is more than playing a sport. With diversity becoming more prevalent, sharing something like athletes beliefs and backgrounds have grown more common.

“Religious diversity is a hidden piece of the overall diversity conversation,” Baker said. “When people think of diversity, they jump to the big things which are race, gender and sexuality.”

According to Baker, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln cannot sponsor any religious organization. Baker can only reference places of worship or religious organizations that a student athlete can go to. 

But there is still one goal with each athlete’s conversation: Being yourself.

Junior golfer Noor Ahmed is the athlete that comes to Baker’s mind as someone who stands out from a religious perspective. 

“I commend [Ahmed] for being her authentic self and not hiding it,” Baker said. “She does something that a lot of us don’t necessarily need to do based off our own individual beliefs.”

Ahmed expresses herself through the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women. She wears it everywhere and represents something much bigger than just another piece of clothing.

“For me, [a hijab] is a symbol of modesty and it was to show from our religious perspective, our bodies are not what is most valuable in this life,” Ahmed said. “It’s our soul and what we choose to do with it.”

The hijab is one way to display individuality. A willingness to show outward beliefs is one part of diversity, while another part is to learn different viewpoints. 

Nebraska women’s basketball assistant coach Tom Goehle appears to be just another assistant coach. However, he volunteers as an International Ministry Sports Ambassador, traveling overseas to coach basketball and going on mission trips. He has been an ambassador since 1993 and now takes student athletes to Ethiopia once a year. 

Over the last five years, the athletes he’s taken helped build Simba boarding school and a basketball court. They learned what they could do to help out others, Goehle said, and put words into action.

“In reality, we have a greater understanding of how blessed we are once we go to a third-world country,” he said. “It helps realize that maybe a loss [in a game] isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

According to Goehle, these trips help strengthen his faith. He said his relationship with Jesus Christ is the reason why he stays humble.

Goehle has also been a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Lincoln for the last 30 years, where he sets up opportunities for student athletes to expand their faith. 

In 1990, he was like many other student athletes, looking for a reason to live beyond just being a college athlete. His daily routine consisted of practice and academics, but he felt these were done for just himself. He said he wanted a reason besides himself to answer his purpose. 

“A group of other athletes I saw were competing at a higher level and seemed to have a greater purpose when they played and even greater passion,” Goehle said. “I wanted to know what that was.”

That prompted Goehle to look further into why those athletes were so passionate, which led him to the FCA. The memories of the first meeting remain fuzzy for Goehle but the meeting was a realization that he wanted to be involved with this newly found group.

Thirty years later, Goehle stayed involved in sports with his faith. Whether it’s leading bible studies with some of the women’s basketball players or praying with others, his faith is unwavering. 

For Ahmed, practicing her faith is tougher in the United States. 

“I’ve always known I was a religious minority, growing up before I even started wearing my hijab,” Ahmed said. “I got to watch my mom … in their journey starting to wear it and the mixed reactions they would get from people, whether people they knew or not.”

However, Ahmed said the strange and sometimes disgusted looks did not phase her as she grew older. At 13 years old, she decided to wear her hijab full-time, which meant wearing her hijab while playing golf –– the sport she’s been involved in for the majority of her life.

The decision to wear the hijab was one that Ahmed knew was coming and she prepared herself for people’s curiosity. That meant questions on what she was wearing or why she was wearing it, but also coming to terms with the realization herself.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Ahmed said. “Some people would accept me and others wouldn’t and that I would face more discrimination and prejudice.”

The hijab has since garnered attention, but Ahmed has remained strong knowing the backgrounds of her faith.

Since then, Ahmed said she has kept an open mind about other people’s misconceptions about her religion. In 2018, she faced it head-on when a UNL student publicly announced he was a self-proclaimed white nationalist. 

“It definitely was a huge wake-up call in that it is a lot closer to us than we think,” Ahmed said. “We still have a lot to learn as Americans about how much we know and we don’t know about our country.”

That 2018 incident also taught Ahmed about having patience with others. Her teammates continue to learn about her faith and she uses those conversations to understand others’ beliefs. Ahmed said she has since become a more confident golfer and person despite the discrimination she faced growing up and expects to face in the future. 

Like Ahmed, senior women’s basketball forward Grace Mitchell was also looking for inner-peace on campus through religious practices.

Mitchell is an FCA executive member who helps bring in speakers and create activities for athletes and coaches to get engaged with their faith. 

In 2016, Mitchell was in a spot similar to a young Goehle when she arrived as a freshman. Mitchell was attached to basketball and wanted to search for a reason for playing her sport aside from making herself better.

“When you’re constantly falling short, you’re constantly on this emotional roller coaster because of your performance and your sport is determining your mood,” Mitchell said. “My identity was wrapped up in basketball when I came to college.”

Mitchell grew up in a Christian household, but Christianity became a second priority as her basketball career progressed throughout high school. Her father advised her to develop her own relationship with Christ but that did not come until she faced struggles her freshman year.

Similar to Goehle, Mitchell said she now plays basketball not only for the limelight, but because of what she can do with her relationship with Christ.

“[Faith] just helps me to have more passion with basketball,” she said. “Coach [Amy] Williams is my head coach; I’m playing for her but I’m really playing for God.”

Passion for Mitchell means using her God-given skills to the best of her abilities. Those abilities translate to basketball where she said she can begin to fulfill a bond with Christ. The relationship has helped her find peace, she said, and has paved a way for her to be more than an athlete.

Individuality through religious freedom is something Baker fully encourages. For many student athletes, religion gives them purpose to pursue their chosen sports.

“I’m a firm believer that your authenticity grants other people to be authentic,” Baker said. “I think it’s the bravest thing we can do.”

This article is part of a series on diversity. For the complete list, read the introduction.