Keeping the faith: GCU, others believe religion and sports can coexist

Keeping the faith: GCU, others believe religion and sports can coexist

Members of the GCU men’s basketball team believe in not only playing together but praying together as a means to strengthen their team. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

Members of the GCU men’s basketball team believe in not only playing together but praying together as a means to strengthen their team. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

PHOENIX – Watching men’s basketball games at Grand Canyon’s Global Credit Union Arena is an enlightening experience. The building is often packed to capacity with 7,000 frenetic fans, including the Havocs student section. The team is a perennial winner in the Western Athletic Conference, but the squad also plays for a higher purpose.

That purpose is symbolized by the three large white crosses that stand outside the arena.

GCU is an interdenominational Christian university whose messaging of faith exists in a world where religion and sports can sometimes be uncomfortable bedfellows. The topic came to a head in 2022 when the Supreme Court ruled that a Washington high school football coach who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution.

Crosses stand outside Global Credit Union Arena where Grand Canyon University plays basketball. GCU’s focus on Christianity extends to the basketball team. (Photo courtesy of GCU)

In the same year, Maryland passed a law that allows modifications to high school athletic or team uniforms to include head coverings, undershirts or leggings worn for religious reasons. In the NBA, fans have watched players including Kyrie Irving, who converted to Islam in 2021, fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which comes late in the NBA schedule (March 10 through April 9 in 2024) and can make endurance a challenge. And in March, the BYU men’s basketball team was the highest-rated No. 5 seed in the 2024 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, yet it ended up with a No. 6 seed because of the school’s policy that teams can’t compete on Sundays due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Journalists, meanwhile, wrestle with how much religion they should include when athletes make it part of their postgame quotes. NBC cut out Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud thanking God after the AFC wild-card victory over the Cleveland Browns in January. Former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner often said how he thought it was unauthentic when the media left out “God talk” from his quotes because the condensed words inaccurately portrayed him.

“How do you get a really good player to sacrifice a lot for the betterment of the team?” said GCU men’s basketball assistant coach Casey Shaw. “For me and for head coach Bryce (Drew) and for our family, it’s biblical principles that say, ‘I’m going to put you ahead of myself because that’s what Jesus did for us.’”

GCU coach Bryce Drew cuts down the net after sending GCU to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history. (File photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Faith and family

For the Shaws, the marriage of sports and religion makes absolute sense.

The family consists of Casey, his wife Dana, the vice president of external affairs and government relations at GCU, and four children. Two of those children, brothers Isaiah and Caleb, play on the basketball team under their dad and head coach Bryce Drew, who is also Dana’s brother.

Both the Shaw and Drew families not only embrace Christianity but have members who lead men’s programs at Christian schools: Bryce Drew at GCU and Scott Drew at Baylor.

Both schools made the 2024 Men’s NCAA Tournament and each won a game in the first round. It was expected for Baylor, who won the title in 2021, but it was more surprising for GCU since it was the ‘Lopes’ first tournament win since the program jumped up to Division I in 2013.

The Drew brothers take a similar approach to how they coach by incorporating biblical principles. Casey Shaw has worked with his brother-in-law Bryce Drew for the last seven years at Vanderbilt and GCU, and he believes the philosophy helps develop a healthy program.

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“It’s something we do here at GCU, I think you have to have culture,” Casey Shaw said. “In other words, basketball is bringing a lot of really good players together and then helping them play a role that means everybody sacrifices. …

“We preach that to guys. We stand on those principles of selflessness, teamwork, unity, togetherness, giving of yourself and sacrifice. When you get a group of guys together that will sacrifice and give for each other, good things happen. (Scott has) done that down there (at Baylor) and you see year after year after year.”

Paul Putz, the assistant director of the Faith and Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, echoes that sentiment from what he has seen from Scott Drew and Baylor since he has been in Waco, Texas.

“I think Scott Drew really focuses on what he calls a culture of JOY,” Putz said. “The JOY stands for Jesus, Others, Yourself. The idea is that as a team, Scott Drew wants to emphasize Jesus first, and for Christians, that’s really important. Christians would say that God should be the first priority in your life and because Baylor is a Christian school, and Scott Drew is a Christian, there’s freedom to do that.”

GCU brothers Caleb, left, and Isaiah Shaw embrace the Christianity theme at their school and believe it creates a positive culture. (File photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Drew was a candidate for the Kentucky job when John Calipari left in early April, but he did not want to leave Baylor and he cited “JOY” in his statement on X, formerly Twitter. He said that he truly believed that God called him and his family to continue working at Baylor.

The Drew family is often considered college basketball royalty with Homer Drew – the father of Scott and Bryce – landing in the College Basketball Hall of Fame for his efforts as a coach at Valparaiso University, and the success of his sons, but the Shaw family’s story is lesser known.

It’s a family affair at GCU with mother Dana working at the school, father Casey serving as an assistant coach and sons Caleb and Isaiah playing on the team. Isaiah is in his third year with the program, while Caleb Shaw started his collegiate career at Northern Colorado, but transferred to the Valley to play at GCU with his family for his sophomore season.

“My biggest blessing in life is not my height or my ability to shoot or my athleticism. My biggest blessing is having this guy here,” Isaiah Shaw said as he pointed to Caleb. “It’s the greatest thing in life to have a sibling. Someone to push you every day. Someone to go to war with and then someone there that you know is always going to have your back. There’s nothing more I can say about this guy.”

It does not just stop there as their biggest fan, Dana Drew Shaw, is there to support her family and brother the entire way. Dana is a former player at Toledo University, where her No. 11 jersey hangs in the rafters of John F. Savage Arena, and also shares her basketball insights.

Even though the Shaw family loves basketball, the sport is not everything to them. Basketball is important, but it can also be used for a greater purpose, they believe.

“I think we all are real sensitive that basketball is a great platform,” Dana said. “It’s what we do. It’s what we know, but it’s not who we are. I think there’s a real awareness that basketball is not live or die, but it’s an opportunity to share Christ with others. To share our faith. To be able to be grounded in the Lord, regardless of what’s going on circumstantially with basketball games or practices or anything else.”

GCU coach Bryce Drew, left, talks about his past with his father, Homer, a longtime coach at Valparaiso, which is an independent lutheran university. (File photo by Grace Edwards/Cronkite News)

A history lesson

Putz has conducted an abundance of research on the history of religion and sports. People know that James Naismith created basketball in 1891, but few know his faith and the Christian roots of the game.

“He’s a seminary graduate from Canada. He was raised Presbyterian,” Putz said. “He’s playing sports and some of his friends, who are devout Christians, are telling him he shouldn’t be doing this. (That) he shouldn’t be a Christian and an athlete at the same time, but Naismith really sees the value in sports.

“He thinks sports can be a way to encourage Chrisitan values, so he decides to leave behind this idea of becoming a pastor and he enrolls in the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. So that he can, as he wrote on his application, ‘win men for the master.’”

Religion’s place in sports often has political roots.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s was based on conservative Christianity that found its way to other arenas.

“The Reagan administration opened up a couple of pathways for religion,” said Terry Shoemaker, an ASU associate professor of Religious Studies, “specifically conservative Christianity, but under the guise of religious freedom for everybody. There’s lots of criticisms of whether that actually was extended to everybody or not, or whether it was just privileging conservative Christians.”

Shoemaker believes that the discussion of religion and sports has been heightened since the 1980s because religion impacts politics, and the latter impacts sports, creating a chain effect.

With several high-profile collegiate programs having religious affiliations, the discussions will continue. Think of Sister Jean gaining popularity in 2018 when Loyola Chicago made a Cinderella run as a No. 11 seed to the Final Four. Other Catholic schools like Creighton, Marquette and Gonzaga are all successful basketball programs that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2024.

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court in 2022. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The future

Religion in sports is not new, but there is more evolution that can take place. Conservative Christianity was in the executive branch in the 1980s, but now it is in the judicial branch with the Supreme Court locked in a conservative majority for the foreseeable future.

This Supreme Court already has faced a key decision with the court ruling in “Kennedy vs Bremerton School District” that Washington state high school football assistant coach Joseph Kennedy praying on the field after games was protected by the First Amendment. Religion in sports has been around since the Olympics in ancient Greece and the discussion picked up within the last few decades, but society might have barely scratched the surface of this intersection, depending on what the current Supreme Court does.

“But with (Kennedy vs Bremerton School District), conservative Christians now are appointed to the Supreme Court, and they’re making decisions that tend to privilege the conservative Christian/Catholicism that they’re a part of,” Shoemaker said.

“I think what has happened is, religion has got a lot of a footing into American politics once they become so public, we allow defenses of certain issues to be based on religiosity. Then, I think that religious people become a little bit emboldened.”

Justin de Haas

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.