Grey Matters: Should a US Olympic Athlete “Come Out” as Muslim and Risk Endorsement Deals?

bbbISSUE: Talking about religion can be uncomfortable for people, and hearing others talk about their religion can be downright off-putting. In this week’s Grey Matters, we look at the issue of faith and the professional athlete. In particular, should an Olympic runner for Team USA give praise to Allah for his gold medal? This story is set in New York City, two weeks before the 2016 Rio Olympics, and is about Daniel Tadesse, a Muslim whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia before he was born, and his agent, Lee Stein.

BACKGROUND: Daniel wondered why his agent wanted to see him before the Olympics. He already had enough pressure with all the concerns his parents had about the Zika virus, and the impact on their future grandchildren. He didn’t need Lee telling him everything he would lose out on in terms of endorsements if he didn’t win a gold medal.

“How’s my favorite client?” Lee said and handed Daniel a large glass of fresh pineapple juice mixed 50/50 with coconut water.

Daniel took a sip. It was the perfect sweetness. It was almost worth the stopover in NY on his way home from London just to have this drink. “So your assistant was very coy over the phone. I’m assuming you want to talk about the Olympics?”

“It’s the only thing on my mind, these days,” Lee said and took a long drag on his e-cig. “I’m on the verge of having to break up a fist fight between the reps at Zico and Vita Coco.  They’re both dying to have you as their spokesman.”

Daniel smiled and took another sip of the beverage. He couldn’t taste the difference between either of those or the ones he bought in bulk at Costco’s, but he knew the contract would be lucrative. Would be enough for college for the two or three kids he and his wife wanted to have in the next few years.

“So what’s your sage wisdom?” Daniel asked Lee. “Run fast? Don’t jump too high, but don’t knock over a hurdle?”

“I’m confident you’re gonna get the gold,” Lee said. “I’m more worried about what you’re going to say afterwards.”

“What do you mean? I do the American thing. I thank God and my family for their support.”

“You typically thank Allah,” Lee reminded him. “That’s quite different. And you don’t just thank him. You have to go into great detail about how important Islam was to you after didn’t qualify for London because of your hamstring injury, and how your faith in Allah helped you through your darkest moments. Blah blah blah. You didn’t think you’d run hurdles again. Blah blah. Allah. Blah blah. Gold medal.”

Daniel gulped down the last of the juice. It seemed more bitter than sweet this time. He wasn’t sure he could endorse whatever coconut water Lee’s assistant had used to make this drink.

“But my faith is important to me. And it’s important to me to show people a different side to Muslims. Won’t it be great headlines that a Muslim is winning gold medals for Team USA instead of blowing up gay nightclubs?”

“That guy was a shooter, not a bomber,” Lee said.

“That’s not my point!” Daniel slammed down the empty glass on the edge of Lee’s vintage Herman Miller zebrawood desk. The delicate wood chipped slightly, and Daniel figured that would cost him a half percentage in their coconut water deal. “Is this because you’re Jewish?”

“You know my Jewishness is limited to calling my mother daily.” Lee picked up the glass and wiped up the water ring left behind. “Look, Daniel. I wouldn’t care if you were Christian or Hindu or Atheist. Advertisers don’t want religious people repping their products.”

“But I’ve already been out there many times, talking about my faith. Why didn’t you say anything then?”

“No one was watching then. You’ll have the country watching you in a few weeks. In the time between your crossing the finish line and standing on that podium while the Star Spangled Banner is played, you will be interviewed by some NBC news reporter, and on the basis of that one minute, America will make up its mind whether to trust Daniel or not.”

“But don’t people already know I’m Muslim.”

“You’re black. Your name is Daniel. You’ve got a Southern accent. People assume you’re Christian. If your name were Muhammad, I wouldn’t even have been able to get you considered as a spokesperson for a product hipsters use to balance their electrolytes as they stroll through farmer’s markets.”

Daniel plopped down in the chair across from Lee and realized that he was right. Daniel was well aware of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, but because he was black, he’d felt more discrimination on the basis of his ethnicity than religion. He’d had to “come out” as Muslim to people on several occasions, and he noticed that at least half of them treated him differently.

“Look,” Lee said and handed him a piece of paper with some figures. The water companies were prepared to offer him six figure multi-year deals. “Take the money. Donate to the Council for American Islamic Relations. Get your face all over print and electronic media. Then once you’re everywhere, you can consider letting people know you’re Muslim. I’ll even try to stipulate that this wouldn’t violate your  contract. But when that NBC reporter sticks a microphone in your face and asks you how it feels to be a gold medal winner, Thank your wife, your parents, your high school track coach and whoever else. Maybe even thank God, but for god’s sake, don’t mention Allah or Islam.”

Daniel  sighed, got up, and walked out the door. He knew that Lee was right about the endorsement deals, but he wasn’t sure what he would do. Did the money or the message matter more to him?

COMMENTARY:  Daniel faces a challenge. He is expected to win a gold medal in track and field and has the potential to change people’s minds about Muslims and their perception in the United States.  After every competition, when he was been interviewed, he has acknowledged Allah along with his wife and family. But his agent is telling him to hide his religion. And not without good reason. Daniel’s agent is tasked with getting him lucrative endorsement deals, not promoting Islam. And Lee is probably right that giving praise to Allah would hurt his chances or diminish his Q score with the American audience.

The latest polling shows that a majority of Americans support Trump’s proposed ban on all Muslims from entering the United States. Daniel could change his custom when he’s interviewed and just mention God generically. This would ensure him the produce spokesman job. The coconut water deal could set him and his family up for life.  And then, with that name recognition, he could be in a position to do more to change people’s minds about Islam.

But Daniel would be missing out on a golden opportunity (pardon the pun) if he were to wait until years down the road. He is unlikely to ever be in a situation where more people are watching him. Anti-Muslim sentiment is well-established in this country, and it’s an issue that needs to be tackled now and not later. But it would be hard to fault Daniel if he heeds the warning from his agent and takes the easy way out and not mention his faith.

For some reason, it makes us uncomfortable when people talk about their faith. And I think it’s the way that most people talk about it. I find it a difficult pill to swallow when people thank God for their victory, as if the Almighty is sitting up in Heaven getting involved in sporting competitions.

If faith is important in your life, it’s something that you shouldn’t be afraid to discuss. But let’s try to go about it the right way. I think that the United States synchronized diving pair of David Boudia and Steele Johnson gave us a great example this week. Winning the silver medal, they made their Christian-faith front and center. After they realized that the British diving pair did not have the scores to bump them from second place, David and Steele huddled together with their coaches and were obviously praying. Later, when they were interviewed, they talked about their faith in Christ and how they didn’t worry about the competition, but instead, focused on having fun.  Here’s an excerpt of the transcript from NBC’s interview with David and Steele right after they realized they had won the silver. To watch the video, click here.

NBC Reporter Kelli Stavast: “What does it mean to come out and medal here in the synchro event?”

David Boudia: “Yeah, I just think the past week, there’s just been an enormous amount of pressure, and I’ve felt it. You know, it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ. And we’re just, we’re thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil, in front of the United States, and it’s been an absolutely thrilling moment for us.”

Reporter: “Well, and Steele, for you, your first ever Olympic event, how were you able to maintain your composure so well?”

Steele Johnson: “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest. If something went great, I was happy. If something didn’t go great, I could still find joy because I’m at the Olympics competing with the best person, the best mentor, just one of the best people to be around. . .So, God’s given us a cool opportunity, and I’m glad I could’ve come away with an Olympic silver medal in my first ever event.”

Reporter: “Alright, congratulations to you both.”

David and Steele talked about gratitude for the opportunity to represent the United States. They talked about how their faith gave them their identity and that identity mattered more to them than the result of a competition. They’d never have this moment again, and I’m glad that they took advantage of it.

In this week’s Grey Matters, I’d advise Daniel to ignore the advice of Lee and be his authentic self.

What’s your view of whether Daniel should “come out” as Muslim if he wins the gold medal? Join the conversation by posting a comment.