Strength of Religious Faith of Athletes and Nonathletes at Two NCAA Division III Institutions

Abstract

Strength of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending (a) a religiously practicing institution (RPI) and (b) a non–religiously practicing (NRPI) institution in NCAA’s Division III was studied using the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. A 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA sought differences in strength of faith of RPI students (n = 201) versus NRPI students (n = 174). Results show RPI students displayed stronger faith than NRPI students, F(1, 367) = 25.44, p < .01. A significant interaction showed RPI nonathletes more faithful than RPI athletes, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05; NRPI athletes did not differ significantly from NRPI nonathletes. Women’s faith was stronger than men’s, F(1, 367) = 12.99, p < .01.

Strength of Religious Faith of Athletes and Nonathletes at Two NCAA Division III Institutions

An increase in research examining the purpose of religion in the lives of intercollegiate athletes has occurred in recent years (Balague, 1999; Storch & Storch, 2002a; Storch & Storch, 2002b; Storch, Storch, & Adams, 2002; Storch, Storch, Kovacs, Okun, & Welsh, 2003). Religion can be an important aspect in athletes’ lives and may serve a protective function against psychological distress and maladaptive behaviors such as substance use or aggression (Storch, Roberti, Bravata, & Storch, 2004). Viewers of sporting events can frequently observe athletes pointing to the sky, engaging in team prayer on the court or field, and glorifying God following athletic competitions.

Numerous studies report athletes to be more religious than nonathletes (Fischer, 1997; Storch, Kolsky, Silvestri, & Storch, 2001; Storch et al., 2004). According to Storch, Kolsky, Silvestri, and Storch (2001), four reasons may explain why religion interacts with athletic performance. First, athletes may identify with religious beliefs for direction and humility. Second, athletes may turn to religion to gain a sense of optimism and security, benefiting from such beliefs following a disappointing athletic performance. Third, religion can be used for emotional and psychological support in stressful circumstances like the uncertainty of athletic competition, which can cause athletes an overwhelming amount of anxiety. Religious beliefs can offer the internal strength to persevere through the stress. Fourth, religion “provides a cognitive framework conducive to the relief of anxiety associated with competition” (Storch et al., 2001, p. 347). This framework allows relief from fear and anxiety on the basis of the athlete’s understanding (i.e., belief) that a supreme being is in complete control of the situation. For example, athletes may rely on religious faith to place a poor athletic performance in perspective.

Although research investigating the impact of religion within sports has recently increased, an abundance of such literature does not yet exist. Studies that are currently available of religion’s impact on the lives of students, in particular, have focused on athletes and nonathletes at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I institutions (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). There is a significant shortage of literature assessing religiosity in athletes in other collegiate settings, for example at institutions in the NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), or National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). An athlete’s experience in any of these unique university environments may have a significant effect on his or her athletic, academic, and social development. In examining students at NCAA Division III institutions, the present study addressed this shortage. In addition, it is the first published investigation comparing the level of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending a religiously practicing institution (RPI). Given religion’s importance to the lives of many athletes (Balague, 1999), a need existed to investigate the impact of religion on students attending an NCAA Division III RPI and an NCAA Division III non–religiously practicing institution (NRPI).

The study’s purpose was to assess and compare the strength of religious faith characterizing athletes and nonathletes at an institution of each type. Acknowledging the impact of religious faith may help coaches understand athletes and may help clinicians and sports consultants develop appropriate interventions for athletes who are religious. For example, psychological interventions designed for sports, for example relaxation and visualization techniques, may make some religious athletes uncomfortable, if such psychological methods create a feeling of dissonance with the athletes’ religious creeds. Furthermore, knowledge of the role of religion in an athlete’s life can enhance the athlete-sports consultant relationship, as well as facilitate communication between the athlete and coach (Storch & Farber, 2002; Storch et al., 2001).

The following research questions guided this study:

  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between students attending an NCAA Division III RPI and students attending an NCAA Division III NRPI?
  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between athletes and nonathletes attending an NCAA Division III RPI?
  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between athletes and nonathletes attending an NCAA Division III NRPI?
  • Were there significant gender differences in strength of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending the NCAA Division III RPI and the NCAA Division III NRPI?

Methods

Participants

The population for this study was undergraduate students enrolled at two institutions in the Midwest that have intercollegiate athletic programs competing at the NCAA Division III level. One institution was deemed an RPI, for purposes of the study, because of its membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the mandatory chapel/worship services and religion courses students must attend. The other institution was deemed an NRPI, because it was not a member of CCCU and had not established religious requirements for its students. The RPI and NRPI codes used in the present investigation were developed by the primary researcher.

Of the study participants, 53.60% attended the RPI (n = 201), while 46.40% attended the NRPI (n = 174). Compiled demographics for the RPI and NRPI participants showed their average age to be 20.19 years (SD = 2.60). The youngest participant age was 18 years, the oldest 41 years; 53.60% of the participants were female (n = 201), and 46.40% were male (n = 174). Participants reported their ethnicity as follows: white/Caucasian (89.30%), African American (6.10%), Asian American (0.08%), Hispanic American (0.05%), Native American (0.03%), and other (2.90%). Freshman and sophomore students contributed 62.40% of the participant pool (see Table 1). The distribution of the participants in terms of their academic status or year at the institution was an accurate reflection of institution-wide distribution by academic status at each institution. Concerning current athletic participation, 53.30% of the participants did not currently participate in intercollegiate sports (n = 200), while 46.70% of the students did currently compete in intercollegiate sports (n = 175). The four sports in which the athletes in the sample most commonly participated were football, multiple sports, track and field, and basketball (see Table 2). Most participants indicated their religious affiliation was either Protestant (n = 111) or nondenominational (n = 110) (see Table 3).

Table 1

Frequencies and Percentages by Year at the Institution (i.e., Academic Status), Athletes and Nonathletes

Year Frequency (n) Percentage
Freshman 102 27.2
Sophomore 132 35.2
Junior 79 21.1
Senior 62 16.5

Table 2

Frequencies and Percentages by Sport(s) Played, Athletes Only

Sport Frequency (n) Percentage
Football 44 25.1
Multiple sports 37 21.1
Track and field 22 12.6
Basketball 20 11.4
Volleyball 17 10.0
Golf 11 6.2
Baseball 6 3.4
Soccer 5 2.9
Softball 2 1.1
Cross country 2 1.1
Tennis 2 1.1
Cheerleading 2 1.1
No response 3 1.7

Table 3

Frequencies and Percentages by Individual Religious Affiliation, Athletes and Nonathletes

Religious Affiliation Frequency (n) Percentage
Protestant 111 29.60
Catholic 42 11.20
Nondenominational 110 29.30
No affiliation 30 8.00
Other 81 21.90
No response 1 .03

Measures

The present study used the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (SCSRFQ), developed by Plante and Boccaccini (1997). Additionally, a demographic assessment created by the primary researcher was used to collect information on age, gender, ethnicity, institution attended, year at institution (i.e., academic status), current participation in intercollegiate athletics, sport(s) played, and religious affiliation.

The SCSRFQ is a 10-item inventory assessing strength of religious faith regardless of religion or denomination, using statements such as “My religious faith is important to me” and “I look to my faith as a source of comfort.” Items are scored with a 4-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, 4 = strongly agree), and higher scores indicate greater strength of religious faith. A cumulative score for the strength of religious faith is determined by summing the individual scores for each item. Cumulative scores may range from 10 (low strength of religious faith) to 40 (high strength of religious faith). Analyses have determined that the SCSRFQ has well-established psychometric properties. Its internal reliability is high (Cronbach’s alpha = .95) as is its split-half reliability (r = .92) (Plante & Boccaccini, 1997). In addition, an investigation by Plante, Yancey, Sherman, Guertin, and Pardini (1999) found the SCSRFQ to be significantly correlated with various measures of religiosity, including the Duke Religion Index (Koenig, Parkerson, & Meador, 1997), which assesses religious involvement; the Age Universal Religious Orientation Scale (Gorsuch & Venable, 1983), which examines both intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness; and the Intrinsic Religious Motivation Scale (Hoge, 1972), which measures religious motivation.

Procedures

Participants were recruited in selected psychology classes and from selected intercollegiate athletic teams at the two institutions. Both introductory psychology classes and more advanced psychology classes were included, creating a more balanced representation (by both age and academic major) of the participating institutions. The subsample of athletes was obtained by surveying selected male and female intercollegiate athletic teams at each institution; data from athletes whose teams had not been selected but who participated in the study through a selected psychology class were also included in the data analysis for athletes. All participants completed a packet comprising a demographic assessment and the SCSRFQ.

Results

Prior to addressing the research questions, descriptive statistics were calculated for the three independent variables of interest, which were gender, current athletic participation, and institution attended (see Table 4). Following these analyses, a 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA (Gender × Current Athletic Participation × Institution Attended) was utilized to explore significant differences between various participants’ strength of religious faith (see Table 5). The 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA addressed each research question, the first of which asked whether significant differences in strength of religious faith distinguished students attending an NCAA Division III RPI from those attending an NCAA Division III NRPI. The results showed a significant main effect for institution attended, F(1, 367) = 25.44, p < .01. Students attending the RPI and those attending the NRPI differed in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, participants attending the RPI (M = 32.99, SD = 6.65) reported stronger religious faith than participants attending the NRPI (M = 29.09, SD = 7.02).

The second research question inquired whether significant differences in strength of religious faith differentiated athletes attending the NCAA Division III RPI from nonathletes at the same institution. The results showed a significant interaction for Athlete × Institution Attended, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05. Athletes at the RPI differed significantly from nonathletes there, in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, the RPI nonathletes (M = 34.43, SD = 5.25) reported stronger religious faith than the RPI athletes (M = 30.76, SD = 7.89).

The third research question asked whether the strength of religious faith of athletes attending the NCAA Division III NRPI differed significantly from the strength of religious faith of nonathletes attending that NRPI. As already noted, the data analysis showed a significant Athlete × Institution Attended interaction, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05. However, the strength of religious faith reported in this study by athletes attending the NRPI did not differ significantly from that of the nonathletes at that NRPI. Specifically, the NRPI athletes (M = 29.09, SD = 6.63) reported the strength of their religious faith to be at a level similar to that of the NRPI nonathletes (M = 29.08, SD = 7.52).

The fourth research question concerned whether significant gender differences in strength of religious faith existed among students attending the NCAA Division III RPI and NRPI. The results indicated a significant main effect for gender, F(1, 367) = 12.99, p < .01. Female and male participants differed significantly in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, females (M = 32.77, SD = 6.41) reported stronger religious faith than males (M = 29.33, SD = 7.39). Despite this finding, however, no significant interactions were found for Gender × Athlete, F(1, 367) = 2.94, p > .05, or Gender × Institution Attended, F(1, 367) = 0.16, p > .05.

Table 4

Descriptive Statistics for Gender, Institution Attended, and Current Athletic Participation

Gender Athlete Institution M SD n
Male No RPI 34.23 4.52 30
NRPI 27.32 8.01 25
Total 31.09 7.18 55
Yes RPI 28.57 8.27 49
NRPI 28.49 6.75 70
Total 28.52 7.38 119
Total RPI 30.72 7.56 79
NRPI 28.18 7.08 95
Total 29.33 7.39 174
Female No RPI 34.49 5.49 92
NRPI 29.91 7.20 53
Total 32.82 6.53 145
Yes RPI 34.33 5.74 30
NRPI 30.73 6.10 26
Total 32.66 6.13 56
Total RPI 34.45 5.53 122
NRPI 30.18 6.83 79
Total 32.77 6.41 201
Total No RPI 34.43 5.25 122
NRPI 29.08 7.52 78
Total 32.34 6.74 200
Yes RPI 30.76 7.89 79
NRPI 29.08 6.63 96
Total 29.85 7.25 175

Table 5

2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA for Gender, Institution Attended, and Current Athletic Participation

Variables Sum of squares df MS F
Gender 562.16 1 562.16 12.99**
Athlete 70.08 1 70.08 1.62
InAt 1,101.13 1 1,101.13 25.44**
Gender X athlete 127.06 1 127.06 2.94
Gender X InAt 6.79 1 6.79 0.16
Athlete X InAt 291.36 1 291.36 6.73*
Gender X athlete X InAt 162.82 1 162.82 3.76
Error 15,884.35 367
Total 383,288.25 375
Corrected total 18,778.46 374

Note. InAt = institution attended.

*p < .05. **p < .01.

Discussion

In terms of the first research question, analyses showed that students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI. Religious institutions tend to appeal to students, whether athletes or nonathletes, who adhere to the religious beliefs and ideals the institutions promote. For example, a high school senior who values his or her Christian beliefs may apply to a college expected to provide a venue for strengthening those beliefs. In this study, then, the strength of the religious faith of students attending the RPI may be greater than that of students at the NRPI because Christian universities tend to attract and recruit highly religious individuals. In addition, according to the findings of Arnett and Jensen (as cited in Barry & Nelson, 2005), “emerging adulthood may be best characterized as a time during which young people: (a) question the beliefs in which they are raised, (b) place greater emphasis on individual spirituality and affiliation with a religious institution, and (c) pick and choose the aspects of religion that suit them best” (p. 246). At an NRPI, students may be exposed to secular viewpoints and perspectives during their academic experience. Professors at non–religiously practicing institutions often do not promote a certain religion, and they may deliberately keep their classrooms free of discussion on religion and spirituality. In contrast, students attending the RPI involved in this study were required by the institution to attend weekly religious services and to enroll in religion courses, which constitute part of the institution’s core curriculum. In addition, professors at Christian institutions tend to intertwine religion and academics by seeking the “integration of Christian faith with the living and learning experiences” (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006, p. 40). These reasons help explain the finding that students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI.

Concerning the second research question, analyses showed that the nonathletes attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than the athletes at that RPI. Prior to the present research, most studies comparing the religiosity of athletes and nonathletes had been conducted at NCAA Division I public institutions and had suggested that athletes were more religious than nonathletes (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). The results of the present study appear to contradict the published literature, although the contradiction may be substantially explained by society’s glorification of winning in athletics. That is, even at religiously practicing institutions, coaches feel pressure to win. Coaches at Christian institutions may tend to incorporate prayer in athletic practices and competitions, to make decisions based on Christian ideals, and to strive to be Christian role models (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006). In a context of athletics, they may work to teach such Christian values as self-discipline, hard work, perseverance, humility, and graciousness. But athletic success, even at Christian institutions, stems directly from the number of victories accumulated by a team. A victorious athletic program can be used as a “platform to market the college and encourage people in the community to have a connection with the institution, through sports” (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006, p. 49). Resulting pressure to win may lead even coaches at religious institutions to recruit athletes based on athletic ability rather than commitment to Christian beliefs. The adequacy of this explanation offers a topic for subsequent investigation focusing on recruiting practices of coaches at religiously practicing institutions versus those of coaches at non–religiously practicing institutions.

The present statistical analyses generated no significant results related to the third research question, in that athletes at the NRPI involved in this study reported the strength of their religious faith to be at a level similar to that reported by nonathletes at the NRPI. This result does not support previously published findings for athletes and nonathletes at NCAA Division I institutions (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). It may, then, indicate a role for institutional environment. The NCAA Division III NRPI involved in the present study was located in the Midwest, a region in which residents typically adhere to conservative ideals and values. The cited investigations at NCAA Division I institutions were conducted in other regions of the United States, where moral standards may differ from those in the Midwest. Furthermore, it may be true that, in general, an NRPI in NCAA’s Division III may offer an institutional environment that more closely resembles the institutional environment of an NCAA Division I institution than that of an RPI in Division III.

As for the fourth research question, the present analyses showed that females reported stronger religious faith than males, a result supporting the majority of the previous research. Specifically, studies have found females to obtain higher intrinsic spirituality scores (Knox, Langehough, Walters, & Rowley, 1998), to pray more frequently, and to attend church more often than males (Francis, 1997b). In addition, a study of athletes and nonathletes by Storch et al. (2001) found that female athletes and female nonathletes (as well as male athletes) reported a higher degree of religiousness than male nonathletes did. Another study suggested that females may derive greater spiritual benefits than males from a Christian college experience (Ma, 2003). Perhaps such results can be explained by socialization factors. According to previous research, in general females have been taught to be relatively submissive, passive, obedient, nurturing, and gentle, as compared to males (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995; Thompson, 1991). Expressive personality characteristics like these are associated with higher levels of religiosity (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995) and have been categorized as a feminine gender orientation (Thompson, 1991). In other words, females (and males) who exhibit these personality characteristics tend to be more religious than females (and males) who do not exhibit them (Francis, 1997a). Perhaps, then, researchers should begin examining differences in religiosity not by gender but by specific gender role orientation (i.e., masculine gender orientation, feminine gender orientation) within each gender.

Conclusion

In this study, students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI. Institutional environment and relative overall appeal of RPIs and NRPIs may play a significant role in explaining this finding. In addition, nonathletes attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than athletes attending the RPI. Societal pressure—even on the coaching staffs of religiously practicing institutions—to recruit athletes based on athletic ability rather than character may help explain this result.

Athletes attending the NRPI in this study did not differ significantly from nonathletes at the institution, in respect to strength of religious faith. This result does not support previous studies, which had revealed a significant difference in religiosity between athletes and nonathletes. This finding may be attributable to the institutional environment at the NRPI. Finally, in this study, females reported stronger religious faith than males, a result that may potentially be attributable to gender role orientation and socialization factors in our culture.

Findings from the present study provide direction for future research. First, levels of spirituality should be assessed, along with religious faith. Although many people equate religion and spirituality, the two are distinct concepts that can be addressed separately as well as collectively. Second, future studies should incorporate unstructured opportunities (i.e., interviews) allowing participants to express their religious beliefs. The SCSRFQ is a self-report scale not accommodating qualitative accounts of the role of religion as perceived by participants. Thus, both quantitative and qualitative methods should be utilized. Third, future investigators ought to study institutions at the NCAA Division II, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and National Junior College Athletic Association levels. While the majority of existing research was conducted among NCAA Division I athletes, insight into the importance of religion at a variety of athletic levels is needed. Fourth, future studies should examine levels of religious faith by type of sports. They might ask, for instance, whether athletes in individual sports are more religious than athletes in team sports or whether athletes in contact sports display stronger religious faith than athletes in noncontact sports. Fifth, future investigations should evaluate levels of religious faith by individual religious affiliation, exploring, for example, whether Catholics report higher levels of religious faith than Protestants. Finally, further research must be conducted on the role of religions other than Christianity—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism—in sports and in the lives of athletes.

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Author Note

Nathan T. Bell, School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise
Science, Ball State University; Scott R. Johnson, School of Physical
Education, Sport, and Exercise Science, Ball State University; and
Jeffrey C. Petersen, School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise
Science, Ball State University.

Nathan T. Bell is now with the American Sport Education Program at
Human Kinetics publishing.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nathan
T. Bell, Associate Acquisitions Editor, ASEP–Human Kinetics, 1607 N.
Market St.,Champaign, IL 61820.