Big business and religion make for uneasy bedfellows

A few weeks ago we got in touch with David Quinn of the Iona Institute, well-known commentator on religious affairs.

We were keen to talk about the buzz about Tim Tebow, star American football quarterback and — significantly for our chat — a Christian of strong beliefs.

We were talking to David about how palatable it would be to an Irish audience, or not, if one of our sportspeople were to speak loud and long about their beliefs, and he pointed out that in general terms Irish people tend to prefer their athletes not to be as ostentatious in their demonstrations of belief.

One example he gave was the Brazilian footballers’ habit of pointing skyward after a goal and revealing a T-shirt under the jersey with ‘I belong to Jesus’ written on it. You didn’t have to consider too long to realise that an Irish equivalent was hard to summon up.

Hard but not impossible. There’s one prominent Irish sportsperson who points to the heavens after victory, perhaps the most prominent sportsperson of all given the events of the last week.

Though not given to ostentatious celebration in the Kaka mode, say, Katie Taylor is a religious person, but over the weekend more than one person suggested to us that it might be as well for her to leave out the ‘having God in her life’ line that she favours the odd time, particularly if she wanted to cash in on her success (specifically, Taylor is a member of a pentecostal church — its pastor featured in some news reports after her gold medal win — and has never hidden the importance of her faith in interviews). Okay, one thing at a time.

Back in 1956, when Ronnie Delany won gold at the Melbourne Olympics in the 1500m, he immediately dropped to his knees and blessed himself in thanks.

The country has changed so much in the half-century since that a gold medallist referring to God these days is unusual to say the least and viewed by some as actually counter-productive — as in, ‘if she wants the big companies to sign her up she’d want to keep the trap shut’.

These weren’t the comments of the terminal curmudgeon, or of Richard Dawkins-loving militant atheists, either. They were expressions of concern for Taylor rather than criticisms — that if she wanted to enjoy some well-earned endorsements that she’d be as well off reining in some of that honesty (which is not to say, of course, that those who love to find the grit in the oyster have been idle, lo these many hours; just to prove that there is scope for unhappiness and begrudgery even in the hour of glorious victory, you need only sift through the reports of the cancelled victory parade for the Irish boxers, and the not-so-subtle finger-pointing at Taylor’s father, Peter, as the kill-joy responsible. Given that the boxer herself is off-limits when it comes to criticism, those nosing around for a little smudge to rub on the halo will find it elsewhere; it helps in this scenario, of course, that Mr Taylor doesn’t speak with an Irish accent).

Is it true to suppose that candour about religion would be counter-productive to Taylor’s chances of sponsorship and endorsements? Large companies don’t tend to back idiosyncratic sportspeople when it comes to selecting pitchmen. When Michael Jordan was the most famous sportsperson in America and selling billions of dollars’ worth of equipment for Nike, he was asked to back a political candidate in his native North Carolina who happened to be a Democrat. Jordan refused. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” was his rationale, the kind of abdication of personal opinion that thrills a multinational to its corporate core.

The contradiction in Katie Taylor’s case is that in modern Ireland, being religious constitutes a dangerously individual inclination, yet as recently as maybe 20 years ago that kind of belief would have been seen as the norm.

If she were in America, of course, espousing her beliefs wouldn’t hurt her chances of acquiring a portfolio of blue chip sponsors; on the contrary, there’d be a whole range of companies which would be only too happy to line her up with their products the more she spoke about religion.

The other twist to the story is that Katie Taylor’s sponsors aren’t exactly corner shops or fly-by-night enterprises as it stands — Adidas, Sky and P&G are among those who have backed the Bray woman, and that’s before she made the podium last week.

As their marketing staff say, though, it’ll be interesting to see, “going forward”, if she starts going backwards with the God talk.

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