The Decision: Considering Islam in free agency

Paul Pogba had 8 goals and 3 assists for Juventus this season.

Paul Pogba had 8 goals and 3 assists for Juventus this season.

If you think Dwyane Wade, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of the big names in the NBA’s free-agency class of 2015 will be the subjects of too many rumors and too much speculation, you haven’t been following international soccer.

While D-Wade (if he chooses to opt-out of his Miami Heat contract) and other NBA free agents will dominate the sports pages for a week or two, maybe a month of furious player movement this summer, soon-to-be-available soccer stars like Paul Pogba have been driving web traffic at gossip and rumor sites for months. I have a Google news alert set up for Pogba — along with several other Muslim soccer players — and every day I get no fewer than 3-4 stories from around the world about where he might end up next season.

The latest word on the street is that Pogba, the 22-year-old phenom from France who has helped Juventus of Italy’s Serie A league win three straight league championships, will turn down lucrative offers from English clubs Chelsea and Manchester United to stay with his current club. But those headlines will change tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that, until Pogba makes his decision official.

Pogba is in the most enviable position for an athlete: He has his choice of where he will compete next, and he is all but guaranteed, insha’Allah, to make a lot of money wherever he goes.

And so for Pogba and other Muslim athletes, how much of a role should religion play in their decision?

As fans and media, we often forget that athletes are people, leading us to look at their free-agency decisions only from a competitive perspective: Which team offers the best chance at winning a championship? Which coach or set of teammates best fits their game? Which franchise would allow them to be “The Man” versus being a sidekick or a role player?

But athletes have to — or are at least well within their right to — consider so much more than that.

How is the real estate market in that city they’re considering? Where would their kids go to school? Does their spouse feel comfortable there? How far away do the nearest family or friends live? Is there a state income tax? How is the weather? How is the elevation? And that is all in addition to considering teammates, coaches, the front office, winning, and of course, money.

Where does religion fit in?

For a Muslim athlete, they may be wondering if the city they’re considering has a thriving Muslim community, or a nonexistent one. How many mosques or Islamic centers are there? In what parts of the city are they located? Are there any blatantly anti-Islam politicians presiding over the city or the state? Are there halal markets? Are there Islamic schools for the athlete’s children? Is it safe for their spouse? Is it safe for the athlete?

Along with asking which city will most help them become a better athlete and a bigger brand, the Muslim athlete should also be thinking about which city affords them the best opportunity to become a better Muslim. Not just maintaining an Islamic lifestyle, but where can they grow and develop into the best Muslim they can be?

Senegalese French soccer star Demba Ba, a practicing Muslim who had played for teams in France, Belgium, Germany and England dating back to his pro debut in 2005, signed with Besiktas in Turkey’s Super Lig last summer.

“To play in a Muslim country and in a new stadium is definitely very exciting,” Ba said upon joining his new club. “I know what my coach Slaven Bilic expects from me, and I am open to all sorts of competition.”

This is not just an issue for the pros, however. High school athletes who are being recruited by college programs should also consider where their religion fits into those college campuses. Does the school have a Muslim Student Association? Are there mosques near campus or elsewhere around town? Is there a history of anti-Islam bullying or violence at that school? Are there any Muslim faculty, staff, students or mentors who can ease their transition and look after them?

I spoke to a Muslim high school basketball coach on the West Coast (who preferred to remain anonymous) about his experience with Muslim high school athletes who are being recruited by colleges.

“Most of the shabab (youth) look for schools in larger cities. This way, they’re sure to find a masjid nearby campus,” the coach said.

“It is a heavy concern for practicing Muslims,” he added. “I would advise them to choose a coaching staff of strong moral fiber. Integrity and character is important. Also, choose a school that has an environment that is inclusive to our ummah. Make plenty of duas and do research from other Muslims that have attended that university.”

In his 2006 autobiography, Darkness to Sunlight, former NBA player Zaid Abdul-Aziz wrote about receiving an offer to coach basketball in Saudi Arabia after he’d retired from playing:

“What an opportunity: to be able to live in Saudi Arabia, go to Mecca, and learn Arabic,” Abdul-Aziz wrote. “The possibility that I could pass down my knowledge of the game to the youth there and be respected as a Muslim NBA player was mind-boggling.”

Some Muslim American athletes, just like “regular” Muslim American citizens, desire to live and work in a Muslim-majority country. But not everyone has that luxury or opportunity. For those who are making their living in the U.S., Europe, or other places in which being Muslim makes them a minority, spiritual health should be as much part of the decision as financial and physical health.

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