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NHL draft reveals society's suspicion of faith

Culture change is a procession of small moments; a series of individual decisions that lead to silent, collective determinations. There is no single moment when societies declare "we have changed our point of view on this issue."

And then, with the force of an intellectual hammer, the recognition of how profoundly we have changed hits you square in the forehead while, of all things, watching the NHL draft.

Most of the names of the young men selected have escaped me now, but two stick in my mind. It isn't their faults or credits I remember, but rather the presuppositions of the media questions which juxtaposed these young men as a commentary on our social condition.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was chosen first overall in this draft and received more coverage than most. Commentators talked about his maturity and composure as they debated whether he was ready to step into the NHL next season. Quite matter-of-factly, and with considerably more detail than seemed normal, they discussed the impact of his parents' separation while he was very young as a contributing factor to his character.

Rocco Grimaldi was a novelty because of his size. At five foot six and 165 pounds, he was the shortest player ever drafted when the Florida Panthers made him the 33rd pick overall.

Grimaldi is also well-known for his faith, as are a great many professional athletes.

The interviewer asked him about his faith and whether being openly religious could be a divisive matter in an NHL dressing room.

On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with a line of inquiry designed to help viewers learn something of the young man's character and, in his response, Grimaldi acknowledged that a number of interested teams had similarly inquired about whether he could "fit in."

No one noted that such a line of questioning violates just about every employment code going. No one wondered if faith -Muslim, Jewish, Christian, etc. -could make a positive contribution to the strength of a young man's character.

No one considered that Grimaldi has spent the better part of his life hanging out in locker rooms and managed despite his apparent intellectual disability to "fit in." No one realized just how horrifying and offensive such a line of inquiry is revealed to be if the words of the faith are substituted so that the question reads "So, you are a Jew; do you think you'll be able to fit in?"

Character shaped by having to deal with family breakup is so routine that it is self-evident how it helps a kid mature. Character that comes from religious education and commitment is so out of the ordinary, it needs to be questioned for its potential divisiveness.

More than providing insight into these two young men and their hockey potential, the commentary provided insight on the character of our society. We "get" family breakdown and experiential learning; we don't "get" religious commitment and faith. The first is regrettable but normal, and something that ideally we learn from; the second is divisive and to be handled with care. It would be more comfortable not to be so public about this faith stuff.

I was watching as a sports fan, not amateur sociologist. I don't want to read too much into sportscasters' interviews. However, my sense is that TSN graphically captured our present moment in terms of how we think about character building. That which comes from dealing with adversity is normal and good; that which comes from religion is suspect and divisive.

What seemed lost on the interviewer and, I fear, in common perception, is the overwhelming evidence that as a general social rule, the lack of a healthy parental relationship is destructive to children, while the inculcation of faith is a benefit to children. Without knowing anything about these young men, the evidence suggests that the positive developments in Nugent-Hopkins' character took place in spite of his household circumstance, while those of Grimaldi likely took place because of his faith. Of course, there are exceptions, but they don't negate these basic rules.

This may disappoint some who would like to believe that entering into and ending marriage is a matter of choice without public consequence, or that religion is totally a private matter not to be discussed in polite company, but wishing these things to be true doesn't make them that way.