New Age Jocks: Superstar Athletes Are Getting Very Mystical

When videos surfaced of Kyrie Irving — the enigmatic Brooklyn Nets guard who delights and infuriates fans in equal measure — walking the edge of the court in Boston holding a burning smudge stick in his hand, the kinds of responses you’d expect filled social media. People made jokes about Irving cleansing the bad vibes from his old team’s arena, while NBA League Pass subscriber types who previously rolled their eyes at Irving’s flat-earth theorizing dismissed it as Kyrie being Kyrie.

Ariana Lenarsky, a professional tarot reader and NBA obsessive, recognized something deeper than a great meme.

“He is using the sage to connect to honor his mother and his heritage — the Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe his mother was born into before she was adopted,” she speculated. “The ritual of saging is a well-known one amidst Native tribes, and perfectly in line with him integrating his heritage into his daily life.” The context behind Kyrie’s use of sage certainly challenges how rituals of contemporary athletic performance —playoff beards, lucky numbers, winning shoes — are often framed as silly or merely fashionable. And while no NBA players have reached out to Lenarsky yet, she sees more athletes turning to spiritual practice to help their game, and lives, improve. 

Professional athletes are always trying to get a leg up on the competition, whether it’s through new training methods or obsessively analyzing their opponents’ tendencies on video. Yet for all their faith in science, athletes are notoriously superstitious. Whether it’s not changing their socks or goalies tapping their stick a lucky number onto their net, fans know of the rituals players complete for the slightest competitive edge. Some players seem to live at the intersection of faith and science: Tom Brady credits his unprecedented longevity to his “TB12 Method,” which focuses heavily on “alkalizing” and “anti-inflammatory” foods.

While those statements have made him the butt of jokes, his practices aren’t far from ones you’d find in 1988’s The New Age Catalogue, an encyclopedia of everything from yoga and Ram Dass speeches to books on “The Spiritual Renaissance of Business” and UFO resources. Beyond diet, there’s a practice that Brady picked up from his wife, Gisele Bundchen, that includes prayer while wearing “these little special stones and healing stones and protection stones and she has me wear a necklace and take these drops she makes, I say all these mantras.” 

Brady’s successor in New England, Cam Newton, has tapped into the movement. In January, he discussed hosting a New Year’s Eve “manifestation party.” It’s simple, he explained: you just “FaceTime people or be in a room … and you kind of manifest, you set your intentions on things you want … From sage, to incense, gem stones … you just had this meditative experience where nothing else matters outside of what you want.” Like Brady’s bricolage of new age practices, Newton’s manifestation soiree seems to borrow equally from self-help tome The Secret and shamanism. As for the quarterback Brady beat to get to the Super Bowl, Aaron Rodgers, you can find out where his head is at, just tune into The Pat McAfee Show, where you might catch the two-time MVP talking about “energy focus.” While Rodgers has said that he’s “not necessarily talking about chakras and all that stuff,” he has said that his favorite book is The Alchemist by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, a novel filled with pyramids and alchemy and manifesting your dreams that often shows up on reading lists with other new age, self-help titles. (Results may vary: Brady is set to compete in his tenth Super Bowl this weekend, while Newton struggled mightily in his first season in New England. Although the Packers had a great regular season, Rodgers’ future in Green Bay is uncertain. Maybe he’s envisioning his next team as you read this.)

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