The OutField: God, gays and games

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Gay, lesbian, bi, trans, straight – it doesn’t matter. If you’re an American and you watch big-time sports, you can’t avoid seeing religion too.

A football player scores a key touchdown, and then points his finger to God in the sky. A winning pitcher thanks the Lord for the win. Basketball teams sponsor special “Faith Nights” for their fans.

What in God’s name is going on?

Tom Krattenmaker – a Portland, Ore. journalist and member of USA Today’s board of contributors who writes frequently on religion in public life – figured he’d find out. The result: Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.

The book – published earlier this year – is an incisive, example-filled look at the often-overlooked, seldom-examined ways in which sports and faith converge. Krattenmaker believes that “spontaneous” displays of faith are actually part of a well-organized effort – orchestrated by “a network of evangelical chaplains and sports ministry organizations” – to unite the powerful institutions of religion and athletics.

Of course, wherever religion pokes its nose, it smells homosexuality. Inevitably, athletics and Christianity converge to create a tangled homo hornet’s nest.

“Anti-gay sentiment is where sports, culture and politics intersect,” Krattenmaker says. “The opposition to gay rights is part of the Christian right rhetoric. And sports as a whole can be homophobic too.”

Though Krattenmaker devotes only a few of his 210 pages to specifically anti-gay examples, the ones he chooses are chilling.

For example, Ron Brown – an assistant football coach at the University of Nebraska, and former statewide director of operations for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes – wrote a column for the FCA magazine. The football coach focused on women’s sports, decrying the influence of lesbianism (he called it “the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed”).
Brown declared that Christians in sports had an obligation to fight homosexuality.

Or take Campus Crusade. The parent organization of Athletes in Action says that “indulgence in any lifestyle or pastime that is illegal or scripturally questionable or forbidden” – let’s say, oh, homosexuality – “may result in termination” of its employees or associates.

Then there’s Tony Dungy. The Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl-winning coach stood front and center during Indiana’s political struggle over gay rights.

In a speech accepting an award from the Indiana Family Institute, Dungy said, “We’re trying to promote the family, family values, the Lord’s way. Just like I’m trying to win on the football field the Lord’s way. I’m on the Lord’s side when I’m on the field, and on the Lord’s side when I’m off the field.”

Good lord.

“It’s a complicated tangle of relationships and influences,” Krattenmaker admits, referring to the religious right and sports. “Teasing out precise causes and effects is a difficult exercise.” But it’s an exercise that must be undertaken, he says.

“So many Christian professional athletes have said ignorant, harmful things,” Krattenmaker notes. (Star pitcher John Smoltz once likened gay marriage to marrying farm animals.)

“It’s gotten to the point where being Christian almost means being anti-gay,” Krattenmaker continues. “That’s not compassionate or smart. And it is harmful to both Christians and gays.”

Sports and religion are two of America’s most traditionally conservative institutions. However, Krattenmaker says, “Lately the religious right has begun shifting its focus nationwide away from social issues, to causes like environmentalism and AIDS.” Yet religious sports figures remain behind the curve.

“The form of Christianity we see in sports is very skewed,” says Krattenmaker. “It’s an incomplete Christianity. When fully expressed, Christianity is across the board. It’s not confined to one form of the political spectrum.”

Still, Krattenmaker warns, one should not paint the entire religious-right-in-sports movement with one brush.

Athletes in Action, he says, has recently become “leery” of being viewed as anti-gay. “They know the culture is changing. They realize that if the Christian right focuses too much on that issue, they’ll be left in the dust. That’s encouraging.”

And Krattenmaker is quick to trot out a Christian right hero: Reggie White.

The 12-time All-Pro earned the nickname “The Minister of Defense” as much for his work as an evangelic minister as for his hard-hitting play on the defensive line. He appeared in newspaper ads urging gays and lesbians to “cease” their homosexuality, and called being gay a sin.

But, Krattenmaker says, “few people understand the enormity of what happened after his career.” White said he was “prostituted” by religious people. Yet because of the “enormity of his heroism in the Christian/sports pantheon,” Krattenmaker says, there has been little acknowledgment of that renunciation of some previous statements. White died in 2004 of cardiac arrhythmia, age 43.

“I’m encouraged,” Krattenmaker concludes. “Change is inexorable. It’s happening at a deep level. American culture is changing in a positive way. And sports will be dragged along.”

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].

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