In recent years, sports figures have used their platform to make their opinions known about race, gender, and sexual preferences. We’ve all observed a trend where more and more athletes use their public platform in society to help right the wrongs, perceived or real, in American culture.
Sportscasters devote time on their shows arguing for what “should be” in our culture in regards to hot and trending social topics. No longer do we live a world in which opinions are left for the op-ed section of a newspaper. Rather, social commentary can be found on CNN, Fox News, ESPN, NBC Sports, and countless Twitter accounts of well-known athletes.
There are plenty of examples, but some recent ones caught my own attention and stuck out in particular for various reasons.
Many have weighed in on the Connecticut high school athletes who identify as female but are biologically male and are allowed to compete in women’s track and field events. Sports influencers have applauded their courage while others say their crossing-the-biological-gender-line participation is not fair.
The Serena Williams/Carlos Ramos conflict in the US Open is another example of a world-renowned athlete speaking up about how she feels about gender equality — or lack thereof — in the tennis world. The situation escalated from a player-ref issue to one of gender (and race) in sports. Athletes and analysts both have stepped into this situation with their strong opinions.
Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick created a huge stir in our culture. Some applauded it, while others denounced it. Whatever one’s opinion may be about the ad, Nike’s decision created an all-time high in their stock price and became fodder for many opinions being shared throughout the sports world — and beyond.
In 2014, The Espy Award for Courage was given to Michael Sam for being the first NFL athlete to be openly gay. In 2015, that award for courage was given to Caitlyn Jenner (Bruce Jenner) for being transgender. We could go on and on with examples like these.
Like it or not —and both positions can certainly be valid — in our current reality, sports are not just about sports anymore. Sports and the athletes who play them are cultural influencers speaking out on some of the most important parts of life and how we think about them.
So what is a Christian to do?
How ought an athlete live out their faith in such a socially conscious, opinionated, easily offended and yet chaotic-without-a-North-star-to-guide-us sports culture? Here are three suggestions:
Intentionally think and carefully respond
Christians, especially those who have a voice through sports, would do well to begin thinking more carefully about issues of social justice and gender. We must be careful not to quickly react with cute memes, emotional rants, or political convictions without taking the time to fully consider a situation in light of Biblical truth.
Christians must be careful to recognize that we may have our own biases which are not in alignment with historic theology. Too often we let cultural norms seen on Twitter, sports magazines or sports networks become our primary source by which we form our convictions on such weighty issues. That’s not becoming of those whose minds are to be shaped and directed by another Kingdom altogether.
In short, we must pause and think first, seeking theological perspective before and alongside sociological.
The wisdom of Proverbs 25:2 states “to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
What can this look like? For example, in the Serena Williams U.S. Open controversy, some have responded by immediately saying that the injustice she faced from the ref was because she was a woman, or even more specifically, a Black woman. Others went down the road of comparing the gendered responses of refs in professional tennis — men vs. women. Still others chalked the whole incident up to Serena Williams poor behavior.
But to be able to think well about what happened, could it be possible that all sides need to be open to the possibility presented by the other? In other words, in complicated situations like this one, is both/and even an option or are we already so committed to our position that we can’t see any other possibility but our own?
For those who only noticed her demonstrative and boorish behavior, is it not actually possible that race and gender and any number of other prejudices came to bear on this moment?
For those who only noticed race and gender at play, is it not possible that although those are often on display and working against Williams, that in this case, it was just lousy work by an official?
In the world of sports, there are unfair and unjust refs everywhere. Maybe the ref, Carlos Ramos, made a poor and unfair decision simply because he is an inconsistent ref, even if other issues may be playing some role in the background.
The unfair refs I’ve experienced in life are not necessarily doing it because they have a racist bent against Mexicans (of which I’m half Mexican), but because they are human and make bad calls. It’s easy to assume race, but I have an obligation to go beyond knee-jerk assumptions. As a Christian, I must be gracious and not automatically assume that the motive of a bad ref is based race or gender. Yes, it may be, but it also may not, and any pursuit of “justice” in a situation should ask many more questions and get many more details right before making a judgement.
Get on the same page
If you talk about the “pitch” to a soccer player, she will talk about the field of green grass upon which the game is played. If you talk about the “pitch” to a baseball player, he will talk about what the pitcher does with the ball. Same word, very different references. Context matters.
Proverbs 1:5 offers this, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance.”
Wise Christians take the time to learn what terms mean to different people. Wise Christians will seek to understand how people in our culture define terms like social justice. Thoughtful Christians will take the time to discover how the Bible defines “social justice.” There are times when the culture defines social justice in a way that is the same as the Bible, and there are many other times when they are not talking about the same thing at all.
To make sure Christians take the lead in listening and seeking understanding, let me suggest asking two simple questions.
“What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”
Asking these questions begins the conversation between two athletes by getting them on the same page. If we’re not even talking about the same thing, then how can we ever bring a rationale of genuine hope to the situation? Until we’ve really understood what’s being expressed and believed, there’s no point in offering alternative solutions/thinking.
Ask THE question
Most importantly, Christians must ask the primary question of life. They must ask themselves, “What does the Bible have to say about these things?”
This question gets to the heart of the matter. What is my source of final authority? For the Christian, it must be the Bible.
The Christian believes that everything written in the Bible accurately reflects the mind and heart of God. The Bible is not just an inspirational book, but a book that is divinely inspired. It provides humans with everything we need for life and godliness. It is the final word and supreme authority to which we submit.
As cool, hip, and influential as professional athletes may be, what they think or even what “I” think is not perfect. None of us knows everything. We don’t even know what we don’t know! However, God, does know everything, so when any issue of race, gender, sexual preference, or injustice arises, the Christian’s necessary response must always include submission to what He has said.
In all your thoughts about Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, NFL players kneeling or standing, Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner, have you taken the time to seek God’s mind on these matters? Have you spent any time looking to the Bible to form your convictions?
A friend and fellow pastor, Les Fleetwood, has observed, “Our culture is increasingly reductionistic, superficial, impatient, and reactionary.” What is an experiential reality in our world ought not be a reality among Christians. As those who are not to be conformed to this world, Christians should be examples of grace.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt is a rare thing to see these days. Even rarer is finding the good in someone who disagrees with you. Christians should first find a point of unity rather than quickly finding fault.
As you personally process how sports and social justice intersect, let me ask you to show grace. Would you please be slow to point out the “wrong” in another’s opinion?
Instead, as you purposefully engage a particular issue, will you always keep on the forefront of your mind that our God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness”? Since our Father is gracious, let’s be gracious, too.
Two Personal Questions to Consider
One: Who or what has been the most influential voice in your life that has shaped your convictions on the cultural issues we most frequently discuss today?
Two: What beliefs have you had that might need to change — or be rethought — in light of Biblical truth?