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Public Religious Displays by Professional Athletes

BY Conrad Goeringer

Ad Calls Packers Defense Whiz a "Role Model for Youth..

They call him the "Minister of Defense." NFL great Reggie White may not be returning for another season with the Green Bay Packers, but he is staying in the media spotlight thanks to his outspoken views on religion, homosexuality and the role of faith in American society. Peruse the sports section of the current USA TODAY, and you will encounter a 3/4 page ad complete with a photo of The Minister and the caption "In Tribute to Reggie White -- A man of God needs but one defense."

White, an ordained Baptist minister as well as a high profile NFL superstar, has become increasingly vocal in enunciating his religious views. Last March, White condemned gays, sex outside of church-sanctioned marriage and secularism in general during a rambling address to a somewhat embarrassed Wisconsin Assembly. He told the state representatives that "we as a people need to come together, and this nation needs to submit under God and his authority and denounce sin." AANEWS covered the event, observing "White's outspoken opinions have attracted coverage from news sources for several years, and there was plenty of it recently when he justified 'prayer circles' of beefy Packers kneeling on the turf at the end of each game." White took aim at a pantheon of targets and even fellow athletes like Michael Jordan.

"Condom sales," declared White, were "a real money maker."

"You got young people today that's (sic) buying PLAYBOY magazine. That's a moneymaker. Hugh Hefner's making a whole lot of money off a whole lot of people from buying his magazine. Then there's sex. You get pregnant. You get a disease. You catch AIDS."

White's offensive description of homosexuals as sinners offended Packer management sufficiently that team coach Mike Holmgren nixed a group interview which was to include Reggie last July. The Minister of Defense had already developed a reputation for mixing sports, complaints about his back, and his opinions on religion especially whenever a microphone was close by. What broke the camel's back, though, for the front office guys was when White appeared in a full-page ad that included an unauthorized photo of White in his Packers uniform, which was headlined "Toward an open debate on homosexual behavior." Underneath was the caption: "In defense of free speech."

The ad cost $63,000 according to Sports Illustrated, and was paid for by a coalition of 15 different Christian groups. Unable to muzzle White, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told media, "The only issue was over the use of the uniform in the ad," adding that "Reggie White (is) speaking as an individual and he's certainly free to express his views."

The Monday USA TODAY ad includes a bible quote, and declares "For 14 year, with little success, the strongest men in the NFL have tried to outsmart, out-muscle and outmaneuver Reggie White on the field. Off the field, the world has often tested the strength of his character and his commitment to Godly principles of behavior..."

The ad praises white, suggesting "There is no finer role model for youth today than this committed husband, father and Christian." In bolder type, readers are then belligerently warned: "So get ready America, because we're standing with Reggie to defend the gospel." About 150 signatories are listed. At the very bottom, the ad reads: "As a tribute to Reggie White this ad has been graciously underwritten by..." The logos of the Family Research Council, Christian Athletes United For Spiritual Empowerment (CAUSE) and Athletes in Action then follow.

White has also been appearing in ads for a read-the-bible promotion funded by the Arthur DeMoss Foundation. Founded by insurance magnate Arthur DeMoss, the Foundation ranks as the 48th largest philanthropic grantor in the United States according to a study done by The Foundation Center. Total giving on various projects last year, including slick "pro-life" ads on the national media, exceeded $31 million. Assets for the DeMoss Foundation exceed $400 million. Antiabortion maven Nancy DeMoss received the annual "Proudly Pro Life Award" from the National Right-To-Life Committee. The DeMoss name is linked to other important religious and political groups including the Republican GOPAC machine, and the Christian Reconstructionist group Coalition on Revival. (Reconstructionists advocate the death penalty for a number of offenses including "sodomy," witchcraft, blasphemy and adultery.) Mark DeMoss, a director of the Foundation's board has worked for televangelist Jerry Falwell, and Deborah DeMoss (ADF) was a staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms; she was mentioned in the Iran-Contra hearings as "the world's living, breathing expert" in covert arms dealings according to a report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a group which studies reproductive health issues.

Arthur DeMoss was a key figure in the consolidation of the modern religious right as a political force dating back to the 1970s and the so-called "Third Century" movement. In 1974, DeMoss, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Richard DeVos of Amway and Rep. John Conlan of Arizona founded "Third Century Publishers," a focus for educating Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals in political activism. Sociologists like Sarah Diamond have traced the origins of many religious right groups back to the "Third Century" group. Then, as now, DeMoss was a key player. As for Bill Bright, he has continued to play an important role in religious politics as founder of Campus Crusade. Athletes in Action, one of the sponsors of today's ad featuring Reggie White, is an affiliate for Bright's outreach ministry.

The link between White, a phalanx of "spirit filled" Christian Athletes, and the overt sponsorship of groups like Family Research Council and the DeMoss Foundation suggests that talking about "Godly principles" has a distinctly political component. White and other athletes are, increasingly, using their status as sportsworld super heroes to evangelize and promote a religious agenda which many find offensive, homophobic, intolerant and exclusionary. Sports fans already witness the spectacle of "prayer huddles," genuflections and other outbursts of religious enthusiasm on the field or court. How would they feel if their favorite players suddenly began taking equally pugnacious positions on politics, telling them which candidates to vote for?

In the meantime, Reggie White -- admittedly an ace defensive player -- trades on the goodwill of his team and his many fans to insult racial and sexual groups and promote a sectarian religious agenda.

Additional reading:
  • The Need to be Seen - Public Piety in Sports. Ron Barrier, American Atheists National Spokesman, discusses the apparent need for Christians to be seen in acts of public religious piety.
  • "Godmercials" on the Field -- Fans Paying for Sport or Religious Display?
  • "Minister of Defense" -- Submit to Jesus
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