Black Christians Play a Crucial Role in Athlete Activism
Written by TM of JC on September 1, 2020
Black christian athletes, seeing their careers as a platform for the gospel, are speaking out for racial justice following the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake.
It’s a pattern that has been building since 2016. Months before Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against police brutality and systematic racism swept through the NFL (and swept Kaepernick out of the league), christian WNBA star Maya Moore and her Minnesota Lynx teammates wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts during warm-ups. Moore would later step away from professional basketball to focus on racial justice work, announcing her decision with an essay that proclaimed her life’s purpose “is to know Jesus and make Him known.”
By 2017 numerous NFL players, including Anquan Boldin, Eric Reid, and Malcolm Jenkins, were also invoking their christian faith as a motivating factor for their involvement in protests and reform initiatives. Those numbers have only grown.
While some black christian athletes have abstained from the recent wave of activism in stadiums and arenas—Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, for example, cited his understanding of the gospel when declining to fully participate in a pre-game racial justice ceremony—far more have played a leading role.
To name just a few: In the NFL, New Orleans Saint Demario Davis—known for his “Man of God” headband—has championed Black Lives Matter and encouraged athletes to hold the league accountable as it works to address systemic racism. Former player and football analyst Emmanuel Acho launched the viral video series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” informing Sports Spectrum that he recites Matthew 10:20 before recording each episode. And his brother and fellow linebacker, Sam Acho, founded Athletes for Justice.
In the NBA, Harrison Barnes, a lifelong christian who earned the nickname “The Senator” for his demeanor and activism, has donated $25,000 toward victims of police brutality and gun violence for each of the Sacramento Kings games played during the NBA bubble. Meanwhile the WNBA’s A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces has discussed double standards black women face.
Even in Major League Baseball, known for being more conservative and mostly white, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Andrew McCutchen—who has repeatedly shared his testimony of putting God first in his career—initiated and wrote the script for the league’s opening day pre-game ceremony meant to acknowledge racial injustice. And Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Kemp has been kneeling during the national anthem and chose to sit out a game last week to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
Though professional sports have become a hotbed of political and social activism, each of these black christian athletes has ties to a realm that’s typically not associated with social justice movements: evangelical sports ministries.
The white evangelicals who have led and shaped these ministries are part of a religious subcommunity that tends to emphasize an individualistic conception of sin and salvation and is often wary of social justice. Since the 1980s, too, a large segment of the white evangelical community has become a reliable voting bloc for the Republican Party, a pattern of support that has continued with Donald Trump, a president who denounces black athlete protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
No matter. Black christian athletes are demonstrating, rallying, and protesting against systemic racial injustice anyway, bringing their christian convictions to bear on an issue that many white evangelicals have been unwilling and unable to address. As these athletes forge ahead, they’re carving out a new path for the evangelical sports movement while also demonstrating some continuity with the past.
The FCA’s ‘Colorblind’ Approach
The last era when sports and racial activism were so closely intertwined was when evangelical sports ministries first emerged. Back on June 8, 1964, one month before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Fellowship of christian Athletes was holding its first summer conference in the South. Founded in 1954, the FCA was the first of the major evangelical sports ministries, with Athletes in Action (1966) and Pro Athletes Outreach (1971) coming later.
Although rooted in white Protestantism, these organizations were racially integrated from the start. FCA leaders made sure that their first Southern camp—held at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina—would be integrated too. The event included three black staff members: professional football players Curtis McClinton and Prentice Gautt and college basketball coach John McLendon.
FCA’s insistence on racial integration was not embraced by all who attended. At the event, a college camper from Mississippi State warned about “bloodshed” if a black student dared enroll at his still-segregated school. Gautt kept quiet, and that night when he took the stage as a featured speaker, he did not directly address the comment. Instead, he gave his testimony. Baptized at age five, he had recommitted his life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in 1957, his second year as the first black athlete at the University of Oklahoma. His religious zeal waned again as his football star rose, but an injury in 1963 brought him back to earth and back to Christ. During his testimony, Gautt urged campers to be “colorblind” and to recognize that God loved all of humanity equally.
Apparently something in that message resonated with the Mississippi State camper. Three nights later he knocked on Gautt’s cabin door, asking to talk about race. For nearly four hours, late into the night, he and Gautt conversed, joined by a growing crowd. Afterwards, the student called it one of the most enlightening conversations he’d ever had. For Gautt, experiences like this—along with friendships he formed with white teammates—gave him hope. “When christian athletes—and other people, for that matter—play and live together in close fellowship, they come to know and understand one another,” he later explained.
The assumption held by Gautt and by many christian athletes in the 1960s was that interracial relationships in sports, built around a shared love for Jesus, would eventually lead to a more just society. It was an idealistic proposition, based on similar principles that led baseball’s Branch Rickey—a founding member of the FCA—to sign Jackie Robison: Make the white sports team more racially inclusive, and you’ll eventually change the country. No protests needed. In this view, simply participating in integrated sports was an act of racial justice.
Jackie Robinson’s Prophetic Stance
But while the gradual integrationist approach modeled by Rickey persisted in the ranks of evangelical sports ministry, the other half of baseball’s “great experiment”—Jackie Robinson—took a different path. Although he was a committed christian and a lifelong friend of Rickey, Robinson was not involved in sports ministry. His public witness took on a more prophetic stance, frequently challenging and confronting racism at the individual and social levels.
The split between Robinson and Rickey’s approach was made apparent in the 1960s when a cadre of black athletes organized a protest movement within sports. Symbolized by the iconic image of Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the 1968 medal ceremony in Mexico City, the “revolt of the black athlete” movement rejected the notion that sports were a safe harbor from racism or an automatic engine for positive social change. Its leaders sought to challenge and confront white American society with the reality of continued injustice.
Robinson fully endorsed the movement. Few in the emerging evangelical sports community, black or white, did the same. Not all were hostile, but most sided with former football player Dan Towler, a Methodist minister and black FCA leader, who defended the place of sports as a force for racial progress.
This was the stance Prentice Gautt took as well. He was willing to call out racism. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1968, he went on the record about the discrimination he witnessed on his football team. But he also affirmed his belief in sports exceptionalism. “The long-range problems will take a long time to solve. But if they can’t be solved in sports, where can they be solved?” he said. “Sports has been following when it’s supposed to lead. The change should start today.”
Gautt went on to have a long career in coaching and athletic administration, all while remaining connected to the FCA. By entering into leadership roles in predominantly white spaces and paving the way for black people to follow, Gautt felt he was advancing the cause of racial justice.
At least one athlete connected to evangelical sports ministry also joined the protest movement, although his story is more a cautionary tale than a triumph. The son of a black Baptist preacher, Calvin Jones re-committed his life to Christ through a campus ministry in 1969, the year before he emerged as a star cornerback for the University of Washington. After the 1970 season, he and three black teammates left the team after releasing a public statement denouncing “the racial practices of the University of Washington coaching staff.”
Jones returned a year later after Washington made changes. But he could not forget the harsh response from fellow Christians. “I guess the thing that bothered me most—and still bothers me,” Jones recalled a few years later, “is that many people who profess to be Christians came down hardest on me. They said I wasn’t being a christian. But down deep inside me, I actually felt God was leading me to make that move.”
Jones spent four years with the Denver Broncos, where he was involved with Pro Athletes Outreach. He was a popular speaker with white church groups during that time, but when it came to talking about race, Jones felt he had to tread carefully. “I still have to check myself out when I’m speaking to white congregations about the racial problems,” he said at the time, “to make sure I’m together in my thinking.”
Diversity in Sports Ministries
The athlete-led protest movement lost steam by the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, as racial integration in big-time sports accelerated, the christian communities forged by evangelical sports ministries grew more diverse. Black athletes like Jones may not have always felt comfortable, and sports ministries still tended to center white evangelical perspectives. Even so, in pre-game chapels, team Bible studies, off-season retreats, summer camps, and outreach events, meaningful relationships were formed across the racial divide as players joined together to pray, worship, and share each other’s lives.
These relationships could sometimes lead white Christians to develop greater awareness of the reality of racism. In the 1990s, Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, an active FCA member, made racial reconciliation a central part of his Promise Keepers men’s movement. Athletes in Action chaplains working in the NFL emphasized the same. For Cincinnati Bengals player Leonard Wheeler, a black man, the AIA’s racial reconciliation work carried the potential for lasting social change. “We are opening up to one another, and we are learning to trust one another,” he said in 1996. “After football, it’s going to help us deal with people who haven’t been in sports.”
Building relationships and sharing lives as the key to change—Wheeler’s comments were remarkably similar to those made by Gautt after his Blue Ridge experience three decades before.
In 2020, however, it’s more difficult to make that case. The inclusion of black athletes in big-time sports has been accomplished, but it hasn’t led to equality and justice for black people in America, or even in sports, given the lack of black coaches and executives. The Branch Rickey approach, on its own, has not lived up to its promise.
As a result, many current black christian athletes have enlarged their focus from “colorblind” individual relationships to the particular social and cultural structures that disproportionally affect black lives. They’ve increasingly taken the approach of Jackie Robinson, who emphasized the continued need for racial justice activism and whose 1972 autobiography included this in the preface: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.”
But noticing what is new should not obscure from the continuities. Even as many black christian athletes advocate for systemic change, they often emphasize the importance of relationships. This is the whole point of Emmanuel Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations” series. This is why Demario Davis was quick to forgive teammate and fellow christian Drew Brees after the quarterback responded to the death of George Floyd by declaring his opposition to kneeling during the national anthem. “Drew missed the mark, but most of America missed the mark,” Davis explained, while also noting that white athletes and coaches in the NFL have a deeper understanding of black experiences and perspectives than most white Americans.
Change Beyond the Locker Room
Recent responses from prominent white christian athletes suggests that Davis might have a point. The premiere evangelical sports media company, Sports Spectrum, is a good example. Since 2017, its podcast and website have frequently featured stories and conversations focused on racial justice. And while there are certainly examples like Sam Coonrod, the white baseball player who cited his faith as the reason for his opposition to Black Lives Matter, this year we’ve also witnessed the NBA’s Kyle Korver, the MLB’s Clayton Kershaw, the National Women’s Soccer League’s Julie Ertz, college football’s Trevor Lawrence, and the NFL’s Nick Foles—all outspoken white Christians connected to evangelical sports ministries—express support for the racial justice movement.
At the same time, an increased willingness to listen does not necessarily mean that widespread change will occur. It’s the same issue we could have brought to Prentice Gautt and that Mississippi State student 55 years ago. Did the student leave the FCA camp motivated to help his white friends and family change their segregationist thinking? If so, how was he received?
The wide range of black christian athletes advocating for racial justice—as well as the growing number of white christian athletes who are listening and learning—undoubtedly marks a new moment in the history of evangelical sports ministry. But it also puts to the test an old idea: Can change that starts through relationships in sports lead to change in ministries, churches, and communities outside the locker room?
Paul Emory Putz is a historian studying sports and Christianity and serves as the assistant director of the sports ministry program at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. His forthcoming book is The Spirit of the Game: American Protestants, Big-Time Sports, and the Contest for National Identity.