Onward Christian Athletes: The Salvation of Sports

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In concluding his book, Tom Kattenmaker, argues that the technique and methods in which sport and religion interact must be rethought, reexamined, and reimplemented. He parallels it to Reggie White’s story, the outspoken All-Pro D-linemen for the Eagles and Packers during the 90’s. He spoke for God then and preaches for God now. He has not been light about the regrets he had during his playing days, even when he was supposed to be “playing for God”. He regrets the times he attributed words to God during his days on the field and he wishes for some comments to be removed. His retrospect has caused him to call into the question his methods of evangelism, of talking with people about Jesus, his representation of Christianity, and his way of engaging culture. This reticence was enough for Kattenmaker to pounce on the idea and call for cessation.

Even the spokesman for Athletes in Action agreed with White’s testimony. He argued that the culture of today, as compared with the culture that gave root to the 3 aforementioned ministries, is a less confrontational and more conversational in accepting the religion. The “are you going to hell?” approach that built the ministry, needed to be altered. AIA has since backed off a more hard line directive of preaching, towards a relationship building ministry. To this end I can agree. Today’s consumer of information is bombarded by shocking statements everyday. To “scare” people into heaven, or to proclaim the outrageous is ineffective based on the sheer amount of information hitting people at all times. Preaching at people is ineffective because this generation does not revel in the pomp that mind did, but in authenticity and genuiness.

But to return to Kattenmaker’s original issues: 1) Christianity’s exclusivity; 2) Christianity’s popularity; 3) Christianity’s ineffectiveness.

As for number 1, the claims of Jesus are exclusive, but it’s community is not. He claims that locker rooms are divided based on the ideas of religion. The world has been divided throughout its history by the name it calls God. However, as this ESPN piece on Arian Foster shows, the differences in religious belief doesn’t have to ostracize or divide people…especially those in a work place where all other differences are supposed to be set aside as well. Granted, there are Christians that will ruin this…I cringed throughout the book as I read some of the names he brought forth. Still, the community of Christ is one of healing and restoration, and there could be no more inclusiveness as shown in that.

Secondly, in a country that is increasingly becoming more secular and with Islam on the rise, the Judeo-Christian worldview is still more prevalent. Amongst the Black Community, church attendance is still a major fixture in the culture therefore the centrality of chapel in the NFL and NBA. Baseball as a hold out in America, is a rural sport made up of kids from mid to smaller towns where Church still plays a major role. That’s the big three. Christianity is popular because, get this…its what most of the men grew up with deal with it. Also, its not as if Christianity won the popular vote of what religion to advocate in the locker room. Should an Imam or a Rabbi offer to do a study of the Koran or Mishna respectively, I’m not sure the solidity of the ground the NFL, NBA, or MLB would stand on both politically and in societal perception.

Finally, as for Christianity not changing the culture of Black America, Sports Culture, or Chauvinism. The role of Christianity in the locker room has been “hostile” and “a tool” used to exploit the community. He references what has now become the classic work on the topic, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, written by William C. Rhoden, which came out around the same time. The concept of a few privileged, predominantly white owners/ownership groups making gobs of money at the expense of predominantly black athletes, for Rhoden and Kattenmaker equates to a 1:1 comparison. Countless NFL and NBA players have made the same connection. This is not the time nor the place to unpack that idea, however, I would point out that in his unloading upon Christianity he neglected to see how sports has elevated Black communities and given opportunities to Black, Latino, and other minorities in this country. Now I’m not saying that athletes are not exploited, nor are they compensated well enough for their sacrifice, for NCAA and pro sports have been built upon their broken backs. But like I said, this is not the time or the place. But I do wish, Mr. Kattenmaker, that you had mentioned the quiet and sincere faith that gave Mr. Jackie Robinson the strength to integrate, and thereby give athletic opportunity to others. Or Joe Louis, who’s faith earned him the moniker “the Black Moses”. Or “Deacon” Dan Towler, who led his Rams teammates in prayer in the huddle or Wilma Turner, the cherished Olympian who relied on her Baptist faith. These are just a few Chrsitian Black athletes that changed society and changed religion in America. Their methodologies should be examined and studied more by the author, but these examples were completely rejected by Kattenmaker.

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