How Sports and Social Justice Intersect

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 race and gender. 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.

Many have opined about 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 it is not fair.

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The latest Serena Williams tennis debacle is another example of a world-renowned athlete speaking up about how she feels about gender equality — or lack thereof — in the tennis world.  This situation has escalated from a player-ref issue to one of gender in sports. Athletes and analysts both have stepped into this situation with their opinion.

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Nike’s ad, featuring Colin Kaepernick, has created a huge stir in our culture. Some applaud it, while others denounce it. Whatever one’s opinion may be about the ad, Nike’s decision has created an all-time high in their stock price. In the U.S. sports culture, controversy often pays well.

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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 just like these.

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Our current reality is that sports are not just about sports anymore. Sports are cultural influencers speaking to some of the most important parts of life.

So what is a Christian to do?

How ought an athlete live out their faith in such a chaotic, opinionated, easily offended and dramatized sports culture? Let me offer three suggestions.

First, think carefully.

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 they may have their own biases which are not in alignment with historic theology. Christians must be careful that they do not let cultural norms seen on Twitter, sports magazines or sports networks become their primary source by which they form their convictions on such weighty issues. In short, we must pause and think first.

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 regards to the Serena Williams U.S. Open controversy, some have responded by quickly saying that the injustice she faced from the ref was because she was a woman. Others can take the time to compare the responses of refs in professional tennis to men vs. women. My point is that in the world of sports, there are unfair and unjust refs everywhere. Maybe the ref, Carlos Ramos, made a poor and unfair decision because he is an inconsistent ref, not because Serena is a black woman?

I submit for your consideration that the unfair refs I experienced in life are not 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. 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.

Second, 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. You see, same word, very different references. Context matters.

Proverbs 1:5 offer this, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance.”

Wise Christians take the time to learn what certain terms mean. 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.

So, 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 athletes are not talking about the same thing then how can Christians ever be a source of genuine hope.

Third, 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?”

The question gets to the heart of the matter. What is one’s source of final authority? For the Christian, it is 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 professional athletes may be, what they think or even what “I” think is not perfect. None of us know 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.

So I challenge you with this: 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?

One group of Christians did just that this summer.

Social Justice and the Gospel

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 9.21.33 PMThis summer a group of Christian leaders gathered in Dallas to discuss these matters. Those meetings resulted in a statement published this month. It has been signed by some well-known Christians like John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Tommy Nelson (a former college quarterback himself). Over 8700 other Christian leaders have signed the statement as well. It is my personal belief that what is written provides clarity in the foggy thought of so many athletes.

I highly encourage you to read The Statement on Social Justice and The Gospel at https://statementonsocialjustice.com. In the introduction to the statement the authors state, “We are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.””

What they refer to in our culture at large is happening in our sports culture. Athletes are influencers in society. That is without a doubt. The Lebron James’ of our world have an influential voice in culture and especially to young athletes.

This is one reason I strongly recommend that you thoughtfully and carefully read the statement. For the athlete who loves Jesus and understands that they are influential, this statement will guide them, offer discernment, and provide a way forward that is full of hope and kindness.

In fact, the clarity of this statement provides the only reasonable and rational solution for a sports culture wanting to make a positive contribution to society.

If you are a Christian, stay on mission. Keep your focus. The grace of God in the gospel is the only real hope for our world.

Two Personal Questions to Consider:

One: Who or what has been the most influential voice in your life that has shaped your convictions on these cultural issues?

Two: What beliefs have you had that must change in response to biblical truth?

 

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I did sign the statement.)

 

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