Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 14, 2012

Tebow, Lin, Big Z & A.C.: On Faith & Race in Pro Sports

First, the article/link that sparked my blog post below, from the CNN Belief Blog:

My Take: Linsanity vs. Tebowmania, key similarities and differences
[article by Stephen Prothero, highlights as follows] “Lin differs from Tebow in his approach to the Christian faith, which is more subtle Asian American than in-your-face Sunbelt evangelical. Lin does headline his Twitter account with ‘to know Him is to want to know Him more.’ But the ‘Taiwanese Tebow’ doesn’t ‘Tebow’ after a game. His evangelism is decidedly low key….”

Tim Tebow throwing warm up throws

Image via Wikipedia

Time to post-up! Oops, I mean, to post. (B-ball on the brain…)

The link above is to an interesting article for discussion, especially for all you youth group leaders, men’s ministry specialists, and anyone who still needs convincing that race is relevant when discussing “crossover appeal” and faith. Of course, crossover means one thing in music and marketing, but something completely different in basketball (where it’s a dribbling skill exhibited by the NY Knicks’ Jeremy Lin quite effectively), and “crossing over” has “grave” implications in religion… at least for Christians. [Sorry, I’m a sucker for a bad pun.]

Speaking of crossover, my friend Steve James (co-director of Hoop Dreams, which I worked on a bit and which was named #1 documentary ever in a recent Current TV expert poll and survey series) also made “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”, another basketball-related documentary, a few years back for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. It’s about a brawl involving a teenaged Allen Iverson, and race relations in Virginia . So I come by my confluence of sports and racial reconciliation issues somewhat naturally, having also taught P.E. at a very multicultural Christian school, while attending a fairly integrated urban Mennonite church.

Though I haven’t seen No Crossover yet, I bring it up now because Steve’s most recent film, The Interrupters, is screening on Frontline this week, on PBS. In Chicago, it will run at 8pm on Tues. Feb. 14 (WTTW, Ch. 11). This one I have seen, and I highly recommend it to anyone concerned about urban violence, policing and/or peacemaking.

But to get back to sports, race and matters of faith…

I blogged a long time ago about Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs [here, on sportsmanship, and here, with some idiotic “predictions”]. Back then, I touched upon the mixed blessing it was to have a “hot” –in more ways than one– Latino Christian in a prominent position on a major market team. Carlos has left Chicago now to join his fellow Venezuelan lightning rod (and fellow colorful loudmouth) Ozzie Guillen, in Miami. But here in Chicago, the question of whether Big Z’s outspoken faith and witnessing attempts were undermined by his consistently immature and melodramatic behavior still remains. (To which I say yes, it was undermined, in case my position is not clear… I think he and those like him give “church people” a bad name.)

Terry and Dan, trapped in a Jello mold

As for Tebow: my favorite Chicago radio personalities, The Score’s Boers and Bernstein (yeah, those idiots), spent much of this past fall fielding listener calls and spouting opinions about Tebowmania. I was in the car a lot for work, so I heard the Tebow buzz from numerous angles.

Terry Boers, a Catholic (I think, …it would be unfair to assume anything further), can’t stand Tebow. Not for his evangelistic tendencies, but for being the simpleton poster child of all those who think “divine intervention” was why Denver kept winning (as if God cares who wins NFL games).  Oh wait… Terry also hated him for being a bad quarterback, which he pretty much is, by the numbers. But these twin demons (blind faith and “blindness” to faults) are related. Terry felt Tebow was an intentional catalyst of undue cultural and religious fervor, fostering a movement of  “football stupid” people — even among people who are fairly reasonable in most other areas of their life, or who were formerly football smart.

Meanwhile, I tended more toward Terry’s partner Dan Bernstein‘s calmer position (and even moreso toward the nuanced opinion of their producer, a younger African-American named Jason Goff, who I think has more experience with Protestant evangelicals). Bernstein’s position: Tebow’s a genuine, fairly basic guy, who responds to much of life like he’s about twelve years old.

The often acerbic, occasionally downright mean Bernstein (but we forgive him, since he’s funny as hell) compared Tebow somewhat kindly to Buddy the Elf. Whether Dan made that connection himself or borrowed it from a listener, I don’t know. He didn’t accuse Tim of being disingenuous, just dimwitted. And also bad at football. (Crochety old Terry would have EATEN Dan if he’d said otherwise, … by crackkey!)

Some of the more enlightened radio callers and emailers (including some of a religious stripe) admitted to Tebow’s limited athletic skills without stooping to mocking. A few even copped to his popularity being fed by his being white, plus not being a product of any sophisticated (i.e. coastal, or northeastern) brand of belief or lifestyle. He’s a true “red state” icon.

But usually, the Score radio hosts couldn’t help it, eventually returning to the mocking tone they’ve perfected over many years. They would eventually go lowbrow, or get sidetracked by subjects like Tebow’s virginity claim, or by a lamebrained caller, and the chance for good dialogue would be compromised. But I have a sense of humor, so I can take the heat of aggravation when someone misrepresents or dodges the point now and then, even in matters of faith which I care a whole lot about.

As Tebow backed into the playoffs, Bernstein mostly kept it balanced, to his credit. He made good sense when he said things like “Black Christian athletes simply never get this much attention, whether or not they’re doing the whole “…thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” human billboard thing, or grandstanding at every opportunity.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

A.C. Green, formerly of the L.A. Lakers

And he’s right. Bernstein reminded me, for example, of former NBA baller A.C. Green, an equally outspoken Christian as famous for his character and sexual abstinence position (and for a school health/abstinence curriculum, which I once did a workshop on) as for his basketball triumphs. And I agree: there’s a tempting double standard when it comes to faith and race.

African Americans are allowed to play the Jesus card, and most people are either quietly okay with it or dismiss it as part of the black subculture, and thus not relevant to them if they’re not black (even if they ARE Christian). Yet they are not typically “inspired” by the black evangelists –not to the extent that way too many people got overheated with regard to Tebow. It’s as much opportunism and bandwagon thinking as it is genuine faith and inspiration, if you ask me.

And we’ve seen it before: former Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser springs to mind… an earlier white Christian “hero” who was a good player, but was seemingly elevated beyond equally inspiring Christian Latinos, Asians or blacks because he looked more like the majority of attendees at the typical suburban megachurch.

Jeremy Lin, Harvard grad and current Knick, but we won't hold that against him.

In fact, turning now toward the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, I really have to stretch to think of other past high-profile Asian Christian athletes. I vaguely recall tennis star Michael Chang being an evangelical — not shy in his Jesus talk but not broadcasting it either. But I may be wrong.

Checking…. checking… nope, I’m right. Here’s a youtube clip of him from 2006 giving his testimony at Saddleback Church in California (home of Rick “Purpose-Driven” Warren, Chang’s home church, and a church that’s probably the current king-of-the-hill among evangelical megachurches):


So there’s Mike. But now I’m out of Asians. Anyone else I’m forgetting? Any Indians? And is recovering sex addict Thai -ger Woods ever going to find Jesus?

See what I mean? It’s all part of that evangelical filtering process, a habit I’ve picked up by being around others who do it even more habitually, even unconsciously. Which explains why Jeremy Lin is getting to be a very big deal. It remains to be seen if Lin’s basketball contributions will outpace his cultural and religious significance. But I highly doubt that they could.

It’s just “high ground” territory that’s too tempting to ignore for white American middle-class Christians (of which I am one as well, I admit). We are steadily coached in conformity and trained to look out for our “next big thing” –someone to justify our existence and consumption habits and power. For us (them?), Jeremy Lin is a natural –their new poster-child, not only for faith and character, but also for inclusion. Lin will likely be held up by some as further “proof ” that Christian conservatives are not at all prone to racism.

Yet I’m here to say I’ve seen otherwise, in a wide range of churches and denominations. I’m probably even a racist myself, though I aspire to be less of one, in my maturation as a follower of Jesus (a Jew, by the way, plus a teacher of Samaritans and a healer of Romans, if you’re keeping score… though I hear Jesus’ outside jump shot was overrated, and he refused to pass… not a sin, just the classic sign of an undersized twelfth round draft pick).

Another curious example occurs to me: the white liberal Fr. Michael Pfleger’s Hillary-mocking “I’m white, I’m entitled!” (delivered from the pulpit of Obama’s former church) became a molotov cocktail that political conservatives eventually threw  in 2008 as evidence of Obama and his supporters not really being Christian (or else being reverse-racists). It didn’t work, politically. Nevertheless, the Obama presidency has opened a new chapter in the nation’s dialogue about race and religion, and has changed our rules of engagement when conducting that dialogue.

But President “Barry” is also bi-racial, and a big-time basketball player, who highly publicized that nice new White house court. So it stands to reason that pro sports, one of our main cultural products and one with big export potential, will have to be included in these debates about values and policy in new ways for years to come.

Oh, but what about those who don’t put Obama’s demonstrated faith on the same playing field as that of Tebow or Lin? (And that’s before we even mention those who ridiculously accused him of being a “secret Muslim”.) It seems that hard evidence — whether in sports statistics or in politics — can do little to soften the hearts of those whose minds are made up (or easily swayed) about who their “enemy” is… usually an enemy as determined by matters of the wallet, not matters of the heart or of genuine justice. They prefer their poster boys to the Big Picture, and no amount of facts or statistics will sway them.

I guess I’ll just have to love my enemies and pray for them — be they Bronco fans or Knicks fans, loudmouth Marlin pitchers who throw temper tantrums, or over-the-top Christians who make us reasonable ones look bad by association.



  1. MT perennial fave Stephen Colbert, unbeknownst to me, ran a story on Jeremy Lin on 2/13/12. Great, as usual. Here’s the link:$.B73FJaFP/video

    or if that doesn’t work:

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