The Hidden Story of Christians and Racial Justice in U.S. Sports | Sojourners

The Hidden Story of Christians and Racial Justice in U.S. Sports

Athletes, at risk to their lives and livelihood, have often been social prophets.
The illustration shows five Black athletes in history, designed in a blocky/collage style and surrounded in a colorful thick outline.
From left, quarterback Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard; Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos; Sprinter Allyson Felix; NBA great LeBron James. / Illustrations by Tyler Upchurch

EVEN SIX YEARS later, it reverberates as one of the most striking segments on cable television in recent memory. Near the conclusion of her show on Feb. 15, 2018, Fox television personality Laura Ingraham chose to upbraid NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant for their political commentary. She framed her comments as a “jumb dock alert” about the athletes’ “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical” observations on how then-President Donald Trump was fanning the flames of racism.

“Must they run their mouths like that?” Ingraham asked rhetorically. “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” Protesting that “millions” voted for Trump to be “their coach,” she continued, “so keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone said, ‘Shut up and dribble.’”

The segment was remarkable for many reasons, not least because Ingraham later praised NFL quarterback Drew Brees for stating that he “will never agree with anyone disrespecting” the United States flag, a reference to Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Ingraham’s full-throated defense of Brees in the face of criticism? “He’s allowed to have his view about what kneeling and the flag means to him,” she declared. “He’s a person.”

The obvious inference is that neither LeBron James nor Kevin Durant is a person. And when we pause to remind ourselves that Brees is white and James and Durant are African Americans, we plunge once again into the cauldron of sports, race, society, and politics.

Aside from the inherently racist nature of Ingraham’s remarks — she later denied any such intent — the segment is remarkable for the simple fact that a television personality who typically traffics in conspiracy theories and ideological rants devoted an entire segment to sports figures. That attention speaks to the cultural capital of athletes in our society, some of whom have assumed the role that religious figures once played in American life, that of moral conscience.

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