Sports

Champions of Justice

The notion that professional sports has anything to do with social justice and human rights would be seen as laughable by most members of the athletic community. Sports, we are told, are about escape, excitement, and a respite from the ills of the world. This is why Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but [people’s] failures.”

But there is a rich tradition of athletes who commit to a life of good works, as well as “jocks for justice” who use the platform of sports to speak out about human rights. The examples are as diverse as they are extensive. From civil rights advocate Paul Robeson to suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, access to sports was central to their struggles for liberation. As Robeson remembered of his days desegregating the Rutgers University football team, “When I was out on a football field or in a classroom or just anywhere else, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out.”

Or as Cady Stanton wrote in the women’s magazine The Lily, rejecting claims of a man’s “physical superiority”: “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping, climbing, swimming, playing hoop and ball.”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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A League of God's Own

Don McClanen has founded five major Christian ministries, including the 2-million-person Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the influential Ministry of Money. His life has been a circuitous path, from coaching basketball at a junior college to founding FCA, followed by initiating a ministry to inner-city youth in Washington, D.C.; starting a church-renewal ministry; creating Ministry of Money to help people follow Christ in their financial lives; becoming a spiritual guide for numerous groups of pilgrims to build relationship with people in poverty-stricken and war-torn communities in developing countries; ministering to the wealthy; and raising millions of dollars for projects to aid poor communities around the world.

When Don heard those calls, which most others might have considered implausible or even impossible, he responded with an emphatic “yes.” One of Don’s favorite sayings is from Alfred North Whitehead: “Without the high hope of adventure, religion degenerates into a mere appendage of a comfortable life.”

IN FEBRUARY 1946, the day Don was discharged from the Navy after serving on a submarine in World War II, a Navy lieutenant standing on a train platform asked him offhandedly, “What are you going to do now, sailor?”

Don replied, “Well, I’m probably going to go to college.”

The lieutenant said Don should consider Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State). The suggestion grabbed Don’s attention. He knew the university’s football team ranked third in the country, behind Army and Navy. And its basketball team, coached by the legendary Henry Iba, had just won its second straight national title.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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More Than A Game

During the 1960s, sports sociologist Harry Edwards helped found the Olympic Project for Human Rights which called for, among other things, a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest racism in sports and society. The boycott was called off, but athletes were still encouraged to protest. During their time on the medal stand, African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their arms in a black-power salute. Edwards, author of Revolt of the Black Athlete and Sociology of Sport, talked with Dave Zirin (www.edgeofsports.com) about the impact of that action, as well as what sports tells us about U.S. society.

Dave Zirin: I was surprised at the level of fanfare last year about the anniversary of the human rights protests at the 1968 Olympics. Why do you think it resonates so many decades later?

Harry Edwards: One, you had a group of young men—I was 24, I think John Carlos was 23, Tommie Smith was 24, Lee Evans was 21—and we determined that we could impact the course of events through American society, maybe throughout the world, through athletics, something that many people considered the toy department of human affairs, especially with the burgeoning civil rights movement going on, the anti-war movement, the student movement, and so forth.

The second part was that the impact of the movement culminating in a demonstration in Mexico City was part of a more general effort during that period that involved everybody from Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—you had a whole generation of people involved in what came to be known as the revolt of the black athlete. So it was an iconic, emblematic commemoration of an era, and I think Carlos and Smith epitomized the basic questions we raised at that time.

Are there takeaway lessons for activists and athletes today?

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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The Real Meaning of Sports

This issue of Sojourners focuses on sports, faith, and human rights. But I am going to write in a little more personal way, as a Little League Baseball coach.

I’ve coached my son Luke in baseball since he was 5 years old, and now he is 10. I just started coaching my other son, Jack, last season when he was 5. Coaching my kids and their friends has been one of the great experiences of my life. The community that gets created around sports and school becomes what my wife, Joy, calls “the village,” where everybody is looking out for each other. If I am “the coach,” Joy has become the “village priest” when necessary.

It’s that relationship with the kids and their families that has been so rich and sustaining. When I am coaching, I am in “the zone,” and nothing from the rest of my life interferes. I actually schedule my spring and fall travel now around baseball. This has become sacred, even contemplative, space for me, when I get totally focused on the kids and their game. Of course, this is Washington, D.C.—I’ve actually had reporters come up to me on the sidelines and say something like, “Aren’t you Jim Wallis? I’m the new White House correspondent for a national newspaper. Do you have a reaction to what happened yesterday?” I just stare back incredulously, “I’m coaching! Call me at the office tomorrow!”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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