Reggie White’s death recently — a retired professional athlete at the age of 43 — was shocking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly shocked at the collective amnesia of big media in rushing to proclaim how wonderful and influential he was while largely ignoring his troubling and widely-publicized comments in an address to the Wisconsin legislature in 1998. Ray Ratto, a terrific columnist who usually is right on the money, even went so far as to write a column on ESPN.com proclaiming the sincerity of White’s apology in the aftermath of his remarks.
Yesterday’s cover story on Salon — Rushing for Jesus — offers a more recent (and more balanced) look at Reggie White. It seems White truly was sincere in his apologies for the racial stereotyping he included in his speech, but he would not back off his homophobic comments. Considering he went on to speak to several other conservative religious groups and organizations with his bully pulpit of homophobia after his Wisconsin "apology" (and he appeared in a series of newspaper ads for an ex-gay campaign by the Center for Reclaiming America), it’s very difficult for me to believe White was anything but a homophobe.
White’s most recent comments about religion in sports (also in the Salon article) should be noted:
"… in many respects I’ve been prostituted. Most people who wanted me to speak at their churches only asked me to speak because I played football, not because I was this great religious guy or this theologian … I got caught up in some of that until I got older and I got sick of it."
The article, which draws from an NFL Network interview that aired mere days before his death plus comments from an as-yet-unaired interview of White by ESPN’s Andrea Kremer, shows a contemplative White openly questioning whether religion should be worn so openly on the sleeves of professional athletes.
Still, toward the last part of his life, White was doing something astonishing for a man who used to hate reading: He was learning Hebrew with the aim of studying the Old Testament in its original language. "I came to the realization," he said, "that if I’m going to find God, I’d better find him for myself."
White’s new direction was apparently not well received by all who knew him. He said some Christians found his study of Hebrew objectionable and his searching attitude heretical. Some ministers, he said, warned other Christians to stay away from him.
I think they would do well to emulate him. The retired Minister of Defense was on an admirable quest to "get it right," to wrest a deeper understanding of Christianity back from a culture of jock religion that too often trivializes faith in its zeal to promote it.
Amen to that. Religion is a good thing. It’s organized religion that I have problems with.