In a video recorded in April 2017 for The Increase, the public-facing arm of evangelical sports ministry Pro Athletes Outreach, veteran NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin discussed how professional football is “the greatest platform a person can have” and how he had used that platform to share his faith, serve others, and serve God. “The more I fell in love with Jesus,” Boldin explained, “the more I looked for opportunities to serve people.”
A few months after the video, in the wake of the racist violence at Charlottesville, Boldin announced that he was retiring from the NFL in order to devote himself full-time to the cause of social justice, particularly criminal justice reform. While he had not been kneeling alongside quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem, he had voiced support for the actions and the cause. In August, Boldin took to another evangelical sports ministry outlet, Sports Spectrum, to explain his decision to retire. He once again described football as a platform, and talked about the way his faith inspired him to engage in social activism. “I want to be able to tell him, Lord, I lived for you. I pursued your will as much as possible,” Boldin said, explaining that he believed God was calling him to “stand up for other people” and “fight for what’s right.” For Boldin that meant retiring from football in order to translate the protests launched by Kaepernick into societal change.
While many commenters attempting to explain the wave of athlete activism unleashed by Colin Kaepernick have rightly given due to the important examples set by Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and other black athlete-activists of the 1960s, Anquan Boldin’s story suggests that we should also consider the relationship between evangelical sports ministries and the Kaepernick-inspired protests. Sports ministries are strongly supported by white evangelicals, the very demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, and their most prominent members are sometimes depicted as a conservative foil to the progressive Kaepernick. And yet, a deeper look at these Christian sports ministries reveals that their membership rolls are full of black athletes who have moved to the forefront of the new era of athlete activism. The surprising overlap between these organizations and the recent NFL protests in terms of both strategy and personnel should prompt us to consider how faith is moving these athletes to action.
To understand the history of sports ministry organizations, we can begin with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), founded in 1954. Although numerous imitators have sprung up over the years, including Athletes in Action, Sports Spectrum, and Pro Athletes Outreach, FCA pioneered and developed nearly all of the methods used by its competitors. The logic for the FCA’s founding was remarkably similar to the logic behind the NFL protests. It was founded on the belief that the United States faced a serious crisis that was hindering its ability to live up to its fullest potential. Enter sports stars, who were uniquely positioned to influence their communities and fanbases. To help solve the national crisis, sports stars were urged to use their platform to speak out on the issue.
Today’s NFL protesters aim to highlight and address the problems of police brutality and systemic racism. The issue for the white men and the one black man who founded the FCA in 1954 was the lack of religious training for youth—a serious problem in the eyes of many Cold War-era Americans, who believed that religion provided innoculation against the appeal of godless communism. Because boys were deemed especially at risk, the supposedly masculine domain of sports seemed like a promising way to instill religious values in young men (the FCA did not launch a ministry for women until the 1970s). FCA founder Don McClanen explained in 1955 that the FCA was simply a group of athletes who were “genuinely concerned over the fact that more than 60 per cent of American youth today receives no formal religious training” and who hoped to “share their Christ-centered convictions with others at a time when Communistic teachings threaten our way of life.” A 1955 program guidebook for the FCA explained that its work would ultimately help to “[g]uard against communism, decrease juvenile delinquency in America, and improve morals, integrity, worthy ideals, [and] good sportsmanship.”
To carry out its goals, the FCA encouraged athletes not to “stick to sports” but rather to speak up about a potentially divisive topic—religion. FCA members frequently spoke at public schools and city-wide rallies and published their religious testimonies in newspapers, magazines, and promotional pamphlets. Eventually they extended their religious presence to the workday lives of professional athletes by encouraging and promoting on-field gestures of piety and making team prayers, Bible studies, and pre-game chapel services routine elements of professional sports. Long before Tebowing became an internet meme, FCA stalwarts from the 1960s and 1970s like Bill Glass, Fran Tarkenton, Norm Evans, and Roger Staubach made religion a conspicuous element of the male-dominated NFL world, both on the field and off.
Of course, when the FCA was founded—the very year in which “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and two years before “In God We Trust” was put on dollar bills—there was a veneer of consensus surrounding public displays of religion that made the FCA’s work seem like ordinary patriotism rather than controversial activism. Yet, even in the religion-friendly climate of its early years, the FCA faced criticism. Legendary television host Ed Sullivan blasted the new organization in 1955 for excluding Jews, warning that the FCA might unwittingly “step up a lot of unhealthy prejudices that the country has been trying to subdue for too many years.” Public school administrators in the Northeast and Northwest shared Sullivan’s concerns; they frequently barred the FCA from presenting its religious message, leaving the organization to focus most of its attention on public schools in the South and Midwest.
The organization’s leadership and support base were mostly white, mostly Protestant, though the FCA attempted to project a more diverse image by including Catholics and African Americans on its advisory board and its roster of athlete spokespersons. The FCA’s interracial policies, strongly shaped by its anti-communism—”You get out and call everybody in this world brother,” one FCA leader urged in 1961, “or somebody’s gonna get there ahead of you and call every man comrade”—were relatively progressive in the context of the 1950s and early 1960s. Prominent African American athletes like Dan Towler, Rafer Johnson, and Prentice Gautt frequently spoke at FCA events, and the FCA refused to hold summer conferences in the South until it could ensure that the conference sites would be integrated.
Then the 1960s happened. By the time the Black Power movement emerged and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico City in 1968, the FCA’s policy of mere inclusion no longer seemed progressive. Black athletes may have been involved with the FCA, but the organization remained dominated by white Protestants from middle America. FCA leaders responded to the tumult of the late 1960s—and its calls to dismantle structural racism—by taking the side of the “silent majority,” supporting a flag-waving, law-and-order, supposedly colorblind message that tended to center the perspective and concerns of white Americans. As new sports ministry organizations emerged in the 1970s, they mirrored the FCA’s cultural conservatism.
Yet in the time since, the demographic profile of professional sports, especially professional football, changed. In 1970, African Americans comprised about 30 percent of NFL rosters; today they make up approximately 70 percent of the league. As more and more black players entered big-time college and professional sports and became household names, sports ministry organizations became more racially diverse. And as more black Christian athletes became involved with sports ministry organizations, they brought with them a cultural awareness of the insidious effects of entrenched racism and a moral impulse to fight it that the white-dominated FCA of the 1960s lacked. The result is that many NFL players at the forefront of Kaepernick’s movement to protest and confront police brutality and racism have been or are currently involved in some way with sports ministry organizations.
Kaepernick himself was an FCA member when he played college football for the University of Nevada and he has been an outspoken Christian in the NFL. While it does not appear that Kaepernick has directly linked his national anthem kneeling to his faith, a number of commenters have made the connection, citing comments Kaepernick has made in the past about his religious beliefs and trying to “glorify the Lord with what I do on the field.”
The first NFL player to join Kaepernick’s protest, Eric Reid, also has a history of involvement in sports ministry organizations. While a senior at Louisiana State University, Reid took to an Athletes in Action publication to discuss placing his “faith and trust in Jesus Christ” and to describe his “journey in Christ.” Reid has continued to publicize his faith as an NFL player. His Twitter bio quotes Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” And in a recent essay for The New York Times, Reid credited scripture for inspiring him to join Kaepernick in his movement for social justice. He wrote that “my faith moved me to take action.” He went on, “I looked to James 2:17, which states, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”
Malcolm Jenkins—whose Twitter bio reads “Loving the world b/c Jesus 1st loved me” and who has been involved with Pro Athletes Outreach—was also an early supporter of Kaepernick’s movement. In the second week of the 2016 season, Jenkins began raising his fist during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. Since then, he has continued his protest during the anthem while also taking a leading role as a spokesperson and organizer for criminal justice reform. Indeed, Jenkins worked with Boldin to form the “Players Coalition,” a group of NFL players seeking to explain the meaning behind the NFL players’ protests while working for specific legislative changes.
The actions of Kaepernick, Reid, Jenkins, and Boldin follow the logic of the sports ministry organizations with which all four have been involved: using the platform of sports to bring attention to an off-field problem and to mobilize athletes in hopes of changing America for the better. But they also reflect a black American consciousness represented by the pioneering black athlete activists of the 1960s. By using or supporting a mode of demonstration appropriate to their area of concern (dropping to a knee after a touchdown would hardly cut it), the NFL’s pious protesters—and black Christian athletes from other sports, like superstar basketball players Maya Moore and Stephen Curry—have centered the issue of systemic racial injustice and drawn America’s attention.
Their protests have also made many white Americans uncomfortable and angry. White Christians interested in sports should probably be prepared to squirm. Since sports ministry organizations are built on the prestige of elite athletes, and since most of the nation’s elite athletes are black, sports ministries cannot follow the “law and order” path of the FCA in the late 1960s. While sports ministry leaders may not champion Kaepernick’s movement, they will need to be able to at least understand the concerns and issues animating this new era of black athlete activism—an era led in part by athletes who are or have been involved with sports ministry organizations.
When FCA founder Don McClanen was asked about his organization in the 1950s, he often responded: “If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades, and cigarettes, surely they can endorse the Lord.”
Today’s black athlete activists might suggest something similar. “If athletes can endorse the Lord,” they might say, “surely they can endorse criminal justice reform and racial equality.” Or perhaps they might put a finer edge to it. Perhaps they might suggest that by endorsing criminal justice reform and racial equality, they are already doing the work of the Lord.
Paul Putz is a doctoral student in history at Baylor University. He is completing a dissertation on the blending of sports and Christianity in the twentieth-century United States.