Symbolism often plays a major role in tense clashes between people with competing religious beliefs (or secular beliefs, for that matter).
You could see evidence of this fact during and after the recent kerfuffle about a small group of Tampa Bay Rays players who declined to wear special rainbow-logo uniforms during the team’s recent celebration of Pride Month. The media coverage of this clash was the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in), in part because the stories raised more questions than they answered.
I’ll get to some of those questions, but first let’s look at the Washington Post coverage. Note that this means the Rays conflict was a national story, since the Post doesn’t cover mere regional stories and disputes (see this classic M.Z. Hemingway post about the newspaper’s MIA stance on covering the trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell).
The headline on this sports-desk story: “Rays players make ‘faith-based decision’ to shun Pride Night logos.” Yes, it’s important to note that there are doubts about the nature of this “faith-based” angle. Let’s look at some important passages in this:
A member of the Tampa Bay Rays said he and several teammates made a “faith-based decision” to not wear rainbow-colored logos on their uniforms during a “Pride Night” home game Saturday that recognized the LGBTQ community.
Most Rays players, per accounts from the game, wore the special uniform designs that had a rainbow pattern over the “TB” on their caps and over a sunburst logo on their right sleeves. The team, which has staged Pride Night for several seasons but had not previously included uniform changes, reportedly gave players the option to display the logos or go with the usual look.
The crucial fact there is that team management decided to allow players some degree of free-will in this case. Hold that thought.
Apparently, team management asked pitcher Jason Adam to make a statement on why he, and four others, elected to wear their usual jerseys for this symbolic event. Thus, he said:
“A lot of it comes down to faith, to like a faith-based decision,” said Adam, a 30-year-old in his fifth major league season. “So it’s a hard decision. Because ultimately we all said what we want is them to know that all are welcome and loved here. But when we put it on our bodies, I think a lot of guys decided that it’s just a lifestyle that maybe — not that they look down on anybody or think differently — it’s just that maybe we don’t want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who’s encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behavior, just like [Jesus] encourages me as a heterosexual male to abstain from sex outside of the confines of marriage. It’s no different.
“It’s not judgmental. It’s not looking down,” Adam continued. “It’s just what we believe the lifestyle he’s encouraged us to live, for our good, not to withhold. But again, we love these men and women, we care about them, and we want them to feel safe and welcome here.”
It’s possible that his “put it on our bodies” language could be a reference to the team’s Pride Month slogan for this event: “Today, we wear our #Pride on our sleeves.”
In other words, team management defined the content of this symbolic act. Then management gave players the option to opt in or opt out. This is the heart of the story.
As you would imagine, there were reactions from voices on the other side of this debate.
Consider this follow-up at Fox News: “Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty blasts Rays players who opted out of wearing Pride logo.” There wasn’t much content there, with Flaherty tweeting that this decision by a few Rays players was an “Absolute joke.”
The always outspoken broadcaster Keith Olbermann — best known for his @ESPN work, but now a @YouTube political commentator — decided to make this a theological debate: “Show me where Jesus said this, @Jason_Adam9 of the Rays. You can’t, because he didn’t. And tell me how you square not ‘encouraging’ heredity, with making the people you’re shaming feel ‘safe.’ You can’t. Maybe you should read the Bible once or twice.”
This made me wonder about the current status of same-sex orientation and science. Is this a matter of DNA, at this point? I thought this had crossed over into the LGBTQ world of mental and emotional gender identity. Olbermann’s comment is interesting on several levels.
You can see that in the follow-up comments by another Rays player, as reported by Fox News: “Rays’ Nick Anderson explains ‘differing beliefs’ after several teammates forgo ‘Pride Night’ logo.”
… Tampa Bay reliever Nick Anderson posted a message of support for his teammates on social media, saying that everyone is able to have “different beliefs.”
“It’s astonishing to me how people don’t understand that different beliefs exist,” Anderson posted to Twitter. “And because you have different beliefs, in no way, shape, or form does that mean you look down on that individual or think they are lesser. You can love everyone and have differing beliefs.”
“When I say differing beliefs, I’m talking about the people who believe everyone would wear something and if you don’t, you should burn and are a terrible person or whatever name you want to call them,” Anderson said in a statement. “I also was saying that just because you don’t wear maybe a said ‘patch’ doesn’t mean you think those people should burn and are terrible people.”
“I never once said I thought gay people weren’t born gay,” Anderson continued. “Or that homophobia was right.”
Like I said, all of this raised plenty of questions questions for me — pointing to news hooks for journalists in other zip codes. Let me list a few from the podcast:
* Do we know anything about the “faith” identities of these Rays players? Are they evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostal believers? Were there believers who wore the Pride logos and, if so, what did they have to say about their actions?
* Professional sports leagues often have picky, picky rules — linked to endorsements, as well as personal beliefs — about what players can or cannot do with variations in clothing, shoes, etc. What is the status of MLB legal thought, these days, on uniforms for Pride Month or similar team statements backing social, political, economic or religious causes?
* Has Rays management made any comments about why they allowed players to make their own decisions about participating? Was this decision, in any way, linked to recent Florida warfare between Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis?
* What would have happened — legally — if the Rays owners had opted to REQUIRE their employees-players to wear the official uniform for Pride Night? Does the Major League Baseball Players Association take a stance on that issue? This is a story for journalists in other MLB zip codes, in light of the growing number of teams choosing to increase their participation in Pride Month activities (see this Outports.com guide to 2022 Pride commitments).
* Are there uniform changes for other special cultural/religious promo events in pro sports? I know that many teams — at all league levels — do “faith” or even “church” nights. Have there been recent controversies about these?
This is an old New York Times story, but it hints at the questions that could be raised here: “Sports and Salvation on Faith Night at the Stadium.” For example, note this minor-league event:
It has long been noted that in certain parts of the United States, a fine line separates sports from religion. But at a minor league indoor football game last month in Birmingham, Ala., fans may have witnessed as transparent an attempt to merge football and church as had ever been tried.
Before kickoff, a Christian band called Audio Adrenaline entertained the crowd. Promoters gave away thousands of Bibles and bobblehead dolls depicting biblical characters like Daniel, Noah and Moses. And when the home team, the Birmingham Steeldogs, took the field, they wore specially made jerseys with the book and number of bible verses printed on the back.
Donnie Rhodes, a children’s minister at Gardendale’s First Baptist Church near Birmingham, took 47 sixth graders to the game by bus and said it was the perfect outing. “It was affordable, safe and spiritual,” he said. “And the kids just thought it was the coolest thing.”
Mr. Rhodes and his students were at the latest in ballpark promotions: Faith Nights, a spiritual twist on Frisbee Nights and Bat Days. While religious-themed sports promotions were once largely a Bible Belt phenomenon that entailed little more than ticket discounts for church and synagogue groups, Faith Nights feature bands, giveaways and revival-style testimonials from players. They have migrated from the Deep South to northern stadiums from Spokane, Wash., to Bridgewater, N.J.
Whoa. Bible verses on jerseys? Is anyone doing that at the top levels of U.S. sports?
Yes, I have so many questions. I also see the potential for more coverage. Oh, here is the official @ESPN guide to Pride Night plans.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from WFLA.com report on the Rays controversy (seen at the top of this post).
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