by James Varney
When the University of Oklahoma softball team showed up for the College World Series last week, reporters expected to hear pride and camaraderie from a squad on the way to winning its third consecutive national championship.
But several star Sooners players startled the press and went viral online by declaring that their joy in Christianity trumped their considerable athletic accomplishments.
“The only way that you can have a joy that doesn’t fade away is from the Lord,” team captain Grace Lyons said. “Any other type of joy is actually happiness that comes from circumstances and outcomes. Joy from the Lord is really the only thing that can keep you motivated and in a good mindset, no matter the outcomes.”
The comments of Lyons and her teammates, reflecting religiosity common among many athletes, suggest that media-amplified culture-war flareups in sports – epitomized last week by the Los Angeles Dodgers honoring drag-queen nun impersonators – may overlook a story of abiding faith hiding in plain sight. It’s one in which taking a knee is not necessarily a form of racial protest — and its quiet power could complicate progressive agendas for national pastimes that serve as bellwethers of social change or, conversely, enduring tradition.
Last week it became clearer what social justice advocates are up against in sport. Thousands protested outside Dodger Stadium over Friday’s pregame event feting the Catholic-mocking Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose male performers take stage names like Sister Vicious, Power Hungry Bitch and Sister Barbi Mitzvah. The group calls its schtick “irreverent wit.” The Dodgers called the Sisters “community heroes.” But the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, who presides over numerically the single largest and most ethnically diverse archdiocese in the United States, condemned the event as “blasphemy.”
That controversy arose as Major League Baseball apparently is tempering its identification with woke causes; brands such as Target and Bud Light are reeling from consumer backlashes against their pro-transgender gestures; and Gallup polling suggests large majorities of Americans think trans athletes should not be allowed to compete on sports teams that do not correspond with their birth sex.
In this atmosphere, conservative religious conviction in sport seems a sleeping giant.
For generations, gestures like the sign of the cross have been common among the unshakable habits and rituals for which athletes are famous, from superstars out of the Dominican Republic to Italian-American Rocky Colavito from the Bronx.
Such expressions by athletes today, however, do not always align with messages sent by their image-minded corporate masters.
The National Hockey League faced a kerfuffle last season when some players declined to skate in the “pride”-themed rainbow jerseys the league wanted them to wear. And, more recently, two professional baseball pitchers have found themselves out of Major League jobs for expressing their Christian belief that God frowns on homosexuality.
The Dodgers furor played out over more than a week and saw the team’s ace pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, object to the Sisters performance, which became part of the “Pride Night” the franchise has had for a decade. Kershaw was not alone, as relief pitcher Blake Treinen also spoke against the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, saying the group “openly mocks Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of my faith.”
In an initial conservative response to the backlash, the Dodgers canceled the slated performance by the California-based gay performance troupe. But the franchise backtracked again after left-wing activists objected, and it was then the team added an apology and the “community heroes” label.
Trying to appease both sides, the Dodgers said they would once again host a “Christian Faith and Family Day” on June 30, an event the team last held in 2019. While Kershaw applauded the decision, at no point did the Dodgers apologize to Christian protesters, and Brian Burch, president of the national Catholic advocacy group CatholicVote, issued a statement saying, “It’s hard to interpret this announcement as anything other than a public-relations stunt intended to blunt the widespread national backlash that is only growing stronger.”
He added that “creating a ‘faith and family’ event does not balance the decision to honor a perverted, fake ‘nun’ group that exists to mock the Catholic religion. In many ways, it emphasizes the contrast, and makes our case even stronger.”
Although neither Dodgers pitcher speaking out against their team’s decision was penalized, others have not experienced similar forbearance. After he was called up from the minors, Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Dermody stirred controversy because of a Tweet he’d sent in 2021 while playing in Japan, which read: “#PrideMonth. Homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God. They will go to hell. That is not my opinion, but the #Truth. Read 1 Corinthians 6:9. May we all examine our hearts, ask Jesus to forgive us, and repent for our sins. I love you all in Christ Jesus!”
The Red Sox are reportedly re-evaluating his future with the team.
After Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Bass sent out a since-deleted video on Instagram supporting the large, ongoing boycotts of Bud Light and Target stores because of their support of transgender causes, he apologized the next day for making “a post that was hurtful to the Pride community.” His manager, John Schneider, said that was only a first step in his rehabilitation. “It’s not going to be a 15- or 30-second apology and say, ‘OK, I did my part,’” Schneider told reporters. “There’s going to be continued work with the resources we do have to try to show that he’s understanding that he made a mistake.”
But a week later, Bass backtracked, saying, “I stand by my personal beliefs and everyone’s entitled to their personal beliefs,” The pitcher, who made his major league debut in 2008 and who had appeared in 22 games this year, was removed from the club’s roster on June 9, with Schneider acknowledging that apparently Bass’s re-education was insufficient and that the player’s expressed beliefs played a role in his release.
None of these public declarations of faith by players are new wrinkles in the athletic world. In his 2009 book, “Onward Christian Athletes,” Tom Krattenmaker observed groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Athletes in Action had spent years nurturing their proselytizing networks among coaches, players and schools.
Krattenmaker said he is not sure how active those groups are today. Neither the Fellowship nor Athletes in Action responded to RealClearInvestigations’ requests for comment.
But Krattenmaker said he is not surprised by clashes between jocks embracing Jesus and organizations chasing rainbows.
“There can be incredible tension between what teams want to do and some parts of their fan base,” Krattenmaker said. “The team may want to respond to a fan base it sees as growing more progressive, but it also doesn’t want to appear to be silencing religion. And that tension can manifest itself in different ways. It’s almost as if the team can’t win.”
Not every sport has found itself a battleground in the intense culture wars stirring the country. The NBA and WNBA of pro basketball have made their political alignment clear, with players and teams embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. (One ripple: the NBA punishing an executive who had the temerity to criticize Communist China.)
What seems clear is sports may never eliminate some religious athletes’ transcendent focus, as the Oklahoma softball team showed. In an interview, Oklahoma third baseman Alyssa Brito said that when Sooners look heavenward while crossing home plate, “we are really fixing our eyes on Christ.”
“If you don’t have a purpose to try to bring so many people to Jesus then it really doesn’t matter if you’re an All-American,” Brito added.
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James Varney is a writer for RealClearInvestigations.
Photo “Major League Baseball” by Jose Francisco Morales.