“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” ~Desmond Tutu
I couldn’t sleep two nights ago.
Before turning out the lights, after a long day, I opened up espn.com to check the box scores for my beloved Yankees. They lost another heartbreaker, 2-1.
At the bottom of the webpage a headline grabbed my attention: “Ed Cunningham says he left ESPN/ABC role when he could no longer be a ‘cheerleader’ for dangers of football.”
Ed Cunningham was at the pinnacle of the sports broadcasting world, covering football extensively throughout his career, reaching what many would call a “dream job” (or maybe just the “American Dream” job). But over time, as he has witnessed the incredible physical toll football started taking on its players — especially in terms of significant brain injuries — he could no longer stand by idly on the sidelines as a “cheerleader” any longer.
He felt he needed to take action.
Growing up a mere 10 miles outside New York City, it was almost impossible for me not to become an avid sports fan.
In the winter, I would head indoors and watch the New York Rangers play hockey at the often proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden. Throughout the spring and summer, I would sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” with the “Bleacher Creatures” at Yankee Stadium during the seventh inning stretch of countless games. During the fall, along with 70,000 fans, I would dress in many layers as “The New York Football Giants,” as ESPN anchor Chris Berman likes to call them, would pack out Giants Stadium. I’d scream loudly along with the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans watching at home on TV in the warmth of their living rooms and in sports bars across the metropolitan area.
But no more.
After my restless night of sleep, we met as a staff for our nonprofit ministry, Someone To Tell It To. I confessed to the team that I was deeply challenged by the article I had read the previous night. But I wasn’t sure I could simply go “cold turkey” on my beloved Giants, especially after the jubilant Super Bowl victories and gut-wrenching playoff defeats we have been through together. In fact, I’ve hardly missed a game in over 20 years as a fan.
I was not certain what to do; I felt a bit like Abraham ready to give up his son, yet deeply torn inside.
Around the end of last year’s football season, while reading Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s book, Jesus For President, with a men’s group from my church, I started to feel the tension between being a follower of Jesus and my sports-fanatic tendencies.
I love Jesus. But I also love watching New York sports.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, it reads: “Calling the crowd to join his disciples, (Jesus) said, ‘Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.’” (Mark 8:34)
Here is the tension:
Jesus was never — ever — about oppressing people, marginalizing them, taking advantage of them for his own benefit. He always put the needs of others ahead of his own needs, even if that meant having to give up the things he probably could have loved deeply — such as New York sports teams, as I would like to imagine. He couldn’t sit as a cheerleader on the sidelines, cheering wildly as others were being taken advantage of, especially for others’ personal and financial gain.
As a Christian, I also feel compelled to speak out because Jesus’ message was unequivocally against intolerance and discrimination — and for inclusion, equality, and justice for all. As racial tensions have become even more acutely palpable in the last several months, we have been reminded that these deep-seated issues have been present for centuries.
It particularly bothered me in the wake of Charlottesville’s violence how people have responded (or not responded). As a white Caucasian male and a person of faith with strong convictions, my heart breaks when I see the obvious pain some African-American players are feeling about the way these indignities have been brought into the forefront. I respect those who engage in peaceful demonstrations of conscience to call attention to the need for change.
I believe God’s love calls us all to live and treat one another with respect, dignity, and fairness. I want to be a disciple, but I LOVE NEW YORK SPORTS. (Did I say that already?) I also want to be someone who puts the needs of others ahead of my own advantage, as Jesus did.
Professional football has become a multibillion-dollar business, or in Claiborne and Haw’s words, it has become a mark of “Empire,” with misplaced patriotism, racism, domestic violence, self-indulgence, maltreatments, among others.
It’s important to note: I don’t believe there is anything wrong with sports, in general. Not only am I a huge sports fan, but I’m also a former athlete. Competitive sports are fun, along with so many other pursuits such as fly-fishing, running, and biking, which I love. But I’m also a dad who wants to model for his own children God’s love for me and for them and others.
So Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall and all the other New York Giants, I’m hanging up my jersey because I am “cheering” for you as Jesus did. Jesus cares about you as he cares about all of his beloved brothers and sisters. He wants the best for you as he wants the best for each one of us. I don’t believe Jesus wants you to become needlessly hurt, to be exploited by others.
It might mean that more football jerseys need to be retired.
The way I understand it, Jesus never stood on the sideline when he understood others were being oppressed. I feel as if the National Football League has stood on the sidelines while players are being subjugated.
But there are so many other issues on which too many of us stand on the sidelines, ignoring how our food is grown, produced, and harvested; how our clothing is manufactured; or how our drive toward economic strength affects the environment.
Jesus is always calling us to “follow him” — his lead — to leave those things, even good things sometimes, that result in harm of others and God’s creation.
It is significant that Jesus called his followers to something more, especially in light of the gladiatorial games that were all too common in the first century, as the Roman Empire was all about ill-treatment — “eating, drinking and being merry” (for individuals were literally dying) — treating the vast majority of its people as less than.
Jesus never wanted anything good that God has created to be uncared for, used, and manipulated.
While I am moved to get off the sidelines today to speak out about the corruption in football, I am repeatedly tackled to identify every other area of depravity in which I need to step out of the sidelines and into the arena to proclaim a better way. I ask myself what other “jerseys” do I need to hang up for the benefit of those who are injured and sidelined?
I ask the same of you, too.