Sports and Slurs

Sports have often been used as a kind of educational tool. This is one reason people share a fanatical bond with their favorite sport. For many, a game, season, or team remains forever branded in their memory because of the lessons learned and experiences derived from it. Sports can instruct in discipline, work ethic, teamwork, and submission to authority.

Recently the NBA decided to use an ad to take on a controversial subject matter: the bullying of homosexuals. In the ad the NBA focused particularly on the use of “gay slurs” in sports and other activities. In so doing they have made a bold value statement that Christians should take note of.

The NBA ad comes in response to the rising number of news reports about professional athletes using gay slurs in a wide variety of situations. Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers made headlines when he decided to use profanity and gay slurs towards a referee after being called for a technical foul. He was punished to the tune of $100,000. The Atlanta Braves pitching coach, Roger McDowell, caused an upheaval when he used gay slurs and inappropriate gestures towards fans in San Francisco whom he said were heckling him. His actions were met with a two week suspension and an undisclosed fine from the MLB. More recently, James Harrison of the Pittsburg Steelers unloaded a flurry of attacks on fellow players, commentators, and most notably the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Harrison, interviewed by Men’s Journal, made statements against the commissioner that included gay slurs and the following statement: “If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it.” At present, Harrison has received no punishment, because technically speaking he doesn’t have a job with the NFL players being locked out.

These are only a small selection of stories, but it’s important to note that when these athletes and coaches found themselves in a heated moment on the field, court, or in an interview, their gut response triggered a gay slur. In general these slurs are meant to portray the term “gay” as a synonym for “stupid,” and consequently we have seen these situations blow up into major national news stories. These issues have provided a hotbed of controversy that merits a considerable amount of thought from Christians.

It is wrong and hurtful to use gay slurs as a way of demeaning another person. I do not have an issue with leagues and organizations taking a stance against the use of gay slurs. In fact, I would argue that Christians should strongly oppose the use of gay slurs as they cannot be defined as gracious towards others (Colossians 4:6). To my shame, I admit to having used gay slurs in off-handed jokes and demeaning statements. Reflecting on this I can only imagine how many have been hurt by the flippant statements I’ve made. What’s worse is how common this language often is in everyday life, particularly in the sporting world. The culture of men’s sports often produces a culture of masculinity where such language becomes commonplace as the “macho” thing to do. This was my world, and even as a Christian I was blind to the lack of grace in my speech.

Still, in limiting our focus to gay slurs we fail to realize the depths to which we can go in using demeaning and hurtful slurs. This is why I believe the response should be much broader. Why does the NBA et al. single out gay slurs as the ones to be addressed? Isn’t it the nature of any slur to demean its recipient? Is someone not being offensive when they use “retard” instead of “gay”? What about when a male athlete uses derogatory language directed at women?

It is not enough to simply address gay slurs. Rather, we should actively acknowledge that all such slurs are wrong. To single out one type of slur as being the ultimate wrong is incredibly disingenuous to those offended by a myriad of similar statements. Moreover, the topic goes far beyond sports in general. It can be quite common to see the news discussing the latest celebrity or politician’s verbal mishaps. Most heartbreaking of all, though, are Christians, churches, and pastors who take part in this type of rhetoric. When sports are poor instructors, Christians should stand as examples of those who speak so as to “impart grace to the hearer” (Eph. 4:29).

About Stewart Johnson