Minister of Defense drew cheers and jeers

Reggie_1 Many of the mainstream obits today for the Rev. Reggie White contain a photograph taken at one of the high points of his Hall of Fame career. In the photo — which I wish we had the rights to show you — White is kneeling near mid-field moments after his team has won the Super Bowl and the man they called the Minister of Defense appears to be preaching a mini-sermon before he leads a circle of players in prayer.

The caption for this photo in the dead-tree-pulp edition of USA Today says, "Moving figure: Reggie White (92) huddles the Packers in a prayer service after their Super Bowl XXXI win against the Patriots in 1997."

Close, but this caption misses one of the major themes in White’s career. In the photo, his tree-limb-sized arms are embracing several players — from the Patriots. This is one of those post-game prayer meetings for Christians from both teams. There are Packers next to Patriots and it is very clear who is the leader of these men from both teams. Viewers have never seen one of these post-game prayer and fellowship rites, because officials at Fox, CBS and ABC have always declined to show them. But they happen and White was one of the people who started them, reminding everyone that football was football and life was life and it should be clear to everyone which was more important.

This is one of the reasons that White’s still mysterious death at age 43 stunned so many people. While the sports world is controversial for a lot of reasons — from drugs to murder to various forms of abuse — White was controversial because he was, of all things, a minister who was not afraid to preach. He was a leader outside of football. He was, for many, a role model and that made him many enemies as well as friends.

Translate that into the obit language of the New York Times and his work sounds like this:

White created a stir in March 1998 with a speech to the Wisconsin State Assembly. In it, he referred to homosexuality as "one of the biggest sins in the Bible" and used ethnic stereotypes for blacks and whites. At the time, White, considering retirement, was on a list of candidates for CBS’s N.F.L. studio show, but he did not get the job.

White’s wife, Sara, charged that CBS had "wimped out" because of pressure from homosexual groups, but a CBS spokeswoman said that the network "never had a finalized agreement" with White and that the decision not to hire him was not "influenced by outside groups."

White’s words did offend many and he apologized. But it was pretty clear what had happened. White had taken the kind of vivid images used in thousands of African-American pulpits and pulled them into the public spotlight in a progressive context. He had, in other words, spoken his mind — yes, very bluntly — in public. His words were offensive, especially the stereotypes he served up in what he said was a joking tribute to the strengths and weaknesses of various ethnic groups. Here is how I described that controversy in a column at the time.

The Green Bay Packer legend recently offended legions of people with a sermon to Wisconsin lawmakers that attacked abortion, called homosexual acts sin and offered up a colorful series of ethnic anecdotes, while arguing that all racial groups must see each other as part of God’s image.

White had, as the old Southern saying goes, "gone to meddling." He was attacking racism and defending traditional church teachings. While most obits have mentioned the Wisconsin controversy, most have said that White "blasted" homosexuals or some other combination of words that might make it sound that the NFL star singled out gays and lesbians. His words can certainly be read that way and coverage in the gay press will focus on this with good reason. However, White actually set out to make all kinds of people mad. This was not a man who was afraid to talk about sin — in all kinds of places affecting all kinds of people.

As a professor who tries to get cultural conservatives to look at the flaws in their own lives, I have always been fond of this passage from one White speech in Washington, D.C. I imagine that the White story will continue to draw ink in the days to come. There are the reports about his growing interest in Hebrew and some say that he no longer considered himself a minister. But let’s end here, for now.

… (White) stood up in the nation’s capital and said God wants to start messing with the ordinary day-to-day sins of people who think of themselves as conservatives. The man that many call the greatest defensive lineman ever even had the audacity to sack a purple dinosaur.

"How many of you wives have a hard time getting your husband’s attention when he’s watching TV?", he asked, drawing nervous laughter at a luncheon in which he and his wife Sara were honored by the conservative Family Research Council. "How many of you husbands have a hard time getting your wife’s attention when she’s on the telephone? … How many of us can get our children’s attention when they’re watching cartoons?

"Why are Barney and Mickey so much more popular than Jesus? Because the world is trying to feed us … and trying to get us to idol worship."

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Lex

    Oh, please: White no more “helped start” prayer circles after NFL games than I, at age 9, “helped start” Apollo moon landings.

    Also? I haven’t watched a whole lot of NFL football in my life, just the odd Redskins and, later, Panthers games. But I’ve seen televised post-game prayer circles on many occasions — usually under closing credits, true, but far too often for any suggestion that the networks are “hiding” them from viewers to pass the laugh test.

  • Victor Morton

    The thing I found amusing/aggravating was the coverage on ESPN on Sunday night. White’s death was the *only* story in the first segment of both the early SPORTSCENTER show and NFL PRIMETIME. This was on the next-to-last week of the regular season, with several playoff berths on the line AND with Peyton Manning breaking Dan Marino’s touchdown pass record. ESPN went to the first commercial before going into detail on any of those stories, and on SPORTSCENTER, it bypassed the customary jokey teaser-intros, playing just the opening credits and cutting to two somber anchormen.

    But in those two shows’ segments, there were several references to White being a “role model off the field,” “a very spiritual man” and “a man with a vision for the world” (that last one was Steve Young, a Mormon descendant of you-know-who). The two words not mentioned on either show were “religion” and “Christian.” (Though there was a reference to the Wisconsin legislature flap and a few seconds of footage.)

    In contrast, the MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL halftime segment on ABC tonight used the R-word and mentioned “Jesus” and “God” by name in describing White in an extensive quote from a former teammate (Mike Quick, I believe).

  • tk

    “As a professor who tries to get cultural conservatives to look at the flaws in their own lives”

    I’m sorry, this entire piece is destroyed by my laughter over this sentnce, and the fact that its opposite clearly does not exist in the academy today.

    “Tolerance is the virtue of the man with no convictions”

  • tmatt


    Explain, please.


    There was a focused effort in the late ’80s, early ’90s — led by players such as White and Mike Singletary of the Bears — to organize what had previously been a largely hit and miss effort to bring players from competing teams together. If I was not on a slow, slow, slow dial-up line on the road I would try to dig out some of the references. They also had run ins with networks over this. Pat Summeral — did I get that spelling right — once briefed me on some of that. I may even have had a reference to that story in a column I did on Pat’s faith and struggle with alchohol. That would be on

    Don’t you HATE dial up lines after you get used to DSL or better?

  • William

    Perhaps I am just ill informed and/or unintelligent. But damn near every article that you have written, that I have read- be it in the Standard, this site, or your regular News column-leaves me scratching my head in confusion. It seems that some of your articles are going to head for someplace that I would like to be, to give me some sort in information that is appealing, then all of the sudden they end. Like some sort of Michael Creighton or Steven King novel. They just run out of steam. I read and re-read them but still I just come to a point where I just give up. I have several friends that were your students, and they try and tell me what I am missing, and how wonderfully crafted the articles are, but I just don’t get it.

    Since I have never bothered contacting you about the articles, I will ask you a question about this one on Reggie White. What is the point of the article? It is too short to be a biography, not enough info about him for me to grasp an understanding of his Theology, and not really an Obituary.

    I know that you are in “Print Media”, and you only have so many column widths to write, but sometimes, more info is needed, at least for my little brain. Perhaps if you used the space for more info on the subject matter you are discussing. For example this article has the following sentence,

    “There are the reports about his growing interest in Hebrew and some say that he no longer considered himself a minister. But let’s end here, for now.”

    Well, what about it? How long had he had the interest? Why did he get interested in the subject matter? Why did he no longer consider himself a minister? When did he consider himself a minister? And yes, I have a grasp of the use of HTML and I clicked on the link, but it asked me to sign up in order to read your linked info. I don’t like to have to spend time entering info, so that I could read, what you may have been able to elaborate upon. Although I did notice that you ended the sentence, “for now.” Perhaps you will invest more time in the subject matter later. But then why the hell bring it up if you aren’t going to discuss it. I think that it is a bit like me adding into this message that, “I too, once lived in Arcadia”, but that is for another time. Why put it in?

    I would like to end this, what I thought was going to be a brief message, by again re-stating that I may just be too dumb to “get it”, or that I am in desperate need of more study on Religion/Theology, perhaps then I might “get it”.


    I hope that this hasn’t offended you or the readers of this site, none of this was meant to be insulting, or mean, if it has been, then I apologize. I just wanted to ask you why it is you place some of the things you do in your articles.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    This isn’t an article. It’s a blog post. The difference between the two is huge and goes a long way toward explaining why this is not an obituary, a biography, or anything you might properly call an article.

  • William

    I see. So then this site is just one great big blog? I was under the impression that a blog is just one’s personal opinions, like a journal or diary. The only difference is blogs are posted for everyone to read. I guess like a BBS.

    However, blogs are a little less professional looking, feeling more like casual conversation. This blog seems to be set up more like a professional article. With quotes and “footnote links”. I guess I just got confused. My fault.

    I will try better next time.

  • Stephen A.

    I would also be interested in more information on the story that he didn’t consider himself a minister any longer. Was he converting to Judaism, as implied?

    That would be big news, if true. If you broke this story on this blog, you’d be another PowerLine. ;-)