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."