Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Religion and Sport: Not a Great Mix

This weekend, Tony Dungy, the coach of the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts, accepted an award from the Indiana Family Institute (IFI) as a “Friend of the Family. Dungy is very public about his Christian beliefs, speaking often with the media about them. The IFI is a conservative Christian political group affiliated with James Dobson’s national group, Focus on Family. FOF is the leading national Christian-based political group opposing legal protections for lesbian and gay people. Both FOF and, its state affiliate, IFI, are committed to passing federal and state bans on same-sex marriage and gay parent adoptions, as well as opposing laws that provide protection from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation. In accepting his award from the IFI, Dungy made it clear that he supports the anti-gay agenda of IFI and FOF. He described it as “the Lord’s way.”

I believe that everyone, Super Bowl winning coach or not, has the right to whatever religious beliefs they choose and to back whatever political causes they choose. This includes making public statements about those beliefs. It would be hypocritical to believe otherwise. If Dungy had instead said he supported marriage equality for all and appeared at a Human Rights Campaign banquet to accept a similar award, I’d be the first to congratulate his courage and willingness to speak out publicly.

The right of public figures in or out of sport to take public stands on controversial political issues is not at issue here. I don’t like his position on marriage equality, but he has a right to it. The problem is that there is no separation between Tony Dungy the man expressing his personal beliefs and Tony Dungy, the coach of an NFL team speaking as a representative of the Colts and the NFL.

In his speech, Dungy made a point of accepting his award “on behalf of his family and the Colts organization.” Publicity pictures for the banquet included pictures of Dungy in his Colts cap, jacket and shirt. I’m certain he is a good family man, but IFI chose Tony Dungy because he is a Super Bowl winning coach who espouses his Christianity in a very public way every chance he has and his appearance at their banquet could raise lots of money for them.

The NFL and the Colts organization have distanced themselves from Dungy’s views, but supported his right to his personal views. Why then is it ok for the IFI use publicity photos of Dungy wearing the Colts logo? Why is it ok for Dungy to accept his award “ on behalf of the Colts? Sports organizations have no trouble prohibiting athletes and coaches from wearing non-approved uniforms or accessories. If Tony Dungy is not speaking for the Colts and the NFL, why don’t they prohibit him from being pictured with Colts logos in IFI publicity photos and accepting his award “on behalf of the Colts?”

The mixing of sport and religion, specifically conservative Christianity, is a pervasive problem in high school and collegiate athletics as well as the pros. The blurring of the line between a coach’s right to his or her religious beliefs in an environment that is (or should be), a religion neutral space creates all kinds of pressures to conform or tolerate the imposition of a particular religion perspective. Professional team, college teams and high school teams, unless they are directly affiliated with a religious institution should be religion-neutral. It is encumbent on league leaders and sport governing organizations to enforce this neutrality with more than wishy-washy media statements about respecting the coach’s rights. What about the rights of others who do not share the coach’s views? What about Jewish team members? What about lesbian or gay team members? What about other Christians who do not share a coach’s anti-gay views? Who is protecting their rights?

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