Rehumanizing Athletes: God Between the Lines in Sports - Gary Green

What are the stories people tell about your work? And what do they say about you? Today, we examine the ways that narratives are shaped and shape our view of the work of athletes. We talk with guest Reverend Dr. Gary Green about the theology of sports as a spiritual experience, the use of the term beast to describe black male athletes, and the places in the Bible where we see God interrupting the stories we tell ourselves. Dr. Green is an assistant professor of pastoral theology and social transformation and director of anti-racist initiatives at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He hopes to help religious communities become more socially engaged around issues of justice and social ethics. He has facilitated public conversations about theology, sport and justice.

Scripture References

  • Genesis 1:27
  • Isaiah 62:12
  • Galatians 3:28

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Transcript - Rehumanizing Athletes: God Between the Lines in Sports - Gary Green

Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

What are the stories people tell about your work? And what do they say about you? Today, we examine the ways that narratives are shaped and shape our view of the work of athletes. We talk with guest Reverend Dr. Gary Green about the theology of sports as a spiritual experience, the use of the term beast to describe black male athletes, and the places in the Bible where we see God interrupting the stories we tell ourselves. Dr. Green is an assistant professor of pastoral theology and social transformation and director of anti-racist initiatives at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He hopes to help religious communities become more socially engaged around issues of justice and social ethics. He has facilitated public conversations about theology, sport and justice. Reverend Dr. GaryGreen, thank you so much for talking to us on the podcast today.

GG: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

LA: I wanna start by diving into the work that you've done. For those of us who don't know, give us some background on the term beast and how beast mode came to be used in modern day sports.

GG: Yeah, so, you know, if we're talking about... Well, I'll give you some personal context first and that'll kind of lead into that. I grew up in Texas. One of the very early conversations that I had with my dad was when he told me, "Son, you have to know how to play the game." And what he was talking about was navigating public life as a young black man. And there were things that I just had in my consciousness that I needed to be aware of. I also grew up an athlete and this notion of beast was something that as far back as I can remember in sports, certainly back in high school, but even before that, it was always in the ether and in the air of athletics from the standpoint of, "Oh, he's a beast or she," something like that.

When you ask the question about its use in modern sports, I will say that it has always been used and even when it has not been the specific language of beast or beast mode. But if you think back even all the way to enslavement, this idea of this animalistic prowess being kind of inscribed onto black athletic bodies, whether that's in sports or in other elements of antebellum slavery where black athletic bodies were prized in a certain kind of way. So as far as its contemporary use, Marshawn Lynch, former running back for the Seattle Seahawks and played on some other teams, his nickname "Beast Mode", I think is what kind of conjured it more recently, kind of popularized it in a way that it has a certain cultural traction now. But even ideas of “freak of nature” or “beast” or “unreal,” “this person, he's not human.” These ideas have been in play since at least antebellum slavery. As long as in this country, particularly there has been a premium put on the use and exploitation of black athletic bodies.

LA: And it sounds like this narrative of beast mode, I don't even know if it's a narrative, it's really naming someone's work as something that doesn't take hard work but that's within our nature, and it sounds very undervaluing of the work that really goes into athletics.

GG: Absolutely. It's a way of saying, it's almost kind of like an underhanded compliment, especially even as you think about it today, because if you just say, "Oh, he's a beast," for example, this is a way, and even ‘freak of nature” is even more explicit. It's a way of saying, he's just got the genetic coding or she's just got the genetic coding to excel in this way. But the thread within that is he's got the physical stuff without the other capabilities, and so there's a need to harness this person's physicality and control it really and employ it in a way that is beneficial or useful. But this person in and of themselves, written within that phrase is, there's this kind of inhuman assumption that's written on to someone who you say is a beast, where what they do registers more as a kind of physical animalistic talent than it does a form of brilliance, for example.

LA: And as a professor of theology, I imagine you see this not only as something that has repercussions in society, but there must be a theological aspect of misnaming somebody's work.

GG: It erodes their humanity for one, and it does not allow us to capture the way that they embody the image of the divine. So on a very deep level, to call somebody a beast is to inscribe onto them inhumanity and even more so to inscribe on them and to really erase their connection with divinity. Where historically you think about the ways that, for example, rational sensibilities or rationality has been used and politicized as a kind of coded racist way of saying this person's got it, this person doesn't. And the way that that historically is equated with this kind of assumption of what is for humanity. So in sport, for example, you've got these histories of black players not being able to play certain positions, and increasingly that changes but then there's still a kind of hold on, well, this position is kind of reserved for white players because of the assumption that you need a certain kind of intelligence to play that position, I.e., this position is reserved for somebody who is fully human. And these other positions, with the right guidance and coaching, these people can excel at that. And if it's not the position, it might be the position of coaching. If it's not that, it might be the front office. It might be who owns the teams, things of that nature.

And so there's this underbelly, this kind of theological depth and play of politics that comes out in this and who can and who cannot be a beast. And you even see it... You know, there are ways in which female athletes or white athletes are called beasts, but usually you hear it referred to when it comes to black athletes. And what you'll hear for someone like Tom Brady, for example, is that he's the GOAT, Greatest Of All Time. And so there's the kind of cultural play of politics, but it also is a very deep reality that's playing out. And I believe that these things are productive in that they are inscribing inhumanity onto people in ways that shape society's reading of them as well, which then shapes the way that we relate to people as we understand them, either human or not.

LA: Mark, I wanna bring you into the conversation as I'm thinking of the ways that labels and labels on people's work roles have been unhelpful in the Bible and also how Jesus and his followers are really trying to challenge some of the notions of what does it mean to be, for example, someone who is a servant, someone who is master? How are the terms of Jew and Greek reevaluated in terms of their helpfulness in the New Testament? I would just love to hear where your thinking is on that, Mark, in terms of this conversation.

MR: Yeah, sure. Well, I've actually been thinking about that a lot since I learned that we were going to be with Dr. Green today. And I started remembering things that were very, that were just very unsettling to me, honestly. And in a good way, growing up, it was the question you sort of refer to, but it was the lack of black quarterbacks and the way that that was talked about. And then I thought about more recently just the way people would talk about Usain Bolt, who is this just amazing sprinter. But I just remembered, I don't have specific quotes, but the language of like, he's not human, and a superhuman. But still, I just thought, all right, wow, this is... So first of all, I just want to thank you for opening up my eyes and ears to something that really I had never given much thought to. And these things matter. And I think it's really important.

GG: Absolutely. And remind me to come back to the idea of superhuman. 'Cause you named that, and I wanna come back to that. But I don't wanna stop you.

MR: Yeah, sure. And then I started thinking about the different ways that Jesus, and the whole of scripture changes the narrative and one of the... We'll get to Jesus but, Leah, one of the texts that really came to mind immediately. It's from the latter portions of Isaiah, Isaiah 62, and where the people of Israel have been downtrodden and victimized and oppressed, and then they believed that of themselves. And then but in the prophet, God says, "You shall no longer be termed forsaken and your land shall no longer be termed desolate." That you should be called my delight is in her and your land is married and the Lord delights in you. Oh, man, that's exactly what we're talking about here. There is a... It's not only that the narrative has been assigned, but it's been internalized. And then God speaks into that and completely disrupts it. And I think that's the kind of thing that you were talking about. So honestly, that was the first text I thought, 'cause I've always found that so powerful. But this is the kind of thing that you're talking about, Dr. Green. And I think it's what God wants to do and is doing. So anyway, that's where I started.

GG: And needs our participation in disrupting those narratives. So if I believe something about myself, that then I then perform that in the world and bring that to fruition in my existence, then that's how it how it moves. I think that there's a way that we have traditionally as human human beings and broadly, regardless of race and particularly people of faith, I think have defaulted so much to our own finitude and the fact that we are not God, that we have failed to recognize our responsibility for participating in divinity. And what I mean by that is the responsibility we have to construct and create reality. And we do this regardless. And if I'm doing this, if I'm bringing things into the world based on this belief about myself that I'm not fully human or I'm not whatever, that's what's coming forth versus if I am embodying this kind of understanding of myself as a part and parcel of the divine image, imago Dei, and I'm embodying that in the world, that is what's coming forth. And so anyway, I just I appreciate what you said. And I think that we downplay the divinity that we are called to have access to and to bring life into.

MR: Yeah. I'm Presbyterian and the reformed tradition is really very aware of our brokenness and sinfulness. But we sometimes really do neglect the deeper reality that we're all created in God's image and let that really be the fundamental shaping. So I think, yeah, I mean, it's certainly true in the places in which I've lived and worshipped in my life that there has been that tendency and not just associated with any particular race, but just all human beings that we’re depraved, and as if the image of God was completely obliterated, which, as you know is not what scripture teaches.

GG: Right. Yeah.

LA: I hear from what you touched on, Dr. Green, in terms of the superhuman label, which we wanna go back to, I'm hearing that it's equally challenging in terms of putting a narrative on someone else's body and on someone else's work, whether it's subhuman or superhuman that we're calling a black athlete, for example, neither one is the image of God and both of them are unhelpful.

GG: Yeah, I think neither one of them is human. And so it allows us to cart this person off as other than. And usually what happens is if you think about kind of the sub-humanity or the super-humanity in beast, it kind of translates loosely into this fear or fetish. You see the ways that kind of the sub-humanity of beast registers in as a kind of criminalistic way, where when Marshawn Lynch, for example, protested the media because of the ways that they were telling stories about his humanity and wanting him to participate in, which happens all the time with athletes, especially black athletes, when he decided, "No, I'm not participating in that," then all of a sudden you hear the language of thug come out. And you hear these black athletes being called these names.

But when you think about the super-humanity as well, it's missed in two ways. One, it still is not fully human. So you hold this person off as they're just different. Even if I'm saying different in a more positive kind of genetic way that LeBron James is just a “freak of nature.” But, then it also doesn't register how the things that LeBron James does, or Steph Curry does, or Marshawn Lynch does, or a host of other athletes, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, the things that these athletes are doing are, in fact, kind of superhuman in a way that should register as something deeper and more inherently theological. And we can talk about flow here in a little bit, but actually embodying something more, deeper, something that requires a kind of full-bodied humanity to get to, if that makes sense. And so it's far more of a kind of creative brilliance than it is a physical talent.

LA: Say more about what you mean deeper and theological. How do you feel like this sense of flow, or the, what we might call superhuman feats that these athletes accomplish, how do you feel that's connected to faith, spirituality, theology?

GG: Yeah. So there's a book I'll reference. But there's a book by Dr. Philip Butler, who's at Iliff School of Theology, called Black Transhuman Liberation Theology. And in this book, Dr. Butler, and you see this in flow research in general with Stephen Cutler, Jamie Wills, some of the flow researchers that are popular right now. But there's a way of reading a kind of neurophysiology spiritually. Dr. Butler talks about the kind of neuro-spirituality, where our experiences of the divine, our experiences, our kind of spiritual experience, ecstatic experiences, for example, whether in worship or in sport are actually altered states of consciousness that some would argue, that there's a kind of divinity to these kind of spiritual experiences, for example, that we have.

So if I'm thinking about in worship, if I'm thinking about, I grew up in the black church, and there would be times in the communal shared worship space where "the spirit", "the spirit" would move, and we would have this collective spiritual experience where neuroscientifically would probably land as flow, we're in flow in some kind of way. There's this kind of ecstasy, there's this kind of heightened state of consciousness that we are sharing.

And when I think about athletes, and I think about the way that even athleticism, typically we think of athleticism as just the physical, the ability. If you think about athleticism actually as something that is far more of a honed art that requires multiple forms of intelligence working together at once, and how an athlete or artists, for example, are able to go in and out of flow states, these in and out of these kind of altered states of consciousness to the extent that much of what they are doing is spiritual in nature.

Then all of a sudden that changes the way I think about somebody's athletic prowess, somebody's ability to have honed their self, their embodiment in such a way that they can access this kind of spiritual, this kind of different altered state of consciousness that opens up possibilities for how they can move in space, that opens up their possibilities for how they perceive their own movement in space. And that is ultimately constructive, read even divine in nature, in the sense that it can bring forth newness in the world.

But it's interesting that science and these scientific discoveries more and more are having to acknowledge the spirituality of these kinds of experiences, where previously it was just like, "No, don't talk to me about this spirituality stuff. Let's measure it in science."

And now all of a sudden it's like, what's happening is something that science is even having to point to, to say, what has been created is more of a spiritual experience than not. And it's one that we can see when we talk about brain scans and so on and so forth, and you can see what's happening in a physical sense, but there's something more that's taking place. And I see athleticism as the art of honing one's humanity to the extent that I can more easily kind of go in and out of these states. And then, that's not even to talk about the kinds of things that, what happens in a stadium when Steph Curry loses his mind and hits five three-pointers in a minute and the eruption and there's just, there's something spiritual that's taking place. And so what if we learn to recognize that and read these embodiments for this kind of creative brilliance that is doing something significant.

MR: That is fascinating. Dr. Green, one of the things that we really work a lot on in the theology of work is that our work matters to God, that all of life, God cares about and it's his present in. And it's just so interesting because I don't think many of us have thought much about sports when it comes to that and not that we would deny it, but we just haven't thought much about it. And really what you're asking us to do is take this thing that we have developed and thought a lot about over here and say, it's also really present here and so that there would be a spiritual dimension, there would be God's presence. And in a very different way from the, I'm gonna pray to win or that sort of shallow spirituality, you're talking about something much more profound. And it's also about who we are as human beings. And I really sense that you're partly, you're reminding us that we are created in God's image, that God's spirit is with us and that we need to take that seriously in all kinds of ways, certainly in terms of our own work, but also then in looking at the world and looking at others and looking for God's justice and as you said earlier.

I'm also really picking up on our own response to that and our need to participate in helping God's kingdom be more present in this world and God's justice. And that's an exercise of our humanity slash spirituality.

GG: Yeah. One of the kind of deep theological, philosophical commitments that I have that extends from my heritage in terms of African spiritualities is this belief that all of life is sacred, that there's not this separation of sacred, secular, but that in fact, taking seriously the idea that God is involved in all of life with all of us, and is present. And so if I say that, then it makes sense to think about any time, any time, any time an individual person is engaging in this kind of formative spiritual practice, whether it's training, whether it's whatever it is, that there's a kind of participation of that. But especially when I think about when people, when human beings come together in shared space and their attention is uniquely synchronized on the same thing, and they are collectively participating in something, it is akin to a worship space. But when you look at a stadium, at least for that time, that set aside space and time, there is something spiritual that is happening.

And we might call it just entertainment. We might cart it off as whatever, but if you looked at, if there was a way to, and I'm sure there will be at some point, if not already, if there was a way to kind of measure the energy of a Seattle Seahawks game, the decibels and all of that type of stuff that they talk about, and then looking at a worship service or something, it is a transformative event. And so whether I call it religion or not, or whether I give it the seriousness that I might approach a worship service with, there is something that is happening that bears the potential to create something new in the world.

LA: It seems to me that this experience, this group spiritual experience can be used for good or for ill.

GG: Absolutely.

LA: So I've had experiences where I'm in a stadium with other people and it feels like this joint experience that breaks down boundaries where we're not thinking, where I really feel that passage from the Bible that we're not Jews or Greeks or men or women, but there's an essential humanity that we're all sharing. I think sporting experiences and group experience can really bring us to this unity or they can divide us. And I'm not sure what, there's a choice individually, but there's also a group choice that happens where this experience can be used to humanize us or to dehumanize us.

GG: Absolutely. I think that's an excellent point. And I appreciate you naming that because you do see sport is one of the unique spaces, especially when you think about a collective of that many people coming together, where it does allow us to suspend some of those dividing lines that we typically concede to in our daily lives. Where you can have people of a variety of different races cheering for the same thing and in unison at a sporting event, whereas even in churches, we talked about that being the most segregated hour on Sundays when Dr. King talks about. And so I think it absolutely... But it's something that if we read that way, then we could learn to appreciate at that level of depth as opposed to, "Oh, it's just a game. It's just entertainment. It's just this, it's just that." It's a play space as is going to a worship service, as a set aside space where we suspend the typical rules by which we carry ourselves in everyday life and actually understand that the rules here are different. And it just gives us an opportunity to recreate, play, re-create the way that we're going to come back to reality. It's kind of an imaginative space of possibility.

MR: I find all this so interesting, Dr. Green. And again, I appreciate your, because I haven't given much thought to many of these things, though I've experienced them, and I'm thinking that, again, part of what you're doing that I find so valuable is asking us to take the ways we think about other parts of life and other kinds of work. And now, how does that really... How does that relate to the world of sport? How does that relate to the people in sport and athletes? And I just, partly I love learning things, partly I don't love learning things about myself that I wish weren't there, but at least it's good to identify them, right?

GG: Right. Absolutely.

MR: And then the Lord can work on them. And so I just am grateful for the scholarship you've done, but also the fact that you're willing to kind of go out of the academic world and talk about this, 'cause this is really important. And one of the things I'm going to take from this conversation, I'm gonna listen differently now when I listen to a sports event. In fact, I am sure that I will soon hear things that I didn't hear before, these are things we need to think about, and as you said, and then act on where we have that opportunity.

GG: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

LA: I think this is a great place to land. I'm gonna close us out in a moment. Dr. Green, I wonder if you have final thoughts about the way... When our listeners are hearing this conversation, how can they start to think differently about these narratives and these labels, how they impact others and how they impact themselves?

GG: Yeah. I think just similar to what Mark shared, I think listening more intently. Listening as if there was always a story being told and listening as if that story always had a political or racial or gendered or some kind of agenda to it. I think if people listen through that lens and understand that we are constantly creating reality in everything that we do via these stories that we tell, that we use to make sense of our existence, then all of a sudden we get a little bit of a distance from it and we can listen more creatively and more critically to say, "Okay, that analyst just talked about that person as if they were an animal and I just heard it for the first time." What's the consequence of that?

If you think about the way children listen to these messages, or even adults hear these messages, not that they're trying to learn something intentionally, but oftentimes that's when you are actually being formed, is when I'm just taking these messages in. And if every time you are hearing about an athlete, there's always this other element to it. Assume that that's shaping the way that you view whoever or whatever the athlete represents, whether it's black men, black women, whoever. And so I would say, listen as if there's always a story being told and always a purpose for that story to be told.

LA: Was really fantastic talking to you today. Thank you for sharing with us, Dr. Green.

GG: Thank you again for having me.

MR: Thank you.

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