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NFL legend Reggie White passed away in his sleep Sunday at the tragic age of 43. The 6′ 5" 300-pound ‘Minister of Defense’ was a football immortal without peer. He played in 13 consecutive pro bowls and retired as the all time NFL leader in sacks. In 1997 White led the hapless Green Bay Packers to its first Super Bowl victory in more than 30 years. Packers QB Brett Favre said that White was "the best football player I ever played with or against." He was a dominator, a force of nature who changed the game with an unholy combination of speed, strength, and smarts.
White’s premature death has also unleashed a torrent of testimonials about his off-field work. He set up countless charities and got his hands dirty in the lives of gang members, drug addicts, and convicts. As former NFL great Cris Carter said, "Reggie made a far greater impact off the field than he did on it."
But there is another side to White that deserves exploration before his canonization is complete. This side encapsulates his political ideas that spanned the gamut from the noble to the wretched. Just as White never backed down from his beliefs, we should stare them in the face and not blink away from either their bravery or bigotry.
Reggie White’s ideas were rooted in the best and worst of his deep evangelical Christian faith. There is an expression that "the religion of the slave and the religion of the slave owner" are two entirely separate belief systems. One set of beliefs can forge a moral giant like Martin Luther King and the other can sustain the cruel small-mindedness of George W. Bush. Reggie White embodied and voiced both the religion of the slave and slave owner. He risked his life and career at the service of both resistance and then reaction
BURN During the epidemic of Black church burnings that swept the South in 1995, Reggie White brought the issue national attention after one of his own Tennessee parishes was torched. "I think it’s time for the country to take this stuff seriously," White told the Boston Globe. "It’s time to stop sweeping this stuff under the rug because progress in race relations has not been made."
He then stood up to authorities shamefully trying to blame African-Americans for torching their own churches. White put the focus squarely on the white supremacist hate groups everyone outside Southern law enforcement could see were responsible. "When is America going to stop tolerating these groups?" White asked The New York Times. "It is time for us to come together and to fight it. One of the problems is that the people financing and providing the resources for this type of activity are popular people with money who are hiding under the rug. Some of them may be policemen, doctors, lawyers, prominent people who speak out of both sides of their mouths. That makes it difficult to stop but not impossible. Not when we come together as one force against hate." There was a joy in hearing someone with the endless charisma of Reggie White speak the truth and make it plain in his signature raspy voice. When this mountain of a man sifted through the wreckage of his church shaking with anger, we seethed alongside him. Maybe in another era, White embarks on a path of anti-racism fighting the tide of bigotry. But in the absence of a mass movement, the ugly side of Reggie White’s politics and beliefs found voice. He became a confident and proud voice for an anti-Gay agenda and in the process became a spokesperson for organizations fanning the flames of the very bigotry that gutted his church.
THE WHEEL TURNS This journey for White began in 1998 when he was invited to address the Wisconsin state legislature. White was expected to speak for roughly five minutes about his charity work. Instead he delivered a rambling hour long rant where he said the US had "turned away from God" by allowing "homosexuality – one of the biggest sins – to run rampant." He also said, "People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and back-stabbing."
He pointedly rejected the idea of civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, which Wisconsin in 1982 was the first U.S. state to enact claiming to be "offended" by any comparison of Gay rights to Civil Rights. Afterwards, White was utterly unapologetic saying that if anyone found his remarks offensive, "that was their problem."
In the brouhaha that followed, CBS sports withdrew their contract offer to become a pre-game show announcer after his retirement. White and his wife Sara, on the television show 20/20, blamed this on "sodomites" within and outside the network.
White continued to speak out against Gays and Lesbians, and in doing so, allied himself with a rogue’s gallery of bigots and hate mongers. His "family spokesman" became a man named Bill Horn, president of the vociferously anti-gay organization "Straight from the Heart Ministries". Soon White was getting support, well-wishes and speaking engagements from the likes of the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA), Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council, and the Christian Coalition. Unlike Bauer who resembles a Kermit the Frog Shrinky Dink, White could actually articulate the "Pro-Family agenda" equating Gays with child molesters and drug addicts, while not making the audience nauseas. His Blackness was also a plus for near all-white groups trying to shake accusations that their anti-Gay "pro-family" agenda was a kissing cousin to both racist and white supremacist ideas.
White spoke at one rally in Iowa protesting Gov. Tom Vilsack’s executive order banning anti-Gay discrimination in state agencies. "Straight from the Heart’s" Horn said the order "is a big political payoff to the governor’s transvestite and cross-dresser supporters."At the rally, Horn wept as he introduced White to the Crowd, saying "Reggie doesn’t hate homosexuals; he loves them so much he is going to be honest with them and tell them that what they are doing is destructive."
White followed Horn by preaching, "Every black person in America should be offended that a group of people should want the same civil rights because of their sexual orientation." When several gay civil rights advocates attempted to question the speakers they were escorted out by force. "They were promoting anger and violence tonight," expelled activist Tina Perry told the Des Moines Register. "They slammed anyone who did not agree with their agenda."
White, as the Minnesota Family Council said, became someone who "defends the family the same way he defended the goal line." This is an insult. As a player, Reggie White never ran away from a battle and worked to inspire his teammates to greater heights, liberating the Green Bay organization from decades of futility. As a "defender" of family values, he stood for bigoted ideas that keep humanity in chains. He supported the vilification of Gays and Lesbians instead of, as White himself said so eloquently as he sorted through the burnt carcass of his church, "coming together as one force against hate."
I will miss Reggie White. I will miss seeing if there may have been another chapter in his life down the road, where he would have devoted his body and soul to standing against the moneyed bigots of this country, instead of alongside them.
DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out, What’s My Name, Fool: sports and resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books) comes out in spring 2005. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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