Christian vs. Gay: What Kind of Heroic Leaders are We Looking For?

Great athletes are the center of our cultural attention — and that makes them sports heroes. Here are some interesting takes on Jason Collins and heroism after he came out as gay last week.

This cartoonist thinks it’s inappropriate to reward him, when others’ courage has not been rewarded the same way….


But in a majority Christian culture, what risks do athletes take “coming out” as Christian? A quick Google of “Christian athlete”  turns up many lists and interviews, including a Beliefnet article about the top 12 evangelical athletes.  According to that extensive article, “Evangelical athletes populate the major sports, and many of them enjoy the chance to be outspoken about their faith–thanking God for that winning field goal, late-inning homerun, or 18-foot putt.”

Christian Olympian Lolo Jones was criticized by the New York Times (August 12, 2012) for inconsistency of image and shameless press pandering. “In 2009, Jones posed nude for ESPN the Magazine. This year, she appeared on the cover of Outside magazine seeming to wear a bathing suit made of nothing but strategically placed ribbon. At the same time, she has proclaimed herself to be a 30-year-old virgin and a Christian. And oh, by the way, a big fan of Tim Tebow.”

Conservative media response and even internal comments from the NY Times responded by acknowledging the harshness of the critique. But in a way, it’s not surprising — athletes are expected to excel in their sport AND perform consistent marketing and identity. She hasn’t done either, despite her core talent as an athlete.  Her pedestal shrank awfully quickly, which wasn’t fair, but had less to do with her declaration of Christianity than the fact that she’s a beautiful female athlete, not an absolute star, and facing some tough cultural stereotypes.

(By the way, Gabrielle Douglas is navigating this territory with a clearer story: innocent Christian girl, disciplined athlete. And she’s raking it in! So it’s hard to see that, culturally, coming out as Christian is dangerous in athletics.)

Real heroism means facing opposition with courage. So even though Christians often face situations where they must live the courage of their convictions, the cartoon comparison doesn’t really make sense, although it raises some interesting questions about leadership and athletic identity.

At core, successful athletic careers seem to be all about authenticity and performance — who we expect the person to be as well as who the person is.  For high profile athletes, marketing and public perception are as important as the athlete’s ability and awards. For athletes, authenticity is money. But authenticity through marketing isn’t about leadership — it’s about managing your career.

Jason Collin’s decision to come out was risky because his authentic identity might not be good marketing. So far, it turns out he might be a good enough athlete to weather any backlash, and there might not be too much public backlash because of the cultural change increasing tolerance for gays and lesbians.

Nonetheless, he is a hero or a disappointment to fans, depending on their opinions about homosexuality. That means his authentic choice reflects good leadership intentions from the highly visible pedestal of athletic celebrity.

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