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
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.
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
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
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
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
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's new book "What's My Name Fool? Sports and
Resistance in the United States will be in stores in June 2005. You
can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing
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