Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
When celebrating the milestones that African Americans have achieved in American sports, almost no one has any issue with highlighting the triumphs. However, any praise is often followed immediately by the urge to normalize those successes. Even in the face of immense odds, sometimes, we are too quick to push past what ought to be cherished.
Sometimes we do this because reliving or reimagining the pain of our country’s history is too much to bear. Meanwhile, others may want to gloss over—or ignore altogether—the painful memories of our country’s history. Both of these approaches are detrimental to the progress we’re making when it comes to recognizing and respecting the personhood and image of God in all athletes.
Consider the recent conversation that occurred on ESPN’s First Take as the analysts discussed the significance of two Black quarterbacks—specifically, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts—playing against each other in the Super Bowl for the first time.
Herm Edwards (a former NFL player and coach), Bart Scott (a former NFL player), and ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith shared their heartfelt sentiments about the matchup between Mahomes and Hurts. Edwards wished it was a moment we didn’t have to discuss or celebrate with such pomp and circumstance. He reflected on his time playing when Black football players were always talented enough to play quarterback but were consistently moved to non-leadership positions, like wide receiver and defensive back, by their coaches. Similarly, Scott looked forward to a time when these historical Black milestones didn’t need to be regaled like sideshows.
Smith, however, disagreed. He believed moments like two Black quarterbacks facing each other in the Super Bowl for the first time should be celebrated with pomp and grandiosity because we’ve never seen them before due to implicit biases. At best, plenty of intelligent, athletic, and capable Black quarterbacks were mistreated and doubted, and forced to perform twice as well as other quarterbacks in football. At worst, their positions were changed altogether, even if they played at a high level in college. Their treatment branched from the racist ideology that Black people weren’t capable or intelligent enough to lead other men. Some coaches even clamored that these quarterbacks were just “too athletic.”
And if you think this is a historical problem relegated to the 1960s or 1970s, “experts” cast doubt on the abilities of quarterbacks like Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson as recently as the 2018 NFL draft. Some even believed that Jackson should’ve been drafted as a receiver rather than quarterback.
Two Black quarterbacks finally having a chance to play at the game’s highest level in the season’s biggest game is a big deal that’s worth celebrating. And we should remember why it’s a big deal. Remembering should help us think twice before questioning the value, ability, and skill of someone who doesn’t fit our societally perceived and idealized norms when it comes to leadership.
Christians ought to understand this more clearly than the rest of the world. When it comes to remembering, the people of God are called to remember, repent of our sins, and lean on the grace of God through Jesus daily (Deuteronomy 6:12; John 14:26; Revelation 2:5). When it comes to celebrating the inclusion of outsiders, we must remember that we, too, were once outside the grace and mercy of God, but he adopted us as sons and daughters through Jesus (Ephesians 1:5, 2:12). If you find it hard to remember and celebrate the simple progression that we see in football, you need only remember the greater reality of our progressive relationship with God.
So as we close out Black History Month, I urge you to sit with some of these recent accomplishments by African Americans for a little longer than Black History Month. Perhaps there’s something that’s worth celebrating more than you have before. There are plenty of achievements to remember from the past and present alike. Celebrating the perseverance of America’s once lowest-regarded social group, and their rise despite their country’s injustice, can ignite an unrelenting hope in us now as well as for future generations: that we’ll all produce and experience a brighter and fuller life.