By Scott D. Strednak Singer, Guest Contributor
I’m a fan of Tim Tebow and Lori “Lolo” Jones, but not for the reasons you may think. For many Americans, Tebow and Jones are standard-bearers of a “born-again” Christian subculture desperately trying to retain cultural relevancy in an era when moral exhortations and claims to righteousness are becoming increasingly passé. And in that sense, they follow hundreds of thousands of evangelical athletes who’ve come before them. But what makes these two stand out isn’t that they’ve used their cultural influence to promote their version of the faith. It’s not even that they’ve been using American popular culture to promote evangelical sexual morals (in this case, the option to remain abstinent before marriage). What does fascinate me is the manner in which they’ve done so.
Tapping into the old adage that sex sells, Tebow and Jones have promoted abstinence as viable option for American teenagers by using the tools of hyper-sexualized mass consumer culture. In photo shoots for endorsers like Jockey Underwear (in which Tebow appears as piece of “Grade A, red-blooded, All-American Beefcake” here, here, and here) and Spikes magazine (in which Lolo does her best “All-American Pin-Up Girl” here, here, and here), in ESPN’s The Body Issue, and other venues (GQ, Outside,) Tebow and Lolo have put their bodies on display for the public to consume. The images, part-advertisements and part soft-core pornography, might be jarring for those who know the athletes primarily for their public advocacy of sexual restraint and living out their belief through their personal commitments to remaining abstinent before entering into heterosexual, monogamous marriages. In fact, they’ve gotten some viewers all hot and bothered. Yet while such images of the raw sexuality of these young, tone athletes might seem counter-intuitive given conservative Protestantism’s false reputation for sexual prudishness, they actually make perfect sense within the historical context of Christians’ using sports and sport celebrities to promote their own understanding of sexual ethics. Within the logic of sports evangelism, getting popular, sexy athletes to endorse abstinence is to make abstinence poplar and sexy by extension.
Christian Sport and Sports Figures in the Battle Against Sexual Impropriety
Considering the amount of skin shown in sports activities, and the proximity of bodies to one another, it may seem that sports would be an unlikely ally in the fight against illicit sexual activity. Historian Clifford Putney has shown that many early Muscular Christians viewed sport as means “a means of channeling and dispersing those boyish energies (particularly sexual energies) which, if left unchecked, might result in masturbation or in other illicit behavior.”[i] And YMCA groups frequently taught that the lesson that Onanism was an affront to God.[ii] Combined with religious life, participation in athletics, it was hoped, “would offer the muscular Christian substitute gratifications for sexual desire.”[iii] Used thusly, athletic participation was justified, in part, on the pretense that these activities aided parents and boys-workers in their attempts to curb sexual sin.
Beyond using sport as an arena for sex education or deeming it an acceptable means of eliminating surplus energy, the most common frame binding religion, sexual morality, and sport has been athletes using their social positions to champion those sexual ethics they find most appropriate and denouncing those which they opposed, including masturbation, free love, and homosexuality. In their stead, conservative Christian athletes have offered an alternative sexuality based upon Protestant heteronormative notions of sexual propriety for both the bedroom and the public sphere. Former baseball player cum minister Billy Sunday’s question, “If we go on exploiting sex in books, in magazines, in the movies, and on the stage, what of the future of our civilization, of our homes and of the nation,” sounds like the familiar tune of an evangelical lament for the misuse of sex towards economic or entertaining purposes.[iv]
In the early 1970s, Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Bart Starr emerged as the face of a broad social conservativism, and an antidote to the promiscuity of the counter-cultural movement. Starr was known for organizing game day devotionals for players, marrying his high school sweetheart, and spreading the belief that sex belonged to those who were married among his teammates. Juxtaposed against his hedonistic rival Joe Namath, Starr was viewed as the cultural hero of conservative America, standing in as an “immutable, invincible bulwark against [the] backdrop of exciting, frightening, and gurgling changes that engulfed the decade.”[v]
Two decades after Starr was hailed as cultural hero of traditionalism, a fellow Green Bay Packer, Reggie White, made national headlines for his staunch opposition to homosexuality. Both a Pro-Bowl caliber Defensive End for the National Football League and an ordained evangelical minister, the African-American bruiser claimed homosexuals were “hurting our children,” in a speech before the Wisconsin state legislature in March 1998, repeating an old, erroneous trope about gay men as rapist pedophiles. His assertion that legitimate sex could only take place in a monogamous marriage between a man and women added a heteronormative bend to the rhetoric of sports evangelists on sexuality that previously was taken for granted, yet now how to be explicitly claimed. While the nation had not yet begun to embrace the idea of same-sex marriage, many citizens had concluded that White’s speech, tinged with racial stereotypes and anti-gay slurs, had crossed the line of political correctness.
However, what was viewed as a bizarre tirade by most was heralded within evangelical circles as a defense of traditional morality. White landed an interview with the conservative evangelical public policy group Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine, in which he positioned his decision to speak out against homosexuality as a defensive act against “gay activists […] trying to force their agenda on our children and on society.”[vi] Evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson published three books on White; the first of which, God’s Play Book: The Bible’s Game Plan for Life, appeared within six months of the Wisconsin speech.[vii] He was invited to share his witness against the evils of homosexuality before the Southern Baptist Convention in the Georgia Dome in 1999, rubbing elbows with influential luminaries like Rev. Jerry Falwell, LifeWay publishers President Jimmy Draper Jr., and the Presidents of six Baptist seminaries. He appeared on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club and the Trinity Broadcast Network. White, long heralded as a sport hero, became something more within evangelical subculture, a hero for sexual propriety. His willingness to witness to Christian life as he understood it, and defend what he considered to be godly sexual morality despite being vilified in national “liberal” media and despite losing multimillion-dollar endorsement and television deals, endeared White to millions of evangelicals and other conservatives across the United States.
Christian Athletes and The Fight For Abstinence
By the mid-1990s, American evangelicals were also busily trying to make interventions into the growing number of unplanned teenage pregnancies in the US. While many child psychologists, reproductive health experts, and school administrators responded to these concerns by advocating for a comprehensive overhaul of sex education in American public schools which would also include teaching safe-sex practices other than abstinence, more conservative Americans believed that this was a defeatist approach. Rather than blithely stand by and concede that teenagers would have sex regardless, the latter group became increasingly determined to promote the cause of remaining chaste before entering into a monogamous heterosexual marriage through pro-abstinence campaigns aimed at teenagers and young adults.[viii] Conservative parents had to change their tactics in order to face the realities that they could no longer shelter their children from sexualized secular culture in the era of cable TV and Internet. Rather than simply preach against the influences of that culture, evangelicals, once again, adopted its tools and narrative frames for evangelistic purposes. In this case, rather than resisting the secular emphasis on and commercialization of sex, evangelicals rebranded their option for abstinence before monogamous, heterosexual marriage not only as the morally righteous choice, but also the most popular and most sexy.
As Christine Gardiner has shown, in nationwide purity programs like True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and Pure Freedom, evangelical leaders attempted to persuade teenagers to avoid sex by rebranding abstinence both sexy and popular. In typical evangelical fashion, the organizers of these campaigns castigated popular media for spreading a culture of sex while also re-appropriating those forms to appeal to their teenage audiences. Through putting positive peer pressure on teenagers through virginity pledges, creating the teenage fashion fad of the purity ring, entertaining them at stadium-filling youth rallies with guest speakers, mini-concerts, and testimonials from attractive young people, campaigners fought hard to frame abstinence as the popular (and sexiest) choice for American teenagers.
Just as Christian athletes have become spokespersons for different sexual ethics in the past, they would do so again in the battle to promote abstinence. A.C. Green, the National Basketball Association’s “Iron Man,” spent most of his off-the-court career becoming a national spokesperson for the abstinence movement. Publicly committed to remaining abstinent before marriage, and to postponing marriage until after his NBA career was over, Green waited until age 38 before marrying his longtime girlfriend. Despite reports of fellow teammates like Earvin “Magic” Johnson betting Green wouldn’t have the strength to remain a virgin in the NBA, and other teammates attempting to seduce him by encouraging women to attempt to get him in bed, Green carried on. Amid the “Sodom and Gomorrah-esque world” of Lakers culture, fueled by drugs and alcohol at the Beverly Hills mansion of owner Jerry Buss and orgiastic parties at Magic Johnson’s Bel Air abode, Green’s commitment to remain abstinent was out-of-place. The “out-of-placeness” of his stance within professional sports provided a narrative frame through which Green could position his decision as a counter-cultural option for both himself and those who wished to follow his example.
Through his A.C. Green Youth Foundation, Green used his celebrity influence to spread the abstinence message among children and youth directly. In 1994, Green contacted other African-American athletes to ask them to help put out a rap video promoting abstinence to African-American children and teenagers. The Athletes for Abstinence, consisting of Green, David Robinson, Barry Sanders, Darryl Green, decathlete Dave Johnson, and Reggie White, formed there own rap super-group in an effort to preach their message in a familiar cultural medium.[ix] A few years later, Green’s foundation tapped into the T.Y. Beanie Baby® and Build-A-Bear® craze to create “Little A.C.,” the Abstinence Committed bear. Playing for one of the most storied franchises in NBA history, in the second largest media market in the United States (Los Angeles in 1999-2000) Green often placed Little A.C. on top of his head when he was sitting on the bench, drawing national attention to his campaign. If that wasn’t enough, Green’s Foundation distributed over 19,000 bears to attendees of the Lakers’ Christmas Day victory over the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center.
By the time Tebow and Lolo began taking off their clothes, the PR campaign to make abstinence culturally relevant and sexy to young adults was well underway within evangelical subculture. Through using their erotic appeal, Tebow and Lolo, two of the most famous virgins around, have aided in the cause of rebranding abstinence as a viable option for today’s youth. In the process, they’ve continued to prove that evangelicals aren’t as old-fashioned as their stereotypes suggest.
Athletes’ parlaying their cultural capital as celebrities and the erotic capital of their aesthetically pleasing bodies into commercial gain is an old hat. But evangelicals don’t just sell t-shirts or running shoes. As Fellowship of Christian Athletes founder Don McClanen put it, “If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades, and cigarettes, surely they can endorse the Lord too.”[x] Tebow and Jones, both growing up in the heydays of the abstinence ministries and within a religious community that is exceptionally adept at capitalizing on trends in commercial culture, have used their celebrity status and the sexual allure of their bodies to do precisely that.
Scott D. Strednak Singer is a Ph.D. Candidate at Temple University’s Department of Religion. His dissertation is: “And the Word was made flesh: The male body in sports evangelism.” You can read some of his other research here.
[i] Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 16.
[ii] Putney, 110.
[iii] Henry R. Harrington, Muscular Christianity: A Study of the Development of a Victorian Idea, Dissertation, Stanford University 1971, 50.
[iv] William “Billy” A. Sunday. The Sawdust Trail: Billy Sunday in His Own Words (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), 65.
[v] David Claerbaut, Bart Starr: When Leadership Mattered (Lanham: Taylor Trade Publications, 2004), 4; See also Keith Dunnavant, America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011).
[vii] Reggie White & Steve Hubbard, God’s Playbook: The Bible’s Game Plan for Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998); Reggie White & Andrew Peyton Thomas, Fighting the Good Fight: America’s “minister of defense” stands firm on what it takes to win God’s way (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999); Reggie White & James Denney, In the Trenches: The Autobiography (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004).
[viii] The effectiveness of the 1990s pro-abstinence campaigns, particularly “pledging” programs, was questionable. Contemporary research suggested that pledgers still engaged in pre-marital sex, and that young people who took such pledges were one-third less likely to use contraception when they became sexually active (before marriage) than their non-pledger counterparts. Pledgers also appear to have the same STD rates as non-pledgers, and are comparatively more likely to have engaged in oral and anal sex, even among those who still identify as virgins. Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 106, Is. 4 (2001), 859-912; Bearman and Brückner, “After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 36, Is. 4 (2005), 271-278.
[ix] Sanders’ appearance in the video is interesting. He had a child, Barry J. Sanders, out-of-wedlock the same year the video was produced (1994). Depending on your position, his pro-abstinence message can be interpreted as hollow in light of that revelation, or positive construed as the wisdom of a person struggling with a possible consequence of sexual activity.
[x] Quoted in Wayne Atcheson, Impact for Christ: How FCA Has Influenced the Sports World (Grand Island: Cross Training, 1994), 158.