When I saw the first video of George Floyd on the ground my stomach dropped. I couldn’t take my eyes off of George’s head. His round, bald head could hardly move as he begged for his life. Bystanders asked those sworn to protect and serve to please get off his neck, please let him breathe and please check for a pulse.
As I watched George Floyd stop fighting I finally looked up at the smug look on the Derek Chauvin’s face. That police officer knew exactly what he was doing. He even adjusted his knee at one point to make himself more comfortable. He told those advocating for George his choice to continue to choke him was to teach them a lesson. It was to show them why they shouldn’t take drugs.
Even though I knew George Floyd was already dead everything in me wanted to yell or call someone or shake the TV. I needed to stop Derek Chauvin. But of course, I was powerless to help George Floyd. So instead I ran to the next room to my husband, who is also a tall black man who shaves his head. And I tried unsuccessfully to shield him from the terror that would consume the news cycle. This was my automatic response because when we love someone we do not want to see them suffer.
These three men above mean the world to me. They are my heart, my blood, my joy. My first instinct is always to look to protect them. But I am not just a wife and a mother. I am also a coach’s wife. When I talk about my men these three are rarely the totality of who I’m praying for, worrying about, or proud of on any given occasion.
Ordell and I have been married for 19 years this month and we dated for two of his coaching seasons. For over 20 years I’ve spent part of my calendar year praying for, cooking for, laughing with, and cheering for hundreds of men on and near the sidelines of football games.
Many of those young men have been (and are) minorities. I have shared meals with Hispanic, Polynesian, Haitian, Caucasian, and African American men who came together because of football. They’ve bonded over difficult practices, amazing wins, challenging losses, and dorm craziness. These athletes started out largely as strangers. But with the love of football as a springboard, they always eventually connected through a common language of their own no one else fully understood. It’s part of what distinguishes each group as a team.
Football teams have crowded into our home through the years on a Friday morning for leadership development and returned that evening to watch Ultimate Fighting matches. Different athletes have babysat our sons for our date nights, lived in our basement, recuperated on our couch from surgeries, cared for our home while we traveled, and shared so many meals with our family in our home or the dining commons I couldn’t begin to count them. Football players were not just Ordell’s athlete’s on the football field. They have been a part of our family.
We have loved and prayed for each team before we met them because they were the athletes that would soon join our football family.
Families don’t always think the same way and there is often conflict as we flex our free will muscles. Whether that’s freedom of thought, freedom of speech, or straight out rebellion there comes a time when differing opinions will clash. It’s expected, but that doesn’t mean we enjoy the conflict.
Coaches Carry a Heavy Load
Billy Graham once said, “A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime.” This is true, however, that impact takes a lot of work and intentionality. Coaches carry a heavy load of expectations these days. Their work on the athletic field is just the beginning. There is very little I can do other than pray, listen, and encourage. But I know that Ordell’s calling is worth every moment of stress because of his intentional investment. This is true of most coaches.
Coaches can use sport to develop future leaders but it takes time. Even the best coaches must prepare their team talks, consider themes, how to best communicate an idea, and they must do this while also watching film, preparing for practice, and everything else that goes into a day for their job description as “coach.” Athletes who make poor choices off the field can’t contribute on the field. Coaches need to work to keep their athletes academically eligible, and address players’ behavior. Additionally, coaches need to stay attentive to team conflicts and how those dynamics are impacting the team. Something that festers will poison team culture and cause lasting division.
Unity is Always My Prayer
As a coach’s wife, I understand the importance of team dynamics on a personal level. A team that can’t figure out how to work together won’t play well together. Coaches with losing records are fired. Because of this, it could seem like the only reason to teach men of different races and cultures how to work together is personally motivated.
However, coaches and coaches’ wives understand that what athletes learn on the field will translate off the field. Teammates who grind together side by side in August’s heat focusing on everyone getting better together will see growth. Growth will lead to success. If athletes focus only on themselves rather than the team everyone fails. Egocentric athletes fail every time. This principle translates to life.
- Businessmen who say “I have black co-workers, I’m not a racist,” while staying silent when that co-worker is falsely accused of stealing because ultimately it will benefit them if the black co-worker is fired ARE racist.
- Businessmen who prefer to engage with clients who are white or hire white workers “because they are more reliable” or “because they can afford my rates” reveal a bias.
- Church leaders who say all are welcome here but don’t welcome minority voices to speak from the podium contradict themselves.
- Educators who sigh and roll their eyes as a minority child acts out in class again rather than pausing to consider whether this is a cry for food from a child without the right words, keep blinders on rather than exploring the full picture of what impedes the child from learning.
When Unity Translates from the Athletic Field to Real Life; Leaders Break Down Barriers.
When athletes are true teammates who have the opportunity to connect with people from different backgrounds than their own they can humbly self-reflect on the unconscious bias they may have. As athletes shed these biases and identify different cultures as equally valuable there are opportunities to understand that every person has different strengths, skills, gifts, and talents to contribute and when everyone works together we all win.
- Athletes who see their former teammates in the eyes of their co-workers should stand up for integrity in the workplace for all co-workers equally understand that silence is never an option.
- Athletes who become business owners and managers will have the chance to hire workers and extend contracts for partnerships. If they have faced their previous personal biases they will be willing to individuals the interact with on their own merits rather than classifying people by race or gender. They are more likely to understand which references are offensive to other cultures and which will make their future employees comfortable in the workplace.
- Athletes who become future church leaders and ministry leaders that are used to worshipping alongside their former teammates will work to ensure that diversity continues as they build their ministries.
- Teachers who see their former teammate’s children in the eyes of their students will extend compassion to that fidgety child and ask a question rather than make an assumption.
Athletes Who Value Diversity Value Unity
My heart for every player is that they will leave our teams stronger, wiser, and more attuned to Jesus than when they arrived. I pray the seeds of truth our coaches plant will grow over time as our athletes encounter different life experiences. I pray that our teams will understand that unity depends on valuing diversity.
I am not naive. I fully understand that some athletes will enter Ordell’s team and stifle their opinions. They will put up a safe facade to show that they can get along with others while at the same time they will continue to cling to their opinions that they are the only ones who see things accurately. This doesn’t change my prayers. It doesn’t change who I invite into my home while they are our athletes either.
It’s not our job to force change. All we can do is present the truth and pray for God to move in the hearts and minds of men. I pray that as our athletes worship God together they will build the habit of focusing on him rather than themselves. I wholeheartedly believe that when coaches develop athletes who value diversity they will also value unity.
The Church Has Always Been Built on the Principles of Diversity and Unity
In Exodus 35 Moses is leading the people in building the Tabernacle:
Moses also told the whole congregation of Israel, “This is what the LORD has commanded: Take from among you an offering to the LORD. Let everyone whose heart is willing bring an offering to the LORD:
gold, silver, and bronze;
blue, purple, and scarlet yarn;
fine linen and goat hair;
ram skins dyed red and fine leather;a
olive oil for the light;
spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense;
and onyx stones and gemstones to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.
The Skilled Craftsmen
Let every skilled craftsman among you come and make everything that the LORD has commanded:
the tabernacle with its tent and covering, its clasps and frames, its crossbars, posts, and bases;
the ark with its poles and mercy seat, and the veil to shield it;
the table with its poles, all its utensils, and the Bread of the Presence;
the lampstand for light with its accessories and lamps and oil for the light;
the altar of incense with its poles;
the anointing oil and fragrant incense;
the curtain for the doorway at the entrance to the tabernacle;
the altar of burnt offering with its bronze grate, its poles, and all its utensils;
the basin with its stand;
the curtains of the courtyard with its posts and bases, and the curtain for the gate of the courtyard;
the tent pegs for the tabernacle and for the courtyard, along with their ropes;
and the woven garments for ministering in the holy place—both the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons to serve as priests.”
The People Offer Gifts
Then the whole congregation of Israel withdrew from the presence of Moses. And everyone whose heart stirred him and whose spirit prompted him came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the Tent of Meeting, for all its services, and for the holy garments. So all who had willing hearts, both men and women, came and brought brooches and earrings, rings and necklaces, and all kinds of gold jewelry. And they all presented their gold as a wave offering to the LORD.Exodus 35:4-22 (BSB)
The people of Israel were all the same race, however, they needed to learn how to work together as a team under the leadership of Moses, who had previously lived as an Egyptian and was married to a Kushite woman. When they did so they glorified God by willingly obeying the instructions Moses communicated.
Moses spoke directly to God and then to the Israelites. It was their choice to listen and respond or to go their own way. For forty years in the desert the Israelites chose of their own free will to obey or disobey. Moses communicated what God told him to say, that was his job. The same is true for Christians today.
God’s truths are always true, one of those is that when people focus on God rather than themselves they sit in the correct posture. It’s always my prayer that our football teams will understand that life is bigger than them and that their actions can impact everyone they interact with for their entire lives.
In the Old Testament the Israelites followed specific commands from God, but under the new covenant Jesus changed things.
Matthew 22:36-40 (CEB) says, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (emphasis mine)
My prayer is that all our athletes would learn to fully live out Jesus’ teachings. Especially these verses. And in doing so, I know that unity will be a natural outcome.