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Israel Folau (Adam Davy/Press Association via AP)

Sports

Speech scrum

Rugby star risks career by espousing Biblical views

Australian rugby star Israel Folau is to rugby what Michael Jordan once was to basketball. “Put simply, no one else in Australian rugby can do what Folau does,” sportswriter Bret Harris wrote in Sydney’s newspaper, The Guardian.

But Folau is facing the termination of his four-year, $4 million contract with Rugby Australia (RA) because of a post on social media. In April he posted that “hell awaits” homosexuals, along with other types of sinners, unless they repent. The post was essentially a condensed version of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

It wasn’t the first time Folau ran afoul of RA’s desire to remain LGBTQ-friendly: He’d made similar comments on Instagram roughly a year earlier. “It was made clear to him [afterward] that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action,” RA’s chief executive, Raelene Castle, told CNN.

A hearing to determine whether Folau may continue to play for Australia’s national team, as well as his local pro club, will take place on May 4. Should RA terminate his contract, Folau won’t represent his country at the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this summer.

Folau, for his part, is willing to sacrifice his career for the sake of spreading the gospel: “Whatever [God] wants me to do, I believe His plans for me are better than whatever I can think,” he said. “If that’s not to continue on playing, so be it.

“In saying that, obviously I love playing footy, and if it goes down that path, I’ll definitely miss it. But my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first.”

Folau isn’t the first sports figure silenced over controversial comments that angered the LGBTQ movement: ESPN dropped former major league pitcher Curt Schilling as a baseball analyst in 2016 after he posted on social media that men who identify as women didn’t belong in women’s bathrooms or locker rooms.

Colorado Rockies second baseman Daniel Murphy came under fire in 2015, when he was with the Mets: Asked about Billy Bean, Major League Baseball’s openly gay Ambassador for Inclusion, Murphy said he disagreed with Bean’s lifestyle but also said, “That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and still get to know him.” Though Murphy said nothing disparaging about Bean, he later vowed—presumably at the behest of Mets management—to avoid talking about his Christian faith and to “stick to baseball.” Murphy has stuck to that promise.

Professional sports teams and the media that cover them, obviously, have no desire to alienate LGBTQ fans and their allies in today’s political climate. However, they presumably don’t want to alienate religious fans, either, which raises the question: Can teams strike a balance to be truly inclusive?

At least one pro sports owner believes they can: Steve Malik owns the North Carolina Courage, the women’s soccer team that employs defender Jaelene Hinkle, who famously turned down an opportunity to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2017 because she’d have to wear a Pride-themed jersey (see “Faith and Courage,” June 26, 2018).

In the wake of Hinkle’s interview last year with The 700 Club concerning her decision, Malik expressed support for Hinkle in a tweet: “Faith acted on in personal conviction harming no one deserves respect just as much as creating a welcoming environment for all.”

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Anna Heyward/Legacy Disciple

Kevin Washington (Anna Heyward/Legacy Disciple)

Sports

Life off the field

UT’s Kevin Washington tries to be salt and light to Longhorn players

Kevin Washington, 31, gets just a few feet into the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) when he spots someone he wants to talk to. “Yodes!” he calls out, giving senior football player Tim Yoder a handshake and slap-on-the-back hug. Yoder, at 5 foot 9, just reaches Washington’s shoulder. They exchange a few words and continue on.

As director of player development, Washington talks with players about everything from girlfriends to the gospel to life after football. The team has 88 players from diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs. There’s never enough time.

Washington became a Christian while playing college football, first at Notre Dame and then at Abilene Christian University. He then worked for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and became chaplain for the University of Houston football team, where he met coach Tom Herman. When Herman became head coach at UT in 2016, he asked Washington to come with him.

Herman appreciates the relationships Washington develops with students. Washington says about others at UT: “They know that what I believe is Christianity. I believe in the Bible. I believe in Christ.”

Washington learns about his players. One chilly Wednesday in February, he shot pool with freshman Justin Mader in the football players’ lounge before teaching a Bible study with the Longhorn Christian Fellowship. It’s one of three Bible studies Washington leads. Dressed in a white Longhorn polo, slightly baggy jeans, and sneakers, he straddled a short stool and faced a group of 31 students.

After praying, he led a study on God’s omniscience. Freshman Luke Brockermeyer explained: “Christian or not, everyone has a respect for Kevin, because he’s not someone who will force Christianity on you, but if you have questions, you can talk to him.”

Washington knows he has limited time with players: “That’s the hard part because you don’t want to sacrifice intentionality, but you also want to get in touch with everybody.” He knows that once guys graduate, his window of opportunity closes. He wants to minimize the what-ifs: “Man, I should have prepped him more for interviews, or man, I should have pushed him more to decide what he wants to do when he graduates. Or I should have asked him the hard questions about his girlfriend to see how they were doing. Or even if we have a guy who has a kid, I should have said, ‘Hey, how are you doing in fatherhood?’”

Lots of such conversations take place on the leather couch and chair in Washington’s office. Junior Collin Johnson explains: “You go in there and sit down and mention what you’re going through, and he will pull up a book, a passage in the Bible, an experience from his life or somebody else’s life. … Tie it in and change your perspective on your situation.”

For senior Tim Yoder, who played in only one game and wants to become a coach, conversations have focused on planning for life after football. He says Washington texted contacts at various schools “and set up phone calls and all this stuff. Some people say they’re willing to help, but he’s really willing to go and serve and do whatever it takes for those around him.”

With junior D’Andre Christmas-Giles, a Muslim, conversations have focused on religion. He says Washington has helped him open up about his Islamic beliefs, and he admires how Washington carries himself faithfully: “Like Jesus Christ.”

Sometimes the bonding takes place during team workouts every morning at 6. “He’s one of us,” Collin Johnson said. “When he gets in the weight room and works through those hard workouts at however old he is, it’s hard not to respect him.”

—Alyssa Jackson is a former WORLD intern

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Dave Jauss checks the lineup during a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets. (David Hahn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sports

Trust, love, and baseball

Teamwork lessons at spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates

As the major league baseball season opens, fans in 30 cities will learn whether the team-building efforts in spring training camps have been successful.

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave reporters the typical message: “‘Team-first’… We all have the same goal. There needs to be connection, there needs to be communication.”

Easier said than done: The 62 players at Pirates spring training camp came from eight nations and 19 different states. Nearly a third were Spanish speakers, along with a Korean, and MLB’s only Lithuanian. Moreover, sharing one goal seemed particularly difficult when the essence of the camp was competition. There are only 25 spots on a major league roster, so more than half of those assembled would either be with a Pirates minor league club or released.

The bulletin board outside the team’s locker room displayed inspirational statements and league policies in English and Spanish, along with a less-expected notice advertising a women’s Bible study. The contact person, Billie Jauss, is the wife of Pirates coach Dave Jauss.

Dave Jauss, 62, has led teams in four different countries and at all competitive levels, with over 30 years in professional baseball. He’s been a big league coach with the Red Sox, Dodgers, Orioles, Mets, and, since 2012, the Pirates.

Team-building, Jauss stressed, begins at the individual level: “When you earn the trust of each player, and … they know you care about them, … then all of a sudden the third thing that can happen is they will be open to learning from you what you know, what we want to develop as a winning team, as a successful team, as a team that plays together.”

Hurdle made personal connections as players streamed onto the field, taking an extra moment for a handshake and a word with the last player invited to camp. During base-running drills, he barked encouragement and handed out low-fives and knuckle touches.

Jauss acknowledged, “Not too many people—definitely not males—talk about this, but when love permeates your family, … when you have the Lord in the middle of your home, … despite miscommunication, … despite differences of opinion, … you have a successful family, and a successful home.”

The same principle, he told me, applies to a team, so when “there is love in that clubhouse, you have an opportunity.” Whether or not players share his faith, Jauss feels, “The Lord allows love to come through my heart.”

That wasn’t enough, though, on the 2001 Red Sox. As bench coach—second in command on a major league team—Jauss was in the thick of what he calls “a dysfunctional office … absolutely no love in [that] team in Boston.” Owners fired the manager in August, and new owners who took over the Red Sox the following spring fired the replacement manager and Jauss.

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