I have not come to bury the United Methodist Church (like most large denominational bureaucracies, it is perfectly capable of committing institutional suicide on its own), but to praise it for its prophetic, far-sighted attempt to reform professional sports.
Recently, the UMC decided it will NOT hold its 2012 General Conference (a nationwide meeting held every four years) in Richmond, Virginia. Why? Because the name of the city's minor league baseball team is "racially charged." The team's name is the Richmond Braves.
How insensitive of Richmond to allow its city to be associated with a privately owned team that denigrates Native Americans as noble, strong, and courageous.
The problem for the Methodists started in 2000, when they met in Cleveland, the home of, you guessed it, the Cleveland Indians. By the time the 2004 convention rolled, around Methodist delegates were beet red with political correctness and passed a resolution forbidding the denomination from holding meetings in any city that sponsors sports teams brandishing Native American names and symbols, which the resolution called "a blatant expression of racism."
(It didn't seem to faze anyone that this convention was being held in held in Pittsburgh, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a name that romanticizes raping, pillaging, robbery, and murder.)
Fortunately, the Methodists can put all those horrific and embarrassing incidents behind them. In 2008 they're meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.
Uh, never mind. I guess the Methodists haven't heard of the local arena football team, the Ft. Worth Cavalry, a team name that glorifies militarism and violence TOWARD NATIVE AMERICANS.
Then again, momentous social change doesn't happen in a quadrennium or two. Surely by 2012, they will have corrected the Methodist ship. Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. They've chosen innocuous Tampa Bay, Florida.
Ooops. Forgot about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Pirates (again!), whoat the risk of repeating myselfglorify rape, pillaging, thievery, and murder. Oh, and the 16th and 17th century's No. 1 drug abuse problem, alcoholism.
(What is it with Methodists and pirates?)
At any rate, as the chair of the committee who put a nix on Richmond said, "We are sad for the United Methodists in Virginia who were excited about hosting the General Conference, but are pleased to take a strong stand against sports teams with offensive names."
The reason the Methodists have taken this courageous stand is because they drop about $20 million every four years at these General Conferences. They don't want to contribute to the economy of a city that lets privately owned sports teams with offensive names operate in its boundaries.
Given that logic, I'm surprised that Methodists have continued to LIVE IN cities that have sports teams with offensive names. By paying taxes and shopping in these cities, they support cities with sports teams with offensive names, and probably spend more than $20 million over a few years collectively.
It doesn't take an endowed-chair theologian to extrapolate that this prophetic insight should apply to all Christians. Other cities to consider abandoning include:
New York and San Francisco (Giants demeans people who suffer from giantism, a condition due to a malfunctioning pituitary gland).
Oakland (Raiderspirates again, though the Methodists might want to put this city on their short list for 2016).
Portland (Trailblazers were insensitive pioneers who trampled the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans as they trekked west across the Great Plains).
Minnesota (yes, the entire state, since it is associated with Vikings, essentially medieval pirates. Again, Methodists, take note).
Okay, pause the sarcasm. Sometimes a team name is indeed insensitive or racist. Of course. The worst I've heard of is the high school Chinks of Pekin, Illinois (fortunately dropped some years ago). And I can understand why some consider Redskins (as in Washington) a problem. In a pluralistic society, we are wise to reconsider the effect such names havethough we ought to make sure that the bulk of the ethnic group, and not just an elitist clique with a particular political agenda, is really offended.
And here's the thing when such matters are driven by political agendas: Had there been no major team names associated with Native Americans, many of the same critics would be charging professional sports with racism because none recognize our Native American heritage in their choice of names!
To put it in another light: Sports is about play, and a society that has lost its ability to smile at its cultural stereotypes (Yankees, Cowboys, 49ers, Oilers, and yes, Chiefs, etc.) has become holier than itself and certainly no fun to be in. Despite the many self-righteous prophets American Christianity is producing these days, not everything is a huge moral issue requiring a prophetic stand.
I'm disappointed with the Methodists because they showed so little discernment in this matter. Given their great heritage of moral crusading about significant issues (like slavery and urban poverty), why have they decided to major in minors? Why are they so righteously indignant about offensive names, but seemingly indifferent or unaware of the deep-seated moral problems that plague modern sports and have such devastating consequences for society? Why focus on offensive names while giving a complete pass to drug abuse, greed, sexual exploitation, and violence?
Could it be that irrational weakness for pirates?
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.
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Earlier Play Ball columns include:
Bjorn Again? | It's been a while since tennis legend Bjorn Borg was in the news. Too bad he's back because he's selling his Wimbledon trophies.
Steroids 'R' Us | It's not just Barry Bonds's heart that is desperately wicked. (Mar. 9, 2006)
Heavy Medal | At the Olympics, if you don't medal, you certainly must be a loser. By Mark Moring (Feb. 23, 2006)
Opening Ceremony Blues | The Olympics is symbolic, but not of world peace. By Mark Galli (Feb. 16, 2006)
Punches, Smashes, and Bombs | Boxing gives us a window into the violence inherent in all sports. By Mark Galli (Nov. 11, 2006)
Should We Ban Boxing? | The usual arguments against the "sweet science" cut many ways. By Mark Galli (Oct. 28, 2005)
Something Noble and Good | Professional sports is often boring, but real sports is not. By Mark Galli (May 13, 2005)