Reggie White, the “Minister of Defense,” is the most recent sports figure highlighted by ESPN’s award-winning 30 For 30 series, produced by NFL Films, which focuses on individuals and moments in sports that had a particular impact on the world.
The two-hour episode focuses on White’s on-field success, winning a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, earning two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and named first- or second-team All-Pro 13 times with two different teams, the Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.
White, one of football’s greatest defensive players to ever compete, is in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Yet NFL Films and ESPN made a thoughtful choice in developing this film. White was, in addition to a force on the field, also one of the most damaging people in the history of the NFL for LGBTQ people and our movement toward acceptance,
Despite what I wrote almost 20 years ago, I wish he were alive today.
There are a lot of people who demonstrate an inability to grow, listen and open their hearts and minds. Tony Dungy is a great example, someone who almost 20 years ago raised money to fight against same-sex marriage, and who still today speaks out against the LGBTQ community, including my 20-year relationship with my husband.
It’s impossible to know what White would say about “homosexuals” today, or my marriage.
To be sure, he said some terrible — even blatantly false — things in his day.
Still, believe it or not, there is reason to have had hope.
Reggie White said some terrible things about gay people and AIDS
“Homosexuals are trying to compare their plight with the plight of black men, of black people,” White told the Wisconsin Legislature in 1998. “In the process of history, homosexuals have never been castrated, millions of them never died. Homosexuality is a decision.”
This quote from White was false. Gay men have been castrated by many societies. While the Nazis are held out as a particular example, they have not been alone in this abhorrent behavior.
Still, White went further during his life, claiming AIDS was... well... you can see his statement for yourself:
“I think it’s man’s way of punishing themselves,” he said of the disease.
In an interview with Outsports in 2013, White’s former Packers teammate Leroy Butler said that, while he pointed out discrepancies in the Biblical scripture to his fellow Packers defenseman, White wasn’t having it:
“I told Reggie the religious people use the Bible to their own advantage. That passage doesn’t specify gay or straight. And if you go to Proverbs, He says He’s the only one who can judge us. ... And Reggie would look at that and say we’re going to agree to disagree.”
Did White change his mind about homosexuality?
That was before White retired, visited Israel, and reportedly educated himself further.
Education, as well as personal experience, can go a long way.
Seven years after White’s death, another devout Christian, Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, talked with me about his perspective of gay rights and same-sex relationships.
He had a gay brother who had died, and he saw his “plight” as a black man to be at least similar to that of gay people, at least in 2011.
“I don’t see how any African-American with any inkling of history can say that you don’t have the right to live your life how you want to live your life,” Irvin said at the time. Just 60 years ago in America, it was illegal in many states for a black man to marry a white woman.
“No one should be telling you who you should love, no one should be telling you who you should be spending the rest of your life with. When we start talking about equality and everybody being treated equally, I don’t want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn’t deserve equality.”
Color me optimistic, but after watching the 30 For 30 “Minister of Defense” on ESPN — in which I played a part — it seems to me that White was on a journey similar to Irvin, a man of faith who knew what he was being told by religious people with power wasn’t quite right, and that embracing LGBTQ people as people, and ditching the judgment, was part of Christianity.
Over the years, reports have surfaced from some friends and family about White talking about broader love and acceptance — modeled by Jesus Christ himself — realizing that many of the values he had been taught by some preachers had been wrong or misleading.
Specifically, some have asserted that, in his final weeks, he vilified gay people much less, finding love and compassion instead of judgment.
Could White have been a role model for a more welcoming version of Christianity?
The sadness in his loss 20 years ago, for gay people, is that he exhibited the potential to build real bridges, focusing on love instead of division.
Sadly, we’ll never really know. White was taken away from the world far too early, dying of arrhythmia, a condition I deal with.
If I had to place a bet? I’d guess White would have come around to a more-welcoming version of Christianity than the one he preached.
I’ve talked publicly about my wonderful born-again aunt and uncle, Sandy and Jeff. They don’t entirely agree with me on what their God will tell me when I arrive, knocking on the door of heaven. And they share that with me.
They also share their devoted love for my husband and me. They tell me that they love me and support me. I know if I needed someone, if we were in dire straights, they would be there to help.
That, it seems, is all we can ask of people who — taught to their core by homophobes — believe same-sex relationships are “sin.” We can, at that point, only hope for love and compassion (and that their vote doesn’t stand in the way of equality).
Today, I feel like White would be right there. I bet he’d be a lot like Irvin, embracing his Christianity while at the same time making sure that gays and lesbians knew they were loved.
I don’t know, but it’s a hunch.
So yeah, almost two decades later, I am sad White isn’t with us, despite what I wrote then. Today, I see his potential for growth. Two decades later, I see the entire Western world growing, and I imagine he’d be part of that.
He was headed to a place of centering love and acceptance, much like Irvin and my aunt and uncle. I wish we could all see where he might have ended up.