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Baseball Chapel spreads evangelical zeal in major, minor leagues

Christian chaplaincy group takes no stance on LGBT issues but doctrine murky

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Baseball Chapel, gay news, Washington Blade

Baseball and evangelical Christianity have a long history in the U.S. (Photo by Bill Andrews via Wikimedia)

Baseball and white evangelical Christianity have a long history going back to the days of Billy Sunday (1862-1935), an outfielder in the game’s National League in the 1880s who went on to become widely accepted as the “most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century,” according to a 1955 biography.

Sunday converted to Christianity and in 1891 turned down a lucrative baseball contract to go into full-time ministry with a Chicago YMCA. Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church and his revival meetings were nondenominational, he was a strict Calvinist and taught traditionally evangelical and fundamentalist doctrine such as the inerrancy of scripture and that one must be saved to avoid hell.

The links between white evangelical Christianity and “America’s pastime” continue today through organizations such as Baseball Chapel, a group that appoints team chapel leaders to provide chaplain-like services to players in both Major and Minor League Baseball to “bring encouragement to people in the world of professional baseball through the gospel so that some become discipled followers of Jesus Christ.”

According to the group’s website, chapel programs are established for all 210 teams in the major and minor leagues and many independent league teams. About 3,000 players, coaches, managers, trainers, office staff and other team personnel, umpires and members of the media attend. The agency was formed in 1973 when Watson Spoelstra, a Detroit sportswriter, approached Commissioner Bowie Kuhn with the idea of an organized chapel program for every major league team. By 1975, all major teams had a chapel program. The minor league component was started in 1978, according to the Baseball Chapel website.

All board members and staff, paid and volunteer, agree to the group’s statement of faith “without reservation,” its website notes.

White evangelical Christianity has evolved in the U.S. and there are varying views as to its origins, although it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the Christian faith. There was greater overlap of belief with mainline strains of the faith (e.g. Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal) in the early 20th century but a starker line was drawn in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority linked itself to the Republican Party. There was overlap with the Jesus Movement — conservative Christianity’s answer to the Woodstock era — where the born again experience was emphasized and eventually a full-on counterculture formed with books, movies, and especially pop- and rock-flavored gospel music created by and for this audience. These products existed to a far greater degree than anything comparable in mainline or Catholic Christianity.

Today, just 34 percent of white U.S. evangelicals support same-sex marriage (numbers are higher among 18-29 year olds but lower overall in the Bible Belt) compared to 67 percent of white U.S. mainline protestants and 66 percent of white U.S. Catholics, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And white evangelical support of President Donald Trump is at an all-time high, according to the same group — in an April poll, 75 percent held a positive view of the president (81 percent of among white evangelical U.S. men). Trump won the white evangelical vote by more than 80 percent according to polling data.

Not all white U.S. evangelicals believe the same doctrine. There are charismatic and non-charismatic (i.e. “speaking in tongues”) strains, but there is much overlap of belief. Baseball Chapel’s statement of faith does not mention same-sex marriage or activity but reads much like those of other evangelical, anti-gay groups with language calling the Bible the “inspired, infallible word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts.” It offers “daily devotions” with topics like “staying humble in success,” “thy will be done,” “remember God’s faithfulness” and many others.

Some LGBT activists say even if Baseball Chapel isn’t openly condemning LGBT people, the fraught history of LGBT people and the historically heavily heteronormative world of U.S. sports culture is cause for, at least, caution.

“Institutional religions have been part of the American sports story from the founding of this country,” says David McFarland, producer of the new sports documentary “Alone in the Game,” about the struggle of LGBT athletes. “I am very concerned for our LGBTQ athletes and their ability to fulfill their dreams in sports. Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. And more than ever, sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse as athletic expressions of national identity. Extreme religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways keeping LGBTQ athletes off the playing fields and living in silence.”

But is there a danger of being too wary if Baseball Chapel has no anti-LGBT history to point to? If anything, it appears to have attracted more controversy for other reasons. Josh Miller, a minor league umpire for eight years, said the weekly services — always optional though held in the close confines of a locker room that made them difficult to avoid — made him uncomfortable because of his Jewish faith in a 2008 New York Times interview. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that a Baseball Chapel volunteer chaplain’s assertion that Jews are “doomed because they don’t believe in Jesus” inspired Major League Baseball to reevaluate its relationship with Baseball Chapel (it continued).

The group doesn’t appear to have attracted much controversy in recent years. McFarland says there are larger groups — some with annual budgets over $100 million — doing Christian outreach ministry at all levels. He says Baseball Chapel, in terms of size and scope, “doesn’t even compare” to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a more explicitly anti-LGBT group whose statement of faith says marriage is “exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”

Baseball Chapel, which has eight staff members (three are part-time) and hundreds of volunteers, declined the Blade’s request for an interview. In an e-mail, Baseball Chapel President Vince Nauss said the group’s work is private.

“Baseball Chapel’s service to the teams are intended to be behind the scenes and thus we are careful to respect the private nature of our role with the players and staff members,” Nauss wrote. “I rarely grant interviews with media outlets and therefore decline the request.”

Local minor league teams say their chaplain services have been non-problematic. A spokesman for Maryland’s Hagerstown Suns says there are no openly gay players on this season’s roster that he knows of. He wasn’t sure if any of their current chaplains are with Baseball Chapel.

Geoff Arnold, director of broadcasting and public relations with Maryland’s Frederick Keys, a AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, says he’s interacted with the Baseball Chapel folks “a decent amount.” There aren’t any openly gay players on the Keys, he said.

“They typically offer short services for players on Sundays regardless of whether the team is at home or on the road,” Arnold wrote in an e-mail. “To call it a religious group would be a stretch since they are more of a service for players who want to be able to practice their faith but can’t make it to normal services. … I can tell you that the services are non-denominational and inclusive to everyone regardless of age, race or sexual orientation. … Participation is 100 percent voluntary and it’s simply a resource. Everyone I’ve ever interacted with from Baseball Chapel has been first rate people who really care about the players and in some cases have played themselves.”

Arnold said it’s a “super low-key environment, the services are very short and nobody is pushy or makes you feel uncomfortable.”

But what about other groups? Are chaplain services offered for Catholics, Jews or even possibly Muslims? Do the leagues give those faiths equal time?

Arnold says he knows of “a bunch of Catholic guys who attend Baseball Chapel.” He was unaware of any Jewish groups offering comparable services and says there are few Muslim players in minor league baseball.

Rev. Anjel Scarborough, an Episcopal priest and LGBT ally in Ellicott City, Md., says she’s unaware of mainline, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim chaplaincies in sports settings. She says white evangelical chaplains are common in other sports as well. It’s not surprising, she says, since outreach efforts are part and parcel with evangelical belief.

While Pride nights in Major League Baseball are huge now (this year 24 out of 30 teams have Pride events planned), that only started in the early 2000s. Christian groups have been at it in baseball decades longer.

So is it any big deal for LGBT people if Baseball Chapel is that benign? Opinions vary.

Aside from LGBT issues, Scarborough said she has other concerns.

“Spiritual care from a group like this is very one-dimensional and only represents a narrow bandwidth of Christianity at that,” Scarborough, priest in charge of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Md., says. “Evangelicalism operates on a view of the church known as the salvation model. … In essence, this view is the church exists to win souls for Christ, hence the effort to proselytize in alternative venues like sports teams. But that’s a pretty narrow view of why the church exists.”

She says the evangelical vs. mainline view of salvation also differs.

“The view in evangelical Christianity is all about salvation so you can go to heaven when you die,” Scarborough says. “In general, mainline Christianity sees salvation as a here-and-now reality, not exclusively about a future promise about what happens after death.

Matthew Vines, executive director of the Reformation Project, a group that offers a “Bible-based, gospel-centered approach to LGBTQ inclusion,” says groups that aren’t more unequivocal in their LGBT positions can still be problematic.

“They may not have any anti-LGBTQ language on their website, but given how many conservative Christian groups offer harmful advice about how to respond to LGBTQ people who come out,” Vines said, “a closeted player considering coming out would likely worry about the message the group would send to its members about whether or not to support an out teammate.”

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Carl Nassib returns to Tampa

Former Las Vegas Raiders defensive end came out as gay in June 2021

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Carl Nassib (Screenshot courtesy of YouTube/KUVV Fox 5 in Las Vegas)

Carl Nassib, who made headlines in June 2021 when he became the NFL’s first out gay active player, reportedly has signed a one-year contract with his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

The 29-year-old defensive end was released by the Las Vegas Raiders in March, and became a free agent. NFL sources said that was due to his contracted salary amount — $7.75 million — and not any reflection on his sexual orientation.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news with a tweet

When Nassib came out last summer, he announced he was donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project, and for Pride Month this year he made a new pledge to help LGBTQ youth. He promised to match donations to the Trevor Project, dollar for dollar, up to $100,000.

Will Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady welcome Nassib?

As Outsports reported, he’s never made any comments about playing with someone gay. Brady’s former New England Patriots teammate Ryan O’Callaghan recalled that before he came out in 2017, following his retirement, there was one time that he missed the team bus and Brady gave him a ride in his car to that day’s practice.

O’Callaghan told Outsports he believes Brady would have “absolutely” accepted him if he had come out at that time.

“Being married to a super model I’m sure he’s met a few gay people in his life,” said O’Callaghan.

Brady wed Brazilian fashion model Gisele Bündchen in 2009.

Legendary Boston sports columnist Steve Buckley of the Athletic came out as gay in 2011 while at the Boston Herald. He told Outsports that Brady has always been friendly and cooperative, even after Buckley came out.

This is the second time around at Raymond James Stadium for Nassib. He played for the Buccaneers for two seasons prior to joining the Raiders in 2020. His NFL career began in 2016 with the Cleveland Browns. 

As Jason Owens reported for Yahoo! Sports, Nassib was far more productive in Tampa as a part-time starter, recording 6.5 sacks in 2018 and six sacks in 2019. The NFL’s website shows he played just 242 defensive snaps and earned 1.5 sacks last season. 

In 86 games including 37 starts, Nassib’s recorded 22 career sacks, 164 tackles, 53 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles.

In addition to Brady, Nassib’s new teammates are Akiem Hicks and William Gholston at defensive end and outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Given that the Buccaneers finished seventh in the NFL in sacks last season with 47, Nassib will be expected to improve Tampa Bay’s chances when their season begins on Sept. 11 in Dallas.

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Federal judge temporarily blocks anti-trans youth sports law in Indiana

The injunction requires that A.M., a 10 -year-old trans girl, must be allowed to rejoin her school’s all-girls softball team

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On Tuesday Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued an preliminary injunction that blocked an Indiana law that prevents trans youth from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.

The injunction requires that A.M., a 10 -year-old trans girl, must be allowed to rejoin her school’s all-girls softball team while litigation continues.  

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit in April, on behalf of A.M., challenging House Enrolled Act 1041, which bans transgender girls from participating in school sports. 

Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana, issued the following statement: 

“When misinformation about biology and gender is used to bar transgender girls from school sports it amounts to the same form of sex discrimination that has long been prohibited under Title IX, a law that protects all students – including trans people – on the basis of sex.  

“We are pleased that Judge Magnus-Stinson has recognized this and required that A.M. be allowed to play on her school’s softball team.  

“If other students are being denied the right to join a sports team at their school due to their transgender status, we encourage them to contact the ACLU of Indiana immediately.” 

This past May, the Indiana Legislature had voted to overturn Republican Governor Eric Holcomb’s March veto of HB 1041, a measure that bans transgender girls from competing on girls’ K-12 sports teams in the state.

The vote to override the veto means that this law makes Indiana the 8th state to ban trans youth from playing sports in 2022 by legislative action — and the 16th in the country.

In his veto message sent to House Speaker Todd Huston’s office, Holcomb said the bill presumed a problem already existed that required the state to intervene and it implied the goals of consistency and fairness in girls’ sports were not being met.

“After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the overall goal,” Holcomb wrote.

“Governor Holcomb was the second governor this year to uphold the dignity of transgender and nonbinary youth, and veto an attempt by lawmakers to write them out of existence. While those young people continue to face unrelenting political attacks, the Indiana legislature voted to override his act of courage and compassion, pushing these marginalized youth even further to the sidelines,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project.

“This bill claimed to solve a problem of ‘fairness’ in school sports in Indiana that didn’t exist, but its negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of trans and nonbinary youth — young people who already face disproportionate rates of bullying, depression, and suicide — are very real. To the young people in Indiana watching tonight: you are stronger than they know. We are here for you, we will fight for you, and we are not going anywhere.”

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DC Commanders notch Pride Bowl victory

Local teams ‘overcome some difficulties’ to score wins

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The DC Commanders won their championship game 8-0 last month. (Photo courtesy DCGFFL)

Pride Bowl XIV was contested in Chicago in late June drawing more than 800 players from across the country. The annual tournament featured 32 teams in the Open Division and 12 teams in the Women’s Division.

For the DC Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) travel teams, it marked their second tournament of the year having previously competed in the Florida Sunshine Cup XI in February.

The DCGFFL sent five travel teams consisting of more than 80 athletes to Chicago – three teams in the Open Division and two teams in the Women’s Division. 

Each team was guaranteed four games in bracket play with the winners moving on to the semifinals. The DC Admirals, Washington Generals, DC Commanders, and DC Senators Black all advanced to compete in the final four.

The DC Commanders would go on to win their championship game 8-0, defeating the Austin Capitals in the Open B2 Bracket. They scored early in the game and held off their opponent over two 30-minute halves in a tough defensive battle.

Three players from the DCGFFL travel teams were selected to the Pride Bowl All-Tournament Team – Drew Crane of the Washington Generals, Matan Showstack of the DC Commanders, and Derrick Johnson of the Washington Generals.

Clay Arnold has been on the DC Commanders’ travel team for six years and has captained since 2018. This year will mark the first full travel season post-COVID for the players who will also be traveling to Honolulu for Gay Bowl XXII in October.

“We have overcome some difficulties to get back to taking the majority of our players to tournaments, including securing enough money to pay for jerseys,” says Arnold. “The Commanders brought five players who had never traveled and it’s great having new talent.”

There was a special meaning for Arnold in the win, as it brought reflections of his teammate, John Boyd, who passed in 2020.

“We played on the same field where John threw his first touchdown pass as a quarterback,” Arnold says. “It was a great punctuation mark, and I was joyous for many reasons.”

Arnold points to the travel experience as a tight-knit community filled with amazing people, lifelong friends, and an elevated level of competition.

“Several years ago we didn’t compete well and ended up skipping the closing events to lick our wounds at a local dive bar in Chicago,” Arnold says. “We have returned to that same bar every year and are welcomed with open arms. Sharing that quality time with your teammates and the next generation of players is what keeps me coming back.”

Nikki Kasparek founded the DCGFFL’s first women’s travel team, DC Senators, in 2014 with Gay Bowl XIV being their first tournament.

Pride Bowl marked another first for the players as two DCGFFL women’s travel teams competed in the tournament – DC Senators Black and DC Senators Red.

“It was exciting having a second team there and it gave us a built-in cheering section,” says Kasparek. “The group of women on our second team energized all of us and everyone put in significant playing time. The Red team was captained by two veterans and the rest of the players were all rookies.”

The DCGFFL has experienced significant growth in women’s players over the past two seasons with 35 women currently playing in the leagues.

Kasparek, who has a wife and two kids at home, says she is very tied to the Senators and the DCGFFL and is excited about all of the new players.

“I am incredibly competitive and the DCGFFL leagues and travel tournaments allow me to scratch that itch,” Kasparek says. “I am going to enjoy all of it – the friendships, the seasons, the tournaments, the moments – until I can’t flex that muscle anymore.”

Along with the increase in women’s players, the DCGFFL has picked up over 100 new players in the past two seasons. Logan Dawson was recently elected as the new commissioner and also played for the Commanders at Pride Bowl.

“Traveling is a great opportunity to bond with your teammates and compete with the best players from all the cities in attendance,” says Dawson. “It is a higher level of competition than our league play and offers our players an experience that will improve their skill set.”

The DCGFFL has been using the DC Commanders name for many years and have no plans to change it because of the recent name change of the NFL’s Washington Commanders.

“We like the connection and for the first time ever, members of the DC Commanders and the DCGFFL marched side-by-side with members of the Washington Commanders’ organization in the Capital Pride parade this year,” Dawson says. “We will also have interaction with them at their Pride Night this September.”

Registration is now open for Season XXIII of the DCGFFL. Coming up for their travel teams are Beach Bowl 2022 and Gay Bowl XXII.

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