"For me, as a Christian … I will be uncomfortable because in all my teachings and all my learning, biblically, it's not right."—Torii Hunter, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, on having an out gay teammate.
"I have love and respect for all human beings regardless of race, color or sexual orientation. I am not perfect and try hard to live the best life I can and treat all people with respect."—Torii Hunter, on Twitter, claiming the Los Angeles Times "misrepresented" his views.
The first quote above expresses a common theme that we at the You Can Play Project hear from Christian athletes, administrators, and fans. How can they reconcile their Christian faith with our mission to end homophobia in sports? Fortunately for me, I spent 18 years in Catholic school—from my first day of pre-school until my last day of university. Eighteen years of Bible study, masses, and Christian theology class went into making me who I am today, and allowed me to be sure of one thing: The You Can Play Project does not advocate anything that goes against the teaching of the Bible.
There are a lot of ways to go about tackling this issue. Many would want me to attack the Bible itself as irrelevant by analyzing its history, its writers, and its translations for errors. Others would want me to attack modern Christians, stating that they attack homosexuality while ignoring numerous other things mentioned as sins. However, I find both methods disrespectful to those who celebrate the Christian faith. I will not spend any time mocking, parsing, or attacking the Bible or those who practice its teachings, in whole or in part. In fact, for the purpose of this response, I will operate under the assumption that the contents of the Bible are wholly and literally true. Since all sexual acts done outside the bonds of Christian marriage are considered sinful by the sort of moral teachings alluded to by Torii Hunter, let's stipulate further that those who participate in gay sex acts are sinning. (I understand that this is anathema to our LGBT supporters, but I would ask them to do what those of us running You Can Play have to do on a regular basis—set aside personal morality and look at the situation from someone else's point of view. In sports terms: You have to learn how to play on the road, too.) Fundamentally, the question we then have to ask is: "What does the Bible teach us about how we are called to treat those who sin?"
Funnily enough, it's Torii Hunter who provides us with an answer. His clarification on Twitter is as clean and succinct an expression of Christian doctrine as you'll find. Christians are called to emulate Christ. It's right there in the name. Jesus was a friend to the sinners in his time—the tax collectors, the Samaritans, the publicans, the adulterers. He surrounded himself with the outcasts of society. It was, in fact, one of the most common ways those who opposed him attacked his character. Jesus knew the only way to reach the people who needed him most was to treat them with love, kindness, and respect. Since we are all sinners in our own way, the Bible requires Christians to be a friend to everyone. Even the most superficial reading of the Gospels is proof of that. During his last supper with his apostles, Jesus gave them a new Commandment: "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Christians are called to support, not tear down, those who need it. To build up, not break down, those around us. To emulate Christ by standing up with a gay teammate and saying, "You are welcome on our team. We will treat you with respect."
Being an athlete means following the rules set forth by the game. Being a Christian means following the rules and example set forth by Christ himself. Being a Christian athlete means being kind, caring, and welcoming to your teammates, coaches, and fans. It means playing alongside those who have different religions, those who blaspheme, those who do not keep holy the Sabbath, those who commit adultery, and yes, those who are gay. And it is by treating those around you with love and respect that you represent the Lord, Christianity, and Christ himself in a positive, welcoming manner. It is through you that gay athletes and fans will be able to see the love and harmony that is central to Christ's teachings. It is by building friendships and relationships with those around you that you offer them a chance to see Christianity as a path to salvation, instead of as a religion of rejection and hatred.
Simply put, exclusion is not a Christian value. Even if—especially if—you believe all gay athletes are going right to hell, you are called to treat them with kindness, charity, and respect. And in the end, Christian athletes will be judged on how they responded to gay athletes. Matthew 25:40 tells us, "And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me." What you do to those around you, you do to the Lord. When you refuse to be a friend to those who need it most in today's society, you are failing in your duties as a Christian. God made you. God made you strong. God made you fast. If you're a professional, then God made you rich, famous, and influential. God made you an athlete. Through his Son, God calls you to use those gifts to bring his love to others—not to shame or judge those around you.
Through You Can Play I've had the opportunity to speak to numerous professional and collegiate athletes, and I always make the same simple, easy request of straight athletes. I don't need you to march in gay pride parades. I don't need you to go to gay bars. I don't care if you have gay friends. I need you to treat gay athletes with respect. I need you to eliminate about 10 homophobic words from your vocabulary. I need you to judge your teammates by what they bring to the team, not by whom they love. That's it. Treat your teammates with respect, regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. Nothing about that contradicts what Jesus would ask of you.
So, for those confused about how their faith may affect their ability to support a gay teammate, those of us at You Can Play invite you to follow the example of Christ. Preach love, practice tolerance, and work for acceptance. Make sports safe for everyone. We're not asking you to go against your faith—we are asking you to embrace it.
Patrick Burke is a graduate of Xaverian Brothers High School (Westwood, Mass.) and the University of Notre Dame. In 2011, Patrick and his co-founders Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman established the You Can Play Project (@YouCanPlayTeam on Twitter), a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only on what they contribute to the sport or their team's success. Patrick is in his seventh year of scouting for the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL, and has previously worked for the Anaheim Ducks, the Washington Capitals, the Vancouver Canucks, and the New England Patriots. He currently attends New England Law | Boston. He's @BurkieYCP on Twitter.