The dust in Lubbock on Texas Tech men’s basketball coach Mark Adams bears all the hallmarks of a culture war battleground. But no matter how loud the partisan voices are in the coming days, the reality is likely much more complicated than they let on.
Adams, who is about to complete his second full year at the helm, apparently referenced the Bible during a one-on-one conversation with a player in an effort to encourage that player to be humble and coachable. He was suspended for what the school called “the use of inappropriate, unacceptable and racially insensitive commentary.”
According to a school press release, Adams spoke of “Bible verses about workers, teachers, parents, and slaves in the service of their masters.”
In the days to come, we will undoubtedly be entitled to overreactions. Some will say the Bible is banned, Christians are persecuted and Texas Tech has “woke up,” an accusation the school is particularly vulnerable to after having to roll back some of its DEI policies in light of a the wall street journal survey last month.
The other side will note how deaf it was for a 66-year-old white man to tell a young black man to be humble and use a scripture about slavery to support his message. (So far, the race and identity of the athlete in question have not been revealed, but at least 10 of the 13 players on the team appear to be black, according to the school’s website.) Humility can become a bludgeon, and many black Americans are well aware of the overemphasis white authorities place on it as a check on black progress: Don’t talk. Don’t ask for justice. Don’t rock the boat. Sit. Be humble. Rapper Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, in part for his song “HUMBLE” which seems to castigate this cultural trope. (Although I don’t think Lamar officially endorsed this take on the meaning of the song.)
If the Mark Adams situation explodes into a veritable cable news fest, which seems entirely likely, it will be the parties who will pit themselves against each other.
But the details matter. We need to know exactly what message Adams was delivering here. I contacted Tech Monday morning to ask for details, but athletics spokesman Robert Giovannetti did not return my call. The school has launched an investigation and it’s unlikely Giovannetti will be able to reveal any details until that review is concluded anyway.
Based on the reports so far, the two passages most likely to be in view here are Matthew 8 and Ephesians 6. Here is what they say.
Matthew 8 contains the story of a Roman military commander, a centurion, who came to Jesus asking for the healing of his sick servant. Adams’ comments alluded to this passage when he told a reporter at the stadium: “I said that in the Bible Jesus talks about how we all have bosses and we are all servants. .”
In response to the centurion’s call, Jesus offered to come to his house, but the Roman said he did not deserve Jesus’ visit. If only Jesus said the word, the soldier was sure, his servant would be healed.
“For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’, and he leaves; and this one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant: ‘Do this’, and he does it.
Matthew noted that Jesus was “amazed” by the centurion’s attitude. The passage has been widely taught as a lesson in humility and faith. The centurion respected authority. He recognized that Jesus had an authority that he did not understand, but in which he trusted.
Maybe Adams’ message was something similar: I’ve coached a lot of young men. I know how to develop players. When I call a game, I need you to lead that game. If you follow my example, we can win matches and your skills can improve. But for it to work, one of us has to do the coaching, and the other has to be coached.
The other passage of the Bible is more problematic. In Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul appears to be advocating a social order in which workers, children, and slaves obey those in authority, as described in the school press release. Paul urges wives to submit to husbands, husbands to love their wives, children to obey their parents, fathers to educate their children, slaves to obey masters, and masters not to mistreat slaves. Theologians have long debated whether Paul condones slavery here, or simply encourages virtue over self-actualization, even under unjust circumstances. Elsewhere, Paul encourages slaves to earn their freedom if they can. And he writes on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus with whom he befriended. So Paul’s record on slavery is mixed, but he certainly fails to condemn the institution in the passage to which Adams may have referred.
If the first guess about Adams’ motives seems benign, this passage certainly comes across as darker – more in line with an obviously offensive posturing. Something a Kendrick Lamar lyric would call for.
Coaches have a unique role to play in the development of young adults. Many of us who have played sports can attest that a coach can touch on personal topics of ethics, ambition, character, hard work and sacrifice that are off limits to other teachers. And certainly many college athletes need to hear a message about respecting authority. Almost all young adults do, especially those who have achieved the kind of success that can easily inflate an ego.
But it’s also easy to see how poorly Adam’s sermon was. He may not have intended to offend, but he did. White men have been telling black men to “know your place” in this country for a long time. Adams should have been wise and compassionate enough to avoid this dynamic.
There is, however, another angle to this episode, about the place of the Bible in schools, sports and locker rooms. As the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prayer coach in Seattle made clear, there is a safe place for faith on America’s ballparks. There should be some in the classrooms too. College students should know what the Bible says about slavery, humility, and other topics, even students who don’t study religion. The Bible has had too great an impact on Western thought to be ignored in universities. But this study must be undertaken with seriousness and rigour. The Bible deals with thorny ethical issues and serious societal failings. This is not an inspirational meme generator for coaches to use in pep talks.
In reality, the problem here is perhaps even more basic and psychological than all that. Adams’ team is losing. At 16-15 overall and just 5-13 in the Big 12, the Red Raiders likely won’t make the NCAA Tournament this year. As the losses begin to pile up, tensions mount and the unit dissolves. Teammates and coaches lose the ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt. That way, given America’s shared losses over Afghanistan, inflation, power transfer, and other recent issues, the storm in Lubbock may be a telling substitute for our broader cultural conversation after all. .
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