The Dallas Morning News
Texas Tech coach has a Bible problem
Scripture is not a meme generator for pep talks or culture wars
The dust-up in Lubbock over Texas Tech men’s basketball coach Mark Adams has all the markings of a culture war battleground. But no matter how loud the partisan voices grow in the coming days, the reality is probably much more complicated than they let on.
Adams, who is about to complete his second full year at the helm, apparently referenced the Bible in a one-on-one conversation with a player in an attempt to encourage that player to be humble and coachable. He was suspended for what the school called “use of an inappropriate, unacceptable and racially insensitive comment.”
According to a press release from the school, Adams talked about “Bible verses about workers, teachers, parents and slaves serving their masters.”
In coming days, we’ ll no doubt be treated to overreactions. One side will say the Bible is being outlawed, Christians are being persecuted, and Texas Tech has “gone woke,” a charge the school is particularly vulnerable to after having to reverse some of its diversity, equity and inclusion policies in light of a Wall Street Journal investigation last month.
The other side will note how tone-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.
Humility can become a bludgeon, and many Black Americans are well acquainted with its overemphasis by white authorities as a counterweight to Black progress: Don’t speak up. Don’t demand justice. Don’t rock the boat. Sit down. Be humble. Rapper Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, partly for his song “HUMBLE” which seems to lambaste that cultural trope. (Though I don’t believe Lamar has officially endorsed that interpretation of the song’s meaning.)
If the Mark Adams situation explodes into a full-blown cable news shoutfest, which seems entirely likely, these will be the sides who array against each other.
But specifics matter. We need to know exactly what message Adams was delivering here. I reached out to Tech to ask for details but athletics spokesperson Robert Giovannetti said he can’t reveal specifics, at least not until the school’s official inquiry is complete. Giovannetti did confirm that the player involved is Black.
Based on the reporting so far, the two passages most likely in view here are in Matthew 8 and Ephesians 6. Here’s what they say.
Matthew 8 includes a story about a Roman military commander, a centurion, who came to Jesus to plead for healing for his sick servant.
Adams’ comments hinted at this passage when he told a Stadium reporter, “I said that in the Bible that Jesus talks about how we all have bosses, and we all are servants.”
In response to the centurion’s plea, Jesus offered to come to his house, but the Roman said he didn’t deserve a visit from Jesus. If only Jesus would say the word, the soldier was sure, his servant would be healed.
“For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew recorded that Jesus was “amazed” at 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 authority that he didn’t understand, but trusted.
Perhaps Adams’ message was something similar: I’ve coached a lot of young men. I know how to develop players. When I call a play, I need you to run that play. If you’ll follow my lead, we can win games and your skills can improve. But for that to work, one of us has to do the coaching, and the other has to be coached.
The other Bible passage is more problematic. In Ephesians 5 and 6, the Apostle Paul seems to advocate for a social order in which workers, children and slaves obey those in authority, as the school’s press release described. Paul admonishes wives to submit to husbands, husbands to love wives, children to obey their parents, fathers to train their children, slaves to obey masters, and masters not to mistreat slaves.
Theologians have long debated whether Paul is condoning slavery here, or simply encouraging virtue over self-actualization, even in unjust circumstances. Elsewhere, Paul encourages slaves to gain their freedom if they can do so. And he writes on behalf of an escaped slave named Onesimus, whom he has befriended. So Paul’s track record on slavery is mixed, but he certainly fails to condemn the institution in the passage Adams may have referred to.
If the first guess about Adams’ motives seems benign, this passage certainly appears darker, more in line with an obviously offensive posture. Something that a Kendrick Lamar lyric would call out.
Coaches have a unique role to play in the development of young adults. Many of us who played sports can attest that a coach can wade into personal topics about 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. Just about every young adult does, especially those who have achieved the kind of success that can easily inflate an ego.
But it’s also easy to see how Adams’ sermon was ill-conceived. He may not have meant to offend, but that’s what he did nonetheless. White men have been telling Black men to “know their place” for a long time in this country. Adams should have been wise and compassionate enough to avoid that dynamic.
There’s one more angle to this episode though, about the place of the Bible in schools, sports and locker rooms. As the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of a praying coach in Seattle has made clear, there is a protected place for faith on American ballfields. There should be in classrooms, too. College students should know what the Bible says about slavery, humility and other topics, even those students who aren’t studying religion. The Bible has had too large an impact on Western thought to be ignored in universities. But that study should be undertaken with seriousness and rigor. The Bible deals with thorny ethical questions and serious societal failings. It isn’t an inspirational meme generator for coaches to use in pep talks.
In reality, the problem here might be even more elementary and psychological than all that. Adams’ team is losing. At 16-15 overall and just 5-13 in the Big 12, the Red Raiders aren’t likely to make the NCAA tournament this year. When losses start to pile up, tensions rise and unity dissolves. Teammates and coaches lose hold of the ability to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
In that way, considering America’s shared losses on Afghanistan, inflation, transfer of power and other issues of late, the storm in Lubbock may be a telling stand-in for our larger cultural conversation after all.