In the time that I’ve been with this site, I’ve written plenty of articles that some would classify as nonsense: ones featuring photoshops of Rick Byrd in Star Wars, rankings of A-10 mascots based on hairiness, and comparisons of OVC schools to Yankee Candle fragrances. If you’ve come across one of them, you’ve either clicked it because it intrigued you or you decided against it because it just wasn’t for you. At its most basic level, college basketball is a means of entertainment; I have always attempted to have as much fun as possible while covering it.
Unfortunately, the events of this postseason have forced some reevaluation of college basketball, its purpose, the enjoyment it brings, and the motives of those whose job is running the name on the front of the jerseys.
So, allow me to be serious for a second and give some background on me that doesn’t involve talking about my love for niche mid-major basketball topics:
I’m a senior in college, I’m from Kentucky, and I’m gay.
Because of my background, I’ve been disturbed this season by the morally negligent response that sports media has had to the success of Liberty Basketball, and it’s worth examining why the team should come under greater scrutiny.
In 1971, Liberty University (then called the Lynchburg Bible College) was founded by Jerry Falwell, a noted ghoul whose life was dedicated to using every bit of influence he had to promote an agenda that said that the antichrist would be a Jewish man, that created “all-white Southern schools, or so-called segregation academies,” and told gay people that they deserved the scourge of AIDS.
For years, Falwell used his platform as a prominent televangelist to mobilize scores of like-minded bigots in an effort to transform the United States into a rigid theocracy that clings tightly to his warped worldview. When he founded the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, his goal was to make his backwards dream a reality. And he now had both a university and a political group as tools to achieve this.
After he died in 2007, his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., picked up right where he left off, and he has been the President of Liberty University since then. In that time, the school has shown a massive interest in improving its athletic brand and standing, something which is both intentional and consequential. After all, the school has not abandoned the mission of its founder, as it has cozied up to the vehemently anti-LGBTQ Liberty Counsel, going so far as to employ the group’s co-founder as the Dean of Liberty University School of Law from 2006-2015.
Normally, the efforts of a school to advance its athletic department would be seen as harmless. It makes sense that a school would wish to provide itself with a major revenue stream by competing at the highest level. However, the concern comes when a school that possesses a malicious reputation (i.e. Liberty) decides to put its money towards improving its athletic standing.
You see, the school’s athletic program is intrinsically linked to its bigoted founder and his similarly vile progeny. Everything it does, it does with a singular goal in mind: helping the school. And it’s impossible to separate the school and its athletic department from both its founder and its current president, especially when the basketball program actively endorses a contingency of students called “Jerry’s Jokers.”
On Friday, Liberty picked up its first NCAA Tournament win in program history, defeating 5 seed Mississippi State in the first round. To very casual fans, this was a wonderful “Cinderella” moment — although it felt more like a result that Lady Tremaine would celebrate.
They should not be celebrated like recent Cinderellas Loyola Chicago, VCU, Nevada. Not only is this because of the way Liberty University operates (they ban their students from participating in “Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman”), but also because it gives the school exactly what it desires: Legitimacy.
This is not about the players and staff, whatever their beliefs may be. This issue goes beyond them. Sports are a vehicle through which Liberty University thinks it can improve its brand, unimpeded by the controversies that hang over it everywhere else. By being able to promote the school without being made to answer for the objectionable stances of its administrators, it gains a tremendous deal of legitimacy.
This legitimacy also comes from power conference schools scheduling them in “buy games,” giving them a platform as well as money. When UCLA, one of the greatest programs in the history of the sport, did this very thing earlier in the season, legendary player/broadcaster Bill Walton called them out:
Bill Walton just referred to "the day they scheduled Liberty University" as the lowest point in the history of UCLA basketball.— Cam Newton (@morrisoncrying) March 1, 2019
He has a point. When a program of UCLA’s stature gives Liberty the opportunity to improve its image while cashing in in the process, it gives the school unjustified legitimacy. That in and of itself amounts to moral malpractice, especially since Liberty went on to win the game; they cashed the check and took all of the publicity that came with the victory.
This situation becomes even more worrisome when one considers the impact of the Flutie Effect, which maintains that athletic success for a school translates to increased applications for the university. Of course, more students means more money, which fills the coffers of men like Jerry Falwell, Jr.
In early March, only a week before Liberty punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, school President Jerry Falwell, Jr. appeared at CPAC, an annual gathering of conservative politicians, pundits, and polemics. There, he showed that he’s a guy who apparently inherited his father’s talent for coming up with disgusting utterances:
If threatening a Member of Congress wasn’t enough, here he is a few years ago, speaking to students about their need to arm themselves:
Many Liberty defenders have said things in the past few weeks about how the school’s basketball team should not be punished for the words of the school’s president. At an extremely superficial level, one could make that argument. After all, these guys are just playing basketball.
But believing that the program at large operates without an agenda is incredibly naïve, and attempting to say that Liberty Basketball deserves our unconditional support amounts to nothing more than carrying water for Falwell, Jr. and his ilk.
Given everything this school stands for, it’s irresponsible and insulting when national media types write fluff pieces about the team without shining a light on how this is all part of a grand plan to make Liberty University bigger, richer, and more influential than it ever has been. Any journalist who writes a piece about this Liberty team that doesn’t also address the school the team is a part of should be ashamed of the role they’re playing in allowing such an insidious agenda to be carried out.
As a gay person, seeing national media types kowtow to Liberty while refusing to acknowledge the ghastly aspects of the school is almost as insulting as hearing the words of men like Jerry Falwell — men who say there’s something inherently wrong with the way I am. While their words matter, the silence of those who are in a position to speak out against them (yet choose not to) is perhaps more destructive and disdainful. It amounts to nothing more than complicity in the school’s message and an endorsement of their goals.
I simply have one final plea: call them out. Hold their feet to the flames. Choosing not to do so sends a message to every gay fan of the sport, telling them that they don’t actually matter and that it’s okay to tune out the words of school officials because it’s important to just ‘focus on the sport.’