A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Rosey Grier, using his post-football celebrity career as a lens for looking at ideas and anxieties about gender and race in 1970s America. At some point I plan on carrying that line of inquiry up through the 1980s, as Grier’s “personal story” continued to mirror larger cultural currents.
Most significantly, Grier’s embrace of “Born Again” Christianity in the late 1970s and his stance on “values” issues like school prayer and abortion led him to switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after the 1984 primary. Grier’s political shift, which he discusses in his 1986 autobiography, reflected a dilemma facing African Americans who were committed to carrying forward the vision of the Civil Rights movement but who found the Democratic position on social issues increasingly at odds with the more historically traditional religious values of the Black community.
But before I follow up on that idea, I want to use this post to meander down a few rabbit trails related to sports celebrity, gender, and religion in 1970s America, rabbit trails I found crisscrossing through a text that has probably never before been considered as a potential source for understanding American intellectual and cultural history, and probably never will be again. I’m talking about that riveting read, Terry Bradshaw: Man of Steel (1979).
Bradshaw’s autobiography, co-written with sports journalist/broadcaster David Diles, was put out by Zondervan, the huge Christian publishing house that had just come out with a complete NIV translation of the Bible in 1978. I don’t have sales figures for the Bradshaw book, and I am not sure how I would find them. But the paperback copy I have in front of me – see the photo below– is from the second edition and the sixth printing. So Bradshaw’s story was at least selling well enough to justify repeated print runs.
As celebrity Christian testimonies go – and both Bradshaw’s and Grier’s autobiographies would belong to this genre – Bradshaw’s book seems a little weird. There are certain conventions that go along with “the testimony” or “the conversion narrative” in evangelical culture. This is particularly the case in the conversion narratives of the already converted – those subjects who grew up in religious homes, professing some faith since childhood, but framing that earlier religious experience as one of “nominal” as opposed to “genuine” faith. Grier’s autobiography follows this familiar model: I was baptized as a child, it didn’t mean much to me, later in life I hit rock bottom, someone talked to me about putting my trust in Jesus, and my life has been different ever since.
Bradshaw’s autobiography doesn’t really follow that line. It’s not linear in its narrative chronology, jumping back and forth between Bradshaw’s NFL career, his childhood, his college days, his Superbowl games, his interactions with the media. There are some interesting anecdotes from his college days, some post-game analysis from famous NFL victories and infamous defeats. In one chapter, titled “Confessions of a Crybaby,” Bradshaw relates with chagrin how he cried in the showers after a particularly difficult Pittsburgh loss (95). So much for “Free to be…” and Rosey Grier’s permission to grown men to cry.
Speaking of Rosey Grier, there’s a very interesting aside in the Bradshaw book about the quarterback’s relationship to famous Pittsburgh defender “Mean Joe Greene.” In a short description that was quite clearly written by Bradshaw’s co-author, we find this observation about Greene:
“Mean Joe Greene” isn’t mean at all. His violence is the controlled type between the white lines of a football field. Off the field he is quiet and gentle (52).
Here again is the comforting stereotype of the powerful Black man as a “gentle giant,” his violence “controlled” and contained within the field of play. Greene has some interesting things to say about Bradshaw as a teammate, and these remarks are tossed into the not-very-smooth flow of the narrative along with everything else.
Indeed, there is no clear moment of any before and after in Bradshaw’s story, no once-was-lost-but-now-am-found epiphany, no decisive turning from an old life to a new one. This is a testimony in medias res: in the middle of Bradshaw’s religious ups and downs, in the middle of his professional career, and – bizarrely – in the middle of the dissolution of his second marriage.
Bradshaw discusses his then-current marital status in the last chapter of the book, “My Way, Her Way, His Way”:
By now the whole world must know that Jo Jo and I haven’t made an overwhelming success out of our marriage. We’ve talked openly about it on national television, and we’ve opened ourselves up in national magazine articles….No one feels lukewarm about me on the football field, and since Jo Jo and I have aired our problems in public, I have come to the conclusion that no one feels lukewarm about me in this matter either. The women’s libbers will all line up against me, and the good, down-home, old-fashioned women will be in my corner. As for the men, most of them will be for me, except for the handful who’ve given up the traditional male role (184).
Oh my Lord! When I read this passage, I literally fell out of my chair laughing. The gender typing is so extreme here it’s almost cartoonish. The women’s libbers! The traditional male role! Cue Anita Bryant. I mean, this is vintage 1970s; this is embroidered-bell-bottoms-and-butterfly-sleeves-jumping-the-shark-at-the-Ice-Capades 1970s gender wars language. That last bit about the Ice Capades is no exaggeration – Bradshaw’s wife, Jo Jo Starbuck, was a former world champion figure skaterwho was traveling with the Ice Capades when they met and married. Over basically the same time period during which Bradshaw was narrating his still-unfolding life story to his co-author, Starbuck was living in New York and performing with an ice show on Broadway.
Our basic problem is that I want my wife with me – I want her at my side, raising our children, putting our family ahead of everything except for our fellowship with God. I’m a down-home boy from Louisiana and that’s where I want to spend all my time when I’m not playing football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Okay, I’m a male chauvinist! I said it, so you don’t have to. More than that, I’m not ashamed of being that! I think that for the most part, a woman’s place is in the home. Jo Jo had a career when I married her, and I never want to rob her of her identity and take away anything she’s worked and sacrificed to accomplish. But there comes a time – not only with figure skating but with football – when you should rearrange your priorities and get your house in order, so to speak, and start thinking about what you really want to do for the rest of your life….When I went to see Jo Jo in the show – well, it just killed me. It killed me because she was enjoying it so much. I didn’t want to hear how much fun she was having. What I wanted to hear was “Honey, I miss you so much. I can’t stand being separated from you. Let’s go to the ranch.” That’s what I wanted to hear, but I didn’t hear it….I’ve been ashamed of myself for some of the jealousy and resentment I’ve felt, but pardner, I’m open and up front about it. I love this woman. She’s gorgeous, she’s sweet, she’s kind, and most of all she’s a good Christian woman. I just want a full-time wife, that’s all. And in the final analysis, I don’t think that’s too much to ask (184-191).
Like I said, it’s almost cartoonish.
But it’s actually very serious, because Bradshaw’s self-described chauvinism is not some quaint and antiquated idea from the 1970s. His notions about the appropriate roles for men and women in marriage are current among many Americans today – as recent statements by Bradshaw’s former Louisiana Tech teammate Phil Robertson (of “Duck Dynasty” fame) have made clear. And it would be a mistake to assume that such notions are simply rural or regional phenomena, or that they reflect the views only of people who live on or hail from the economic or cultural margins of American society. I know plenty of solidly middle-class-to-affluent, educated, professionally accomplished men and women who hold this basic view of marriage today. Is this “cultural lag,” or is this just plain culture, complex and contradictory and ever contested?
And how is that contest faring since the 1970s? It is interesting that in their “celebrity testimonies” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, both Bradshaw and Grier had to address their marital history – a sign that, whatever their particular views about marriage and gender relationships, divorce was considered something that needed explaining to an evangelical readership. In his book, Bradshaw portrayed himself as the victim in his situation – the good, old-fashioned defender of family values who was abandoned by his selfish careerist wife. Grier, on the other hand, placed the blame for his failed marriage on his own selfishness and infidelity. In fact, after becoming a “Born Again” Christian, Grier eventually re-married his former wife – a perfect illustration, it would seem, of Christian values of repentance, reconciliation and restoration.
Bradshaw’s celebrity testimony in the years since Man of Steel has taken a somewhat different narrative turn. In this video clip from an interview he did for the 700 Club in 2008, starting at the 3:00 mark, Bradshaw discusses his history of failed marriages (he has been divorced three times).
As a Christian, Bradshaw said, “I had to figure out that it’s okay for me to fail, but I don’t want to be judged by you. And my friends back then judged me and were harsh with me.” The interviewer interrupts: “You mean your Christian friends?” Bradshaw continues: “Yeah. I had a hard time with that; I had a real hard time with it. And it ran me off, I got so angry with them.” This is not sounding like a promising direction for the kind of inspiring faith-based testimony that Christian groups might be looking for when they book Bradshaw as a speaker.
But then Bradshaw’s story finally reaches the requisite before-and-after moment that is the staple of the conversion narrative as a genre: “It wasn’t until ten years ago, Fathers Day, that I really got saved….I had one of those great, wonderful salvation moments….I learned that God forgave me. See, now you may not and they may not…but I know for a fact that God has forgiven me. So I should forgive myself. I’m not ashamed of who I am….See you can act it, but do you really believe it? And I know I believe it, and that makes me feel good.”
That this particular way of dealing with the presumably problematic fact of multiple divorces would fly with an evangelical Christian audience is interesting to say the least, and may indicate that even “traditional” cultural norms are shifting. I found that video clip on the website of Christian Speakers 360, “a Christian talent booking agency” that handles bookings for a number of current and former professional athletes, actors, and celebrities, not a few of whom have also experienced various marital problems or marital breakups while in the public eye. I don’t know to what extent these speakers address their marital troubles in their testimonies – I suppose it depends on the particulars of their stories and the audiences they are addressing.
The fact that a Christian interviewer in 2008 knew that an acknowledgment of Bradshaw’s troubled marital history had to be part of the discussion suggests that divorce is still something that “needs explaining” to an evangelical audience. But the notable presence of divorcees on the Christian speaking circuit, and the fact that Christian celebrities may be increasingly able to incorporate their all-too-human marital struggles into their own stories of grief and grace without losing credibility with Christian audiences — well, this could indicate that cultural norms about marriage are changing among evangelicals as well.
Or it may just indicate that celebrity (still) covers a multitude of sins.