The Sports Ministry Roots of Ralph Drollinger's DC Bible Study

Ralph Drollinger of Athletes in Action USA goes up for a shot.
From the Tustin (CA) News, September 6, 1979.

Earlier this week CBN reported on a Washington, DC, Bible study attended by members of Donald Trump's Cabinet, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. CBN had previously reported on the Bible study, led by Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries. But this time it quickly caught the attention of the religion news beat, with reports and/or commentary from the likes of Religion News Service and John Fea's The Way Of Improvement Leads Home.

Seeing Drollinger's name immediately caught my attention. In the 1970s the 7'2" Drollinger patrolled the paint for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before eschewing the NBA to join the Athletes in Action (AIA) basketball team, one of the leading organizations within the world of Sportianity. Intrigued, I decided to look into what the old Sportian was up to these days. But as I looked into his latest endeavor, I discovered that Drollinger's sports ministry past is not simply an interesting background note to his current work. Instead, Drollinger has linked Capitol Ministries directly to his sports ministry experiences. He writes in Rebuilding America: The Biblical Blueprint that he created Capitol Ministries "with a desire to parallel the ministry methodology I had previously learned in America's sports ministry movement."

This means, of course, that I need to fire off a quick blog post about Drollinger before Donald Trump tweets again and the news cycle passes Drollinger by.

The first two chapters of Drollinger's book, Rebuilding America

Drollinger was not a dominant player at UCLA. During his sophomore year he backed up legendary center Bill Walton. During his junior and senior years he received more playing time, but was still mostly a role player, averaging about eight points and seven rebounds a game. Still, his size made him an interesting commodity for NBA teams. After getting drafted by the Boston Celtics in the seventh round of the 1976 NBA Draft, Drollinger made headlines when he spurned the Celtics and joined the Athletes in Action basketball team.

In 1976 AIA, the sports ministry arm of Campus Crusade for Christ, was in the middle of an ambitious campaign to make their basketball squad the best amateur basketball team in the world. Since 1967 AIA had sponsored basketball teams that would compete in exhibition games, using halftime to present a gospel message to the audience. But the AIA teams rarely, if ever, defeated any major college teams. The publicity that AIA director Dave Hannah cravedthe publicity that he believed was needed to spread the gospelrequired winning against high-level competition. So Hannah buckled down, raising money and recruiting players to bring AIA basketball into the big-time. He hired Bill Oates, a former junior college basketball coach, as the AIA/West (later renamed AIA USA) coach in 1975, and moved the team's headquarters from Phoenix to Orange County, California. Hannah also announced plans for AIA to play home games at the Anaheim Convention Center, to develop a television network that would broadcast AIA basketball games across the country, and to win the right to represent the United States in the FIBA World Championships.

From 1975 until 1980, the AIA USA basketball team partially achieved Hannah's ambitious goals. Although AIA offered modest salaries for its players (ranging from $7000 to $10000), a group of former college basketball standouts joined AIA. With a talented roster, AIA scheduled exhibition games and held its own against elite college basketball programs. In 1976 AIA also managed to broadcast a handful of games on television (albeit on a one-month tape delay), with retired UCLA coach John Wooden providing color commentary. Then, in 1977, AIA USA caught the attention of Sports Illustrated after defeating the top-ranked college team in the country, the University of San Francisco, and the fifth-ranked team, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The following year AIA represented the USA in the World Championships, placing fifth.

Ralph Drollinger played for AIA USA during its brief 1970s run among basketball elites. For Drollinger, who had a born-again conversion experience while a senior in high school, AIA provided a better opportunity than the NBA to use his basketball ability for evangelistic purposes. "I feel like I'm on a bigger challenge," Drollinger explained, "building a program based on Christ."

But even after rejecting the Boston Celtics, professional teams continued to court Drollinger. The New Jersey Nets used a late-round draft pick on him in 1977, offering a $400,000 contract to entice Drollinger to sign. Drollinger turned the team down, remaining on the AIA squad until 1980. In the spring of that year Drollinger finally joined the professionals, signing a three-year, $300,000 contract with the NBA's brand-new expansion team, the Dallas Mavericks. He did not make it through the first year. Plagued by injury, Drollinger's professional career lasted all of six games.

Drollinger's departure from the AIA team and his abbreviated NBA career did not end his involvement with evangelical sports ministries. In 1985 he launched New Focus, a television production and magazine publishing company that sought to create sports-themed mass media for conservative Christian audiences. New Focus produced Sports Focus, a television show hosted by NBA star Julius Erving that featured interviews with Christian athletes and coaches, presenting them as positive role models. For a brief time, the show aired on ESPN.

New Focus also launched a print magazine in 1985 that used sports stars to provide inspiration and present the evangelical gospel message. The magazine struggled for a few years and went through a couple name changes before finally adopting the name Sports Spectrum and developing into a profitable media enterprise. Sports Spectrum is still published today.

Following his efforts in sports media, sometime around 1990 Drollinger took over as the director of Sports Outreach America, the North American branch of the International Sports Coalition, a trade organization representing numerous sports ministries. Sports Outreach America was involved in a variety of projects, but it was perhaps best known for creating and distributing an evangelical Super Bowl kit in 1992. The centerpiece of the kit was a video narrated by Tom Landry with testimonies from Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and other star football players. It was intended to be played at halftime of the Super Bowl as a replacement for the "secular" halftime show (that year Michael Jackson was the main performer). Along with the video, the kit included advice for Super Bowl party hosts on how to initiate conversations about Christianity and sports, and a pack of Christian athlete playing cards with stats about when players were born (and reborn).

The AIA's evangelizing basketball teams and Sports Outreach America's 1992 Super Bowl kit are the public images of Sportianity. These are the types of activities and products that most people associate with the blending of sports and Christianity. But the heart of Sportianity does not come from publicized spectacles. When Ralph Drollinger wrote in Rebuilding America that he created Capitol Ministries "with a desire to parallel the ministry methodology I had previously learned in America's sports ministry movement" he was referring to another, less public side of Sportianity. "The big idea of how to reach athletes and coaches for Christ," Drollinger explained, "was and still is to place full-time disciple-makers alongside High School, College, and Professional athletes."

This focus on discipling athletes and coaches through personal relationships, Bible studies, and conferences was pioneered by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the 1950s. While the FCA's public rallies and promotional materials received most of the public attention, the organization realized early on that it needed to do more than simply mobilize athletes to evangelize the broader public. Recognizing that athletes and coaches inhabited a unique cultural space, the FCA slowly shifted its focus towards ministering to and equipping coaches and athletes to become spiritual leaders within their spheres of influence. This spiritual guidance and support, the FCA believed, would eventually spread organically throughout the athletic programs and communities in which Christian athletes and coaches were involved. Of course, the FCA also encouraged athletes to publicize their faith through mass media and speaking engagements. But over time that aspect of the FCA's ministry became secondary to the day-to-day work of sports-based discipling.

Since the 1950s the number of evangelical sports ministries has mushroomed. Many of them have built upon and expanded on the FCA's early efforts to minister directly to athletes and coaches, although there are differences in priorities and theology. Most of the newer sports ministries, for example, are less religiously inclusive than the FCA of the 1950s/1960s, which featured Catholics, Mormons, and liberal Protestants. But they all follow the basic model of the FCA's pioneering work in athletics. And Drollinger, it seems, has applied this sports ministry approach to politicians and government leaders since 1996, when he created Capitol Ministries.

Because I'm a historian, I have to pause here and note that sports ministry organizations did not create the methods of ministry that Drollinger uses. In my dissertation I discuss some of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century sources that inspired and shaped the FCA's approach to ministry. And historians such as Kevin Kruse have written about the ways in which ministers beginning in the 1930s targeted their efforts towards reaching and influencing businessmen and politicians. But in Drollinger's mind and experience, at least, his ministry among government leaders is simply an extension of his work among athletes and coaches, a chance to apply those methods to a new field ripe for harvest.

"Whereas a sports ministry movement is certain to have a positive impact on many," Drollinger writes in Rebuilding America, "helping to generate a movement for Christ amongst governing authorities holds promise to change the direction of a whole country!"

As for the directions to which Drollinger believes the country should change, one can get a good idea by reading the endorsements for his book, which include statements from Christian Right luminaries like David Barton and conservative politicians like Michelle Bachmann. I hope to say more about the connections between sports ministry organizations and the Christian Right in a future post. In the meantime, a word of caution before one assumes that Drollinger speaks for all involved in Sportianity: according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's latest book, Drollinger's old UCLA coach, John Woodenprominently involved in evangelical sports ministries and prominently featured in Drollinger's Rebuilding America bookvoted for Barack Obama in 2008.