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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Actions Over Words

Written by: on February 9, 2021

“The past cannot change what is to come. The work that you do each and every day is the only true way to improve and prepare yourself for what is to come. You cannot change the past, and you can influence the future only by what you do today.”[1] (A part of a preseason team letter in 1968)

In the 1940’s, Critical Race Theory and its many proponents weren’t available to John Wooden. I am not sure what he would say about Robin Diangelo’s theory on white fragility or Ibram Kendi’s view of being antiracist. He was a quiet man and seldom felt the need to voice an opinion on a vast number of hot topics. As in many aspects of his life, Wooden relied heavily on his actions speaking louder than his words. It was no different when it came to his religious beliefs or racism, despite the national racial tensions he faced during his time.

While coaching at Indiana State in 1946, Wooden turned down an invitation to play in a thirty-two-team single elimination tournament. His reasoning was due to the tournament banning black players from playing. Wooden didn’t offer a major public explanation for his decline which disappointed some of his black players. In future years as a coach, even though his black players respected him deeply, there were those that felt he should have leveraged his influential position more specifically on their behalf.  “But that was not his way. When he stood up for racial progress, Wooden did so firmly but quietly.”[2] On other occasions, such as when taking his team to a movie theater, he was informed that his black players would have to sit in the balcony separate from the rest of the team. The theater was informed they all sat together, or they didn’t enter the theater. As he often did with the team, in restaurants that didn’t allow blacks he simply stated “If he can’t come in, nobody comes in.”[3] On one occasion, because of a restaurant refusing to serve his black players, he took his team to a grocery store to purchase food and they ate their meal as a team in a nearby park.[4] Later in Wooden’s career, in 1951 while coaching at UCLA, the team was playing in Kentucky. Due to the hotels being segregated in Lexington he booked a non-segregated hotel in Cincinnati which was 90 miles away. He never stated why nor did the team ask or question his decision. It was obvious to all the players that the Jim Crow laws of the period were a stark contrast to the environment Wooden set for his team.[5]

Considering the location and time in which Wooden was raised, I find it interesting that he held the convictions for equality that he did. Indiana – though not in the deep south and not as steeped in the Jim Crow laws – was still a place that discriminated against blacks in many ways. Later in his life I believe Wooden would feel he fell short of his personal ideals and convictions in this area on more than one occasion. Looking at his leadership philosophies that he wrote about after retiring from coaching I can’t but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little more verbal. Like it is with many of us, hindsight is 20/20. I don’t doubt that for John Wooden it was any different.

Wooden breeched the color barrier when other teams around the country would not. He never explained to his players his views against racism nor did he discuss race with his team. His view when it came to basketball was the ball doesn’t care what the color of the player is or who shoots it, and neither should the rest of the players.[6] For him there was no difference between a black player and a white player. Nellie, Wooden’s wife, was an understanding supporter in his disdain and contempt for bigotry, especially since she experienced discrimination as a Catholic growing up.[7]

John Wooden was born in 1910, he faced adulthood during the great depression, fought in WWII and maneuvered the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. He tried to create a place of equality and dignity within the game he loved. Though he was far from perfect, he stood in his own way, during an unfortunate time in American history, against the tyranny of injustice. I don’t believe Wooden saw himself as a civil rights advocate, just a man treating his fellowman with the dignity they deserved. Like us all he must have had his opinions and concerns on American events. But, unlike some he was a man of few words. He put a lot of merit on actions speaking louder than words. Right, wrong or indifferent he chose to focus on the areas for which he seemed to be best suited, coaching and leadership.

[1] John Wooden and Steve Jamison, The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership (New York: McGraw Hill, 207), 152

[2] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014), 85

[3] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 87

[4] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 88

[5] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 139

[6] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 87

[7] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 88

About the Author

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Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, married 39 years, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

12 responses to “Actions Over Words”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    What a beautiful way of living. Quiet, centered, a non-anxious presence during times of upheaval.

    “I don’t believe Wooden saw himself as a civil rights advocate, just a man treating his fellowman with the dignity they deserved.” I wonder what our country would look like if we all did our part to live like this? I wonder how our systems would change? Would we still need civil rights activists? Maybe? I think in many ways my posture regarding race resembles that of Wooden’s. But it feels like that posture isn’t enough in this day and age- I always feel like I should be doing more, speaking more.

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Darcy,

      Despite Wooden’s actions I think he should have spoken up a but more to explain and support his choices during that time. In today’s world silence is often construed as acceptance. On the other hand when people do speak up and others don’t agree they are labeled.

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    These are good observations. Based on what you wrote, Wooden led by example. His actions, it seems, were his statements.

    Yet, I wonder what it would have been like had one of the most prominent coaches in NCAA history risked a few more words.

    Actions matter…more than words…and yet words strung together to explain righteous action are invaluable. I commend to you Chris’s post this week as I think he’s playing with some similar themes.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    I agree. If he would have simply stated his view of the injustice of the day or explained his thought to his players I wonder what might have been. I can’t help but feel he could have wisely and strategically influenced other coaches and the NCAA during that time without appearing radical or disruptive. Sometimes a simple statement of disapproval from an influential person can go a long way.

  4. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Greg, when I was in training for my previous organization, the man presenting worked at dispelling some of the common myths of sharing the Gospel. At the time, many people I knew lived by the mentality of “don’t tell me about your Christ, but show me your Christ” – the notion that actions speak louder than words. This mentality created a dichotomy of showing and telling where many felt that it was unnecessary to actually TELL people about Jesus. It’s the idea that as long as they see my life is different, they’ll notice.

    But the thing that stuck out to me from those training sessions was that it wasn’t an either/or, but rather a both/and. Our actions may speak louder than words, but words are still necessary. I find that to be a challenge because sometimes its easier to do one or the other instead of doing both.

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Dylan,

      I agree! The problem comes when the words don’t match the action. Words are cheap, anyone can user them. I think this is why Christianity in America is suffering, our words didn’t align with our actions.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I agree that actions are often more impactful than words. At the same time, there are times when the message one intends through their actions is simply not received or understood if not accompanied by some words of explanation. Furthermore, without the words, people are free to form their own, often self-serving, interpretations, perhaps missing or dismissing the intent of the action altogether. Do you think it’s possible Coach could have done more to move college basketball, and maybe the country, toward greater justice had he chosen to use his influence in that way?

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      John,
      Yes definitely! Similar to my response to Darcy I wish Wooden would have spoken up more. It has been my experience that silence is often seen as agreement, on the other hand to disagree with some views on racism can get you labeled as a racist as well. Coach Wooden had a great opportunity to influence the sport nation wide and didn’t. I wonder if he was alive today seeing the current issues if he would have ant regret for not being more vocal.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        I’d love to be more critical of Coach and others with similar opportunities to influence, but I’m also keenly aware of how I sometimes (perhaps often) deal with controversial subjects. Like many pastors in eras of great social unrest, I serve a congregation that does not see every issue in the same way. Since most folks don’t (can’t/won’t) separate the public pastor from the private person, I often feel like I have to be very careful- very deliberate- in whatever I do, say, post, etc. in order to keep people at table of conversation and not “cancel” me or the church because I’ve taken a stand that they don’t support. Many days, I feel more like a mediator than a leader and I know that frustrates those who’d like me to be more vocal and visible. Maybe Coach had moments where he felt the same and therefore chose more subtle ways to demonstrate his core beliefs.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Thank you, Greg. Appreciate hearing of the firmness and quietness of this prolific leader, John Wooden.

    It sounds like his presence gave direction. A sweet thing to be in the presence of a leader who inspires goodness, just and correct action, simply by his presence. A vivid, honest introspection.

  7. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    I’ve been wrestling with what public figures should speak about and why. Maybe it’s the social media moment we live in that makes some believe everyone should make a public statement about everything they value. I’m considering what it means to “not speak up,” “not stay silent,” and the like. Any input here?

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Shawn,
      Being out spoken and voicing ones opinion in to day culture can be and is difficult. We live in a cancelation culture that shouts down and labels people simply because they disagree with an individual. As Christians we are called to take a biblical world view. Even amidst believers this mean different things and isn’t always popular. I choose my battle carefully. I look for divine strategic opportunities to ask perspective questions that look into what if possibilities. When the tiem is right I openly discuss things.

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