Dancing in March

It’s that one time of year when men start talking about dancing – but it’s not that kind of dance.  I’m not exactly sure where it originated, but somewhere along the line the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has come to be known as “The Big Dance” making every college basketball team out there excited about “going dancing” in March!

march madness

If you’re not familiar with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it makes for a pretty interesting case study in American values and philosophy.  The tournament has gradually expanded over the past several decades to where it most recently added a “First Four” teams who play in Dayton, OH, during the week, the same week the tournament of 64 begins – bringing the total team count to 68.  Several conference tournament winners earn an “automatic bid” into the Big Dance, bringing schools that you’ve never heard of invaluable PR.  The remainder of the teams are selected at-large by a selection committee.  Essentially, these automatic qualifying conferences guarantee that smaller, less powerful schools get the national platform the NCAA tournament provides (even my alma mater, Lipscomb University, has a tie in through the Atlantic Sun Conference . . . though we are still awaiting our first bid).

Liberty UniversityI was on my way home yesterday and caught an interesting conversation on the local sports radio station regarding the merits of Liberty University who earned their way to the Dance over the weekend with a un-inspiring record of 15-20.  That’s right, they lost five more games than they won, but will be among the 68 who get to play in the NCAA’s post-season tournament.  They lost their first 8 games and boast losses to the juggernauts Presbyterian College, Iona, and Howard.  They went a measly 6 – 10 in their conference play – a conference that bids schools named Longwood, Highpoint, and Coastal Carolina.  And yet they won the final few games of the season . . . at just the right time . . . and viola – they will find themselves with a post-season game, a national spotlight, and at least a little extra attention.

And that is exactly why they field a basketball team.  Somewhere Jerrry Falwell is smiling.  The fact of the matter is that big time college sports and higher education make strange bedfellows.  Big time college sports make an even stranger bedfellow for Christian higher education.  Falwell followed the lead of fellow evangelist Oral Roberts and his university (a lead that subsequently has been followed by scores more) all viewing big time sports as the ticket to publicity.  While I was at Lipscomb, there was no doubt that that was the biggest thing to be gained in leaving the rich tradition of winning the school had in the NAIA. (In another story for another day, the move from NAIA to NCAA would end up costing the school one of the greatest coaches to ever coach college basketball, Don Meyer).  DonMeyer

The relationship between Christian colleges and big time athletics serves as a good example of the dualism that has plagued the church in its appraisal of sports.  Sports, it seems, are often viewed as simply  a means to an end.  If the goal is lofty enough (promoting the purpose of the university, say) then we can hedge here or there in order to do what is necessary to get the team to the national level.  If you ever have a chance, read the history of Oral Roberts University and their basketball program which made a major push for the success of their basketball team back in the 1970’s, immediately finding success on the national level . . . and also scandal on the national level.

I find little distinction in approaches taken to athletics by most Christians.  It seems in most Christian sports circles that to be a good Christian and participate in sports has little more impact than making one promote good sportsmanship.  Just look at the kinds of athletes who write books – those who are successful.  The titles of their books read like they were plucked off the self-help aisle at Barnes and Noble: The Winner’s Manual (Jim Tressel), The Score Takes Care of itself (Bill Walsh), Bo’s Lasting Lessons (Bo Schembechler), Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success (John Wooden), Win Forever (Pete Carroll), What it Takes to be Number One (Vince Lombardi) . . . and you could go on and on with these books.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but what should make us pause is to note how difficult it is to know where the distinctly Christian message ends and where the more general promotion of sportsmanship begins.  They just kind of melt together providing a message that reads more like a promotion of civic religion than anything distinctly Christian.  I’m all for sportsmanship . . . “but don’t even the pagans do that?”

In many ways, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the spectacle of the Power of sports displayed for all to see.  It is beautiful and there are few things as exciting to watch as buzzer-beater endings and majestic slam dunks.  But beneath the veneer of these games is a system that is deeply flawed and Fallen alongside all of the other Powers.  Coming to terms with our participation in these Powers is something Christians should take more seriously.

I was excited to end my week of research last week by finding no more than Karl Barth to have spoken to the power of sports:

“Who are the principalities and powers today in our world?  I will mention only some of them.  Everywhere that an ideology is ruling, there is such a power; a communist or anticommunist ideology; money is such a power.  No need to give a description.  Sport is such a power.  Traditions of all kinds are such angelic powers.  Fashion for men and women is also a power.  . . .  I think that all these powers represent certain  human possibilities that are given as a part, as an appearance of God’s good creation in man.  None of these things is bad, necessarily; but now we have to deal with the man who has separated himself from God and from his neighbor.”
Meeting at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the University of Chicago, April 25 – 26, 1962.  Quoted in A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow.  Edited by Bill Wylie Kellerman.  P. 190 – 191

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3 thoughts on “Dancing in March

  1. Adam, I’ve really been enjoying your posts as of late. Yes, there is a massive curtain that needs to be pulled back on the (theologically) blind participation in the Sports machine by many American Christians.

    Having ministered to youth & families too, it pains me to see so many families unknowing-yet-willing to sacrifice their children to the gods of competitive sports. It’s amazing to think how these families have nailed the principles of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, but they’ve got their gods mixed up.

    Note that I’m not critical of sports per se, but of how so many families allow themselves to be consumed and ruled by the beast that is competitive sports, and the (anti)theologies that are promoted – things like the glorification of winning (at all costs), self-promotion over self-sacrifice, etc. And really Adam, this goes well beyond sports, as so many extracurricular activities (music, theater, etc.) have been baptized in a culture dominated by competition where “only the best is good enough”.

    The fact that there is such a paucity of real, informed discussion about this is what baffles me. Have you asked this question yourself – why there is no practical discussion going on in/among/to churches? Since you’ve done the research, I’m curious what you think the answer(s) is. My guess is that this is not critically discussed much because there are so few options outside of the system/machine. As you’ve stated in a previous post, there reaches a point where, if your child is good enough (& enjoys it?), she must begin prioritizing the sport/activity above all else if she wants to continue to participate – no compromises. Thus these kids (& families) in essence are slaves to the machine – & I have too many anecdotes to illustrate this point. And so it is difficult to have these hard discussions or to prophetically challenge the sports/activity machine – because what else are families supposed to do? Not participate at all? Why, we can’t do that!

    And I’m not sure that non-participation is quite the answer. In some cases, yes. But what does it look like for families to seek to redeem this broken/tainted world of kids sports in their participation, not removal from, the system? What does that look like practically? How is gospel embodied on the playing field? And most of all – how do you teach your kids the priority of God & his people while still participating in sports culture?

    • Thanks, Ray – good stuff. I’m still wrestling a bit with why sports has been so overlooked. I think a great project for someone to do would be to compile a collection of writing from the great theological minds of the church on sports. I don’t think that there would be a whole lot – but I have a suspicion that you could find a comment here or there. The reference I made above to Karl Barth was one comment in one interview – I’m on a quest to find others. In general, I think you are correct – I think that critique and commentary has largely come from within the machine, making for any kind of prophetic engagement nearly impossible. At some point, Christendom said, “Well, we can’t beat them, so let’s join them.”

      Actually, there is quite a bit the Social Gospel had quite a bit to say about sports back in the earlier part of the 20th century. Building parks, gymnasiums, and organized sports leagues were actually a product of many Social Gospel churches. The problem is, much of that work (like a lot of Social Gospel entities) was exported while losing its theological emphasis (see the YMCA). This is the dualism I am talking about. There hasn’t been a good holistic theology of sport presented in quite some time (Huizinga talked of homo ludens 60+ years ago and Callois also has a treatment – we need to go back and revisit them and continue to build our theological language for sport). That’s a big part of what is missing, in my mind. We don’t have the language to even talk about sport. We are forced to either embrace a completely secular perspective of sport, or sell out to a throw-back Victorian notion of sport which eschews all pleasure of the body. Our aim for moving forward needs to be in between these extremes – and probably creatively engaging both options. It is certainly a long road ahead – but somehow we must help those caught up in this system untangle themselves.

      Alas . . . we press on. Thanks for your conversation on this – your perspective and questions are helpful! More to come 😉

  2. Thanks for the reply Adam. Ok so my last comment post was more on the general topic you are addressing. Now regarding your post above on March Madness…

    You mentioned how athletics & college education make strange bedfellows. I am no expert in the history of American higher education, but it certainly is noteworthy to see the growing influence (domination?) of athletics in the evolution of collegiate culture over the last 50 years. Obviously, driving all this is the almighty dollar, for many, many groups benefit financially from the national attention, allegiances, and drama surrounding athletic programs & their players. I’d say coupled with this, at least on the level of the colleges, is a desire for more institutional power & influence (national championships are great PR for colleges). And what is striking to me is how, rather than athletics bending & adapting to college culture, I would argue there is considerably more evidence that the majority of higher education has yielded to & become subservient to the athletic machine. And this is what makes these 2 such strange bedfellows, as you say. “What does Athens have to do with the arena?”, so to speak. Again, I’d say back to money, influence, & power, sadly. For by glorifying athletic programs, higher education is simply appealing to the age-old appetites of the masses: “bread & games” (panem et circenses), as the Romans put it in describing the secret to keeping the masses content, happy, & distracted.

    My hypothesis would be that it is this glorification of sports – first on the collegiate level, then on the pro level – that drives the youth sports machine & the hyper focus on competitive play beginning at increasingly younger ages. Simply put, it is an identity that many kids (& parents) live into, despite how unrealistic the goals are, given the incredibly small probability of being able to play on the collegiate & pro levels.

    I can think of a great, blatant example to illustrate this point on identity. Do you remember this Michael Jordan ad campaign?: “I wanna be like Mike” (I can still sing the song in my head). What a genius move by the powers that be, because it was way more than just Gatorade that benefited from this glorification. They were tapping into, and feeding, a growing beast of sports culture that holds an immense amount of influence. And that was over 20 years ago!

    But back to March Madness. Amidst the examples of falleness, manipulation, and whoredom that we see in sports culture, especially on the collegiate level, I am interested in the motifs that make something like March Madness so powerful in our culture. And I think some of these motifs directly relate to Gospel impulses that we all collectively yearn for. It is these Gospel motifs within sports culture (or any culture, e.g. movies) that we Christians need to search for, highlight, and allow to point us back to the Truth. Let me explain:

    One of the most exciting aspects of March Madness is the drama of the Cinderella team that has a chance to make it to the “big dance”. Consider why this is such an entertaining aspect of the tourney:
    1) The advancement of a cinderella team is more than just simply competitive games that are taking place. It is a story, a drama that is unfolding. And we are all creatures built for story. What is better than sports mixed with story?! (This is why, surrounding a matchup, sports commentators offer up background stories of players or coaches – it draws us into the game more).
    2) The Cinderella team is, by definition, an underdog, who is challenging the establishment (read: Duke, etc.). This is powerful stuff. It is yearning for justice. For everyone knows the high pedigree teams have a greater chance of advancing – they are the ones who are in the dominant positions to recruit the best players, coaches, & attention. They have the money, position, & power to go far (& many times they do).
    But wait! What is this team doing that was seeded so low, but is now challenging & defeating the high ranking teams? The backwards nature of a “nobody” team that defies the established order – that is March Madness at its best. And it resonates with us all, because it is also a metaphor for the gospel story, a kingdom parable at play. It is Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, played out in brackets & surprise buzzer beaters, as the lowly are exalted, and the mighty are brought low.

    I think maybe when we are able to creatively look for & highlight parables like this, or even counter-parables (negative examples that are counter-gospel), we can better shape a theology that moves beyond a limited and watered down civic religion, as you say.

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