A couple of weeks ago, I had a Monday evening that looked like this: I dropped my son off for football practice at 6:00, then drove half way across town for my weekly football officials meeting at 7:00, then drove all the way back across town to have a meeting with a couple of other dads at 8:30 where we talked about the possibility of putting together a new baseball team next summer for our sons.
Just today, I was sent video from our Friday night game last week to review and find mechanics to work on for our game tomorrow night. I am part of a pick ’em college football pool that some friends at church and I have done for several years, and I had to get my picks in before tonight’s game. I have a middle school game to officiate at 5:30 so I’m going to try and get a run in before that, my daughters have dance classes all night so my wife will be shuttling them back and forth, my son has football practice again tonight, so we’ll need a friend to help run him back and forth to it, and, when I finally get home, I’ll probably try to catch a few minutes of the Michigan – Utah college football game . Luckily the Indians are off , so I can resume my attention to their post-season push tomorrow night.
When I was doing research for my dissertation, I came across a reporter who said something to the effect that keeping busy sports schedules has become a kind of success gauge for suburban parents. A busy sports schedule has become a kind of insinuated mark of accomplishment. The busier your kids are in their sports, the better athletes they must be. Living, working, and ministering in the suburbs, I overhear countless parents lamenting their children’s busy sports schedules. About how they never have dinner together anymore. About how they drive hours on the weekends and live out of hotels several times a year. About how expensive the team has become. About how much money they spend on equipment. About how competitive the other teams are.
And, almost with exception, they all sound trapped. Oftentimes I’ll hear the caveats, “But what are you going to do?” or “That’s the cost of being blessed with an athletic son or daughter;” or “That’s just how sports are nowadays;” and my favorite, “Just wait until your kids are older.”
Well, my kids are getting older, and I’ve taken sports on as a kind of special cause towards which I intend to dedicate a great deal of time and energy as my wife and I seek the best direction for their sports and academic upbringing. I don’t have a lot of answers – but I can look around the landscape of youth sports and identify a great many problems. My hope is that we can begin to address some of these problems in the lives of our children and work towards better practices in the future.
As I began to study sports and the relationship that we have with sports, I was drawn to a particular story from the New Testament involving Jesus and his disciples. At the end of Mark 2, Jesus and his disciples are out picking up heads of grain in the fields (the Old Testament has a provision that farmers leave the grains that fall onto the ground during harvest for poorer citizens to come and pick up and eat.) In that regard, Jesus and his disciples were doing nothing wrong. However, the fact that it was the Sabbath was cause for concern among the religious leaders. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2: 24)
The disciples were picking up the grains because they were hungry. Jesus had them running a pretty busy schedule the other six days of the week. Here, they paused to eat some of the grain in the fields. The Pharisees, however, had a pretty established code of ethics for keeping the Sabbath commandment, however. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was a big deal – one of the Ten Commandments! And so they outlined what would be considered work, and what wasn’t. Going through the fields and picking up leftover grain definitely was work, in their books.
Essentially, what God’s followers managed to do, was to take something that was created for their benefit (Sabbath) – something that would ensure they wouldn’t be overworked, and wouldn’t overwork the land – something that would make sure they took time to enjoy life, and they turned it into something that was oppressive and yet another burden. They spent all their time of rest, worried about whether or not they were resting the “right” way. In one of Jesus’ more pointed rebukes he states: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).
I haven’t been able to shake the connection of this teaching of Jesus’ to our practice of sports in the world today. I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t say the same thing about sports. Sports were created for our enjoyment – for our leisure. They were intended to bring families together – now, they rob most families of their family time. They were intended to help maintain healthy bodies, and while there is an obesity epidemic that largely needs positive practices of sports – at the same time, there is a growing lists of ailments and overuse injuries witnessed in younger and younger athletes. They were intended to foster a spirit of camaraderie and unity – now, they often ostensibly support teamwork and team spirit, but often fuse with a competitive dog-eat-dog spirit that sows further dissension.
There’s no quick fix or easy answer for wrestling with the intricately, complex world of youth sports. However, I think a first step in the right direction is to remember Jesus’ words regarding the Sabbath. Every parent and young athlete alike should ask themselves the question, “Does my participation in this system still allow for me and/or my child to fulfill the goals of leisure and enjoyment sports should help embody?” “Do I feel stuck and enslaved to a sport, a team, a coach, or a league?” Admittedly, there is a fine line between committing to compete at a high level, and selling ourselves to the sport itself. My fear is that few of us are genuinely wrestling with these issues at all and would do well to seriously ask ourselves these two questions.