Praying for an Error

We’ve all heard those stories of famous athletes who became a public goat following a highly public sports gaffe.  One of the most heinous examples was that of Colombian soccer player Andes Escobar who, during a 1994 World Cup match against the United States accidentally scored in his own goal and was murdered two weeks after returning to Colombia.  While the Escobar incident is notoriously one of the most extreme examples, there have been countless examples of fans threatening to harm or even kill athletes for their shortcomings in big sports moments.

No one represents the fallen athlete in American sports as much as former Major League Baseball player, Bill Buckner.  Buckner had a highly successful major league career that lasted over 20 years.  He collected over 2,700 hits and even won a batting title in 1980 while playing for the Chicago Cubs.  Buckner, however, is best known for missing a routine ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series at Fenway Park while a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Like many of these big time sports goats, Buckner was sent death threats and this one error came to define his career – quite unfortunate when you consider how good of a career he truly had.

It would seem as though the majority of spectators and fans of sports  are stable enough to resist sending death threats to athletes or harming those who make mistakes (though attending some youth sports games can make a person begin to wonder).  These extreme cases, however, do reveal a troubling characteristic with which most sports fans are forced to wrestle. Team sports has a tendency to dehumanize its participants.  Athletes wear uniforms of the same color in order to set themselves apart from the other team who wear a different uniform.  Spectators in the stands wear their teams’ colors.  We feel camaraderie with our team.  And many of the sociological traits that are present in the concept of mob mentality permeate sports venues.  We feel a hyper connectivity with fellow fans.  So we high five strangers after our team scores a touchdown.  We scream and yell for our team to succeed.  And we root against the other team.

And there happens to be a fine line between cheering for our team and rooting against the other team.  You see this happen when a player gets injured.  I will assume the humanity in all fans – that there is a pang of empathy for any injured player and an authentic hope that he or she is OK, but if we are completely honest, doesn’t the empathy seem to come a little more quickly when it’s one of “our” players?  In this split-second pause, we are confronted by the major challenges that sports presents us.

All the time I hear aggressive parents encouraging their children to play harder and stronger and faster and . . . there is the slightest feeling that they want to take that other team – or player – “down.”  Taking them down is part of the game!  If we can’t all win – someone has to lose.  And we’d just all assume it would be “them ” lose instead of us.   And, ever so subtlety, we feel ourselves hoping, not just that we win, but that they lose.  Just watch a parent when their child is playing a team with a player who is significantly better than all the other players.  They can easily find themselves rooting for that player’s failure as much as their own child’s success.  It’s the same feeling we get when we are playing a game when we know that it is impossible to win.  Those are difficult emotions to process.

Which is one of the reasons why sports is so great.  It offers us a relatively safe environment to experience these feelings of aggression and inadequacy.  It offers us a playground to try out feelings and emotions that are every bit as relevant to the workplace and the real world as they are to the sports contest itself.

Throughout all of our experiences in sports – whether we are playing them or watching them – we must remember to humanize the event.  While we are watching our children playing a game, it is not another team they are playing against, it is another group of boys and girls with different personalities, gifts, challenges, and experiences.  Maybe that player is a jerk because his family life is in shambles.  Maybe that coach is over-the-top because she struggles mightily with her self image.  Maybe that parent is so boisterous because he and his wife are going through a divorce.  Maybe that official made a bad call because he got fired the day before and his mind isn’t completely in the game.

It seems like a simple enough task, but our passion for sports makes remembering the humanity of the players more challenging than it seems like it would be.  When our rival team hires a new coach, we don’t wonder about his family life or his off-the-field demeanor.  We just don’t like him and hope he is unsuccessful.  When a player from the other team takes a cheap shot on our child or one of their teammates, we don’t wonder how she does in school or whether she is loved at home – we just hope our daughter will get her back somehow.

Sports are at their best when we humanize them – when we remember that sports are created for all of us to enjoy.  Sports journalism illustrates how this works when they give the back story to players we watch on television.  They serve as a reminder of the humanity of the players.  They remind us that there is more to life than sports, and while we all know that, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to keep that in mind.

It’s kind of like when my children see one of their teachers outside of the school.  They have a difficult time processing the fact that their teachers have any life at all outside of the school building.  Most elementary school children have trouble imaging their teachers ever leave the school building.  Everyone always gets a good laugh out of this when we meet them outside of school.  It seems to me, this is the same thing that happens in sports.  The sports figures are there for our enjoyment and our pleasure and it is easy for us to forget that they leave the field, arenas, and gyms too.  They have other lives besides what we see.  Remembering this fact will help us keep sports in their proper place.

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Parents of Children in (or about to be in) Sports Should Read This!

Just a note: I’ve updated a few of the pages on my blog and uploaded a few academic papers as well as a few old sermons.  I would like to pass along anything I create that I think might be helpful – that’s why I haven’t posted much – figuring not much would be helpful 🙂  Maybe you’ll find something of use there.  I did post a series of sermons I preached back in 2010 that you may find helpful if you find yourself in a Church of Christ that is wrestling through some of the theological and hermeneutical challenges that are a bit unique to us.  See what you think.

Game on

As I’ve begun this trek through youth sports and have been searching for the role of the church in helping equip our members for how to navigate these waters, few things have opened my eyes as wide as this book by Tom Farrey, published in 2008 (and then republished in 2009).

In writing his book, Farrey follows the development of children beginning with the first chapter (age 1) through the final chapter (age 14) discussing different parents’ obsession with making their children into sports icons.  He takes the reader to a sperm bank in Southern California where he quotes a doctor there as saying, “I’d say somewhere between 40% and two-thirds of the infertile couples look to prioritize athletic traits” . . . “In fact, after ethnicity . . . attributes such as height and body shape are most frequently requested” (p. 43).  He goes to a sports arena in Concord, Massachusetts to discuss with the parents of a set of seven-year-old twin girls who already are thinking ivy league, D-1 scholarships, and who already shell out over $10,000 per twin, per year, for hockey.  He takes the reader to Europe and compares the (much more effective) approach the French have towards their youth soccer programs which begins later in childhood and are much less rote and machine-esque  in comparison to the American counterpart.  From AAU to the NCAA, from soccer to basketball to girl’s hockey .  .  . even fencing is not out of Farrey’s aim.

Such a comprehensive volume is difficult to summarize in a brief blog overview, but I’ll do my best.  Farrey essentially sees a system of youth sports in the United States that has become extremely broken as it increasingly marginalizes the poor who cannot afford to be part of the system, contributes to the lack of inactivity and obesity in the country as travel and elite leagues stymie opportunities that use to exist in local recreation leagues, creates false dreams of NCAA scholarships (reinforcing what Michael Novak said more than 30 years ago – that sports has effectively become the opiate of the masses), and is detrimental to the country’s performance in international competition (he argues that not only does the current system do great harm to our country’s children – it’s actually not the best program for promoting athletes who compete at the highest levels – he offers Australia as a better example of success – check out their medal count in recent Olympics).

youth-sports

There is a great deal in Farrey’s work that will take some time for me to digest.  I am amazed at the irony of his book being published by ESPN who he points to (carefully, but certainly) as helping contribute to these problems.

Farrey is not writing from a Christian point of view, per say, but a great deal of what he points out should resonate with Christians looking for their children to participate in sports.  If sports, indeed, is a spiritual power, we should be asking ourselves, “In what ways can my children participate and contribute to the created good, intent of sports” rather than shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Any parent who is wrestling for the best way their child might participate in youth sports would do well to read Farrey – and read it before you child is faced with the many opportunities that will come his or her way for participation in sports.  Be proactive, instead of sitting back and being marketed to.  Know what is best for your family.  Know what you are and aren’t willing to do.  Know how much travel you are willing to participate.  Know how much money you are willing to spend.  And keep your dreams realistic.  Don’t think about plans for your child to develop into a D1 athlete – think instead about how they can enjoy their childhood, and allowing sports to impact his or her life alongside other worthy endeavors.

When it comes to dreams of D-1 scholarships and opportunities at the “next level” I find it instructive to consider Farrey’s words as a reminder to stay grounded:

NCAA_Clearinghouse_Registration“I’ll keep it to one sentence.  If you’re gifted, really gifted, and lucky (right team, right coaches, right scheme, no wrecked knees) and play by the unwritten but uncompromising rules of the NCAA establishment – devote 360 days a year to your team and don’t make a habit of questioning the fairness of a system that uses your ability to perform in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars while you are on campus – then you might end up like Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, with a hunk of wood and metal in your left hand and a strirring national feature story (set to soft jazz) that memorializes your childhood descent into a Cleveland foster home and emergence as a student-athlete-celebrity, and how that Heisman Trophy you just won is going to motivate other kids to rise up from the ghetto in a similar manner, thereby helping to recycle the myth – critical to existing public policy – that big-time, commercialized college sports like D1 football and basketball are a viable route to a better life, when in fact there’s no real evidence to suggest that collectively the poor have been lifted by all that sport-centric dreaming and, besides, the Heisman isn’t what kids in the ghetto dream about anyway because chunks of metal and wood don’t put dinner on the family table and sometimes don’t even guarantee an NFL career, even if you so far have beaten the odds.”  (p. 146 – 147)

Let’s get realistic about our children’s involvement in sports – our communities will be better for it.

The Power of Sports

On a crisp, wet October weekend in 1998, I packed up my car and headed out from Nashville, TN, where I was in college, and headed north to Columbus, OH to crash with my high school buddy, Marc Tobias, to attend my very first Ohio State football game.  Marc had an extra ticket for that weekend’s big game against the newest Buckeye rival – Penn State University.  I can remember my excitement building as I drove the last few miles up I-71 North, passing a car decked out in Penn State colors while I held up my stuffed Brutus the Buckeye as I passed him.

My first game experience was incredible.  Ohio State was ranked #1, and Penn State was #7 – quite a showdown for my first game!  My friend had scored us seats that were near the fifty yard line and only ten rows behind Ohio State’s bench.  I remember that it was so loud every time Penn State had the ball that I couldn’t hear my friend talk.  Anyone who grows up a huge sports fan always remembers going to their first game.  For Ohio State fans it’s the pomp and circumstance of the band, ESPN Game Day had just started traveling around, and they were in Columbus for the weekend, we even high-fived well known Ohio State fan, Richard Lewis after a Buckeyes touchdown.

There were so many things to remember from that weekend, but one memory that has embellished itself into my mental scrapbook was having to wait for the players and coaches to pass by at half time, and seeing the legendary coach Joe Paterno pass within five feet of me.  He may not have been “our” coach, but everyone I knew respected this man and all that he stood for – seeing him walk so closely past me – especially on game day – was pretty surreal.

I mentioned that the game was in 1998.  Ohio State won the game, but today we learned that even if Penn State had won the game – it would have been forfeited, along with the other 112 games that were forfeited today.  Apparently, as I was cutting my teeth on what I considered the best experience of sports – getting to see my team with 100,000 screaming others all wearing scarlett and gray, at the very same time, an unspeakable reality was making its way through the upper levels of Penn State’s offices – a reality that would not be deal with for, incredibly, fourteen more years.

As I listened to the press conference on my way to the office this morning, I knew I would probably always remember where I was when I heard the incredible punishment dealt to Penn State – loss  of scholarships, a huge $60 million dollar fine, bowl bans, in addition to other punitive measures.  Media outlets have been abuzz all day today covering every angle of the punishments.  This case has been particularly captivating largely due to having so many angles of implications.

I’m not a Penn State fan, and while I shared my only connection to Joe Paterno above, I am more deeply connected to this story than I want to admit.  It is a sports story – but it is so much more – as has been said and re-said for the past several weeks.  The thing we must realize is sports stories are always more than sports stories.  Our sports tell us something about ourselves.  They are mirrors into our culture and mirrors into ourselves – safe ways that we can deal with the more challenging aspects of life.

Sports, when they are good – are really good.  Sports, as we’ve learned, when they are bad – they are really, really bad.  I found the following comments from NCAA president, Mark Emmert, particularly noteworthy as I listened to the news conference today:

“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sport is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge.  The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at any costs.”

I will have to save the implicit irony of these words coming from an NCAA president who is helping oversee the transition to an NCAA football postseason format that will begin an unprecedented bidding war in collegiate sports for another day.  Taking the words at their face value – these are some of the more poignant words I’ve heard relating to sports in awhile.

Theologically, I consider sports to be a power.  In the New Testament Paul writes often of powers and principalities.  Stanley Grenz calls them “structures of existence.”  It’s the “man,” the “system,” the thing that is always before us and around us, but never quite tangible or accessible.  In large part, they give order to society – that’s what they were created to do.  However, they have become corrupt just like all other aspects of creation.

Sports are good.  Even great.  They provide distraction from the difficulties of life.  They give practice and preparation for life.  But, like all other powers, they become oppressive.  As I have attempted to teach and lead my son in all the good that sports can be, I have found myself, (already – he’s only seven!) having to address the topics of steroids, lying coaches (remember, we’re Ohio State fans), baseball players who lie about their names and ages (this weird story), the economics of why players we have cheered for have to play for another team (thanks LeBron, thanks Yankees, thanks . . . well you get the point), and now . . . this horrific story that’s kind of in a league all of its own.

As we wrestle with this Penn State case, it seems to me that it is a good chance for us all to wrestle with the role sports plays in our lives and in the lives of our families.  Few things are as ubiquitous as sports.  That alone makes critical discussion of this topic warranted.

Jesus once taught his disciples that God didn’t make man for the Sabbath, but Sabbath was created for man’s enjoyment – for his rest and pleasure.  Unfortunately, the teachers of the law made observing the Sabbath a burden.  I often wonder if the same logic shouldn’t apply to sports.  Sports were created for society’s enjoyment.  When sports stop being fun, when they stop providing the healthy distraction and positive break that they were intended to be, we have become slaves to our own creation.  The only way something as tragic as what happened on Penn State’s campus for all those years is that somewhere along the line, probably at many places along the line, people were serving sports rather than allowing sports to serve them.

I’m not a Penn State fan – you can’t be if you’re an Ohio State fan.  But I like Penn State.  It has always been a game I look forward to every year.  I like their fans – their passion.  They are brothers in the Big Ten Conference.  It will be difficult to see them deal with what no doubt will come in the next five to ten years.  However, it is also an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for their fans to come and fill one of the largest stadiums in the country with fans who come and cheer on student athletes in their teens and twenties who play not because they will win anything, but because they love the sport, they respect the game, and they get to have fun.  Perhaps Penn State fans can lead us all toward a healthier place of sports in our society.

Reflections from a Football Weekend

If you know me at all, you know that I love football. I can’t help it. It is something I’ve tried to shake as I have gotten older. I mean, after all, sports are a nice leisurely activity, but in this country we’ve made them into a modern day idol. I fight the idolic tendencies football brings to my life every fall, not very well if you ask my wife I’m sure, but I love football. I grew up in the cradle of football history. Pro football was never far away – the Bears, the Lions, the Colts, the Bengals, the Steelers, and, of course, the Browns, were always on television – and this was before cable television. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is only three hours from my hometown. Football ruled at my high school growing up, the year after I graduated they won their first, and only, state championship. Now, if you’re not from Ohio or Texas or Florida or California, I’m not sure you really appreciate how big of a deal that is. In Ohio, like it or not, football is king. I love football.

I love football because I have so many fond memories. My grandpa has instilled football in me since I was as little as Clark is (who is now being instilled the ways of football). The very first Browns game I went to in old Municipal stadium we sat a few rows in front of a bunch of guys smoking pot and spraying perfume to cover it up (I was too young to even know what was going on, but have been told from the others who were there). One of my earliest memories of Cleveland Browns football was when we were walking into the stadium for the first time and a guy with blood all over him was getting carted to a nursing station – he had obviously been in a fight.

Some of my fondest memories of all are football memories. We got to see the Browns actually beat the Broncos back in the 80’s when they could never do it in the playoffs. The Broncos had to switch ends during the game because fans in the Dawg Pound were throwing dog bones at them. One of the first football chants I ever heard in the stands was, “Elway’s a faggot.” I remember watching with my grandpa the AFC Championship game against the Broncos when Ernest Byner fumbled at the one yard line and failed to seal their fate to the Super Bowl. I remember that my grandpa and I recorded the game . . . we never watched the tape. It could have been one of the other AFC Championships they lost to the Broncos, they all kind of run together now.

I remember when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore my senior year of high school. That first fall without the Browns was kind of weird. I moved to Nashville and never really could follow them as well from down there. Still, my grandpa had every Browns Illustrated that ever was published. But, even he stopped them during their away years.

I think it was those years when my attention really shifted to the Buckeyes. I had always watched the Buckeyes growing up, was always a huge fan, but they always took a seat to the Browns. With no Browns, my attention shifted. My buddy went to Ohio State and invited me up to the Penn St. Ohio St. game in 1998. That was my first game. It was unbelievable. His seats were seven or eights rows off the field. We couldn’t even hear each other talk. It was the coolest thing ever . . . until he invited me back up for the Michigan game. It was the only time John Cooper beat Michigan. We ran onto the field and just about got crushed . . . still the only time I’ve ever been pepper sprayed. I came back up two years later the next time Ohio State played Michigan. They lost. I think that might have been John Cooper’s last game. I remember walking out and hearing a father tell his son to quiet down, he told him it was like a funeral.

My passion for the Browns was reignited when Mary Beth and I took a trip up to see a season opener a few years ago. It was a 9 to 6 barn stormer. They lost. Of course. They have been really bad, for a really long time.

The Buckeyes, though, keep getting better. In January 2003 we headed to Tempe, and thanks to a friend that I still have not been able to adequately pay back, we got tickets for the Fiesta Bowl and got to see Ohio St. beat Miami in one of the greatest college football games ever. Six months later we moved to Columbus and entered the crazy football college town that is Columbus, OH. Since we moved here the city has become obsessed with Ohio State football, thanks largely in part, I suppose, to guys like me. Since we moved here we’ve been fortunate enough to go to a home game each year. Two years ago, Mary Beth and I saw them play Wisconsin, and I saw a loss first hand for only the second time.

This all brings me to my great football weekend. We have been planning to see the Browns Jets game on Sunday. Friday I got a call for tickets to the Buckeyes game. So Saturday, Mary Beth and I got to watch the Buckeyes dominate the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and have a great time there. Then, last night we went to Cleveland to watch the Browns (actually) win against the Jets. My passion for Browns football was reignited as I was reminded of the blazon optimism that comes with being a maligned Browns fan as we walked out of the stadium I overheard some yell “We’re Super Bowl bound!” – not many 2-5 football towns hold to such optimism.

And so the fall goes on. I have tickets with a couple of other guys to go to Northwestern next Saturday for their game against the Buckeyes, and keep hoping, beyond hope, that someone, somewhere will find a lonesome Ohio St. – Michigan ticket for me in order to add to the list of great games I have been privileged to attend. Or perhaps $600 to come my way to buy one.

In my next post I can analyze the absolute absurdity and downright ungodliness of paying that much money for a sporting event when people around the world are starving.

Go Browns! Go Bucks!

Lamenting

OK . . . so I shouldn’t care so much and it is a total waste of time and emotions, but I am really bummed today about Ohio State’s big choke job last night against Texas. It was a great game and it definiitely lived up to the hype surrounding it, but it was so dissappointing to watch a game we basically dominated (all but the first and last 5 minutes of) turn out to be a loss. Texas didn’t win it . . . Ohio St. lost it. Jim Tressel played the way that he always has (why are we so suprised?) Ball control . . . field position . . . special teams . . . and it worked for all but one drive when they couldn’t stop Vince Young (who by the way is a stud of a player. I was totally unimpressed with Texas as a team, but Vince Young is the best player in the country – take him out of the line up and Texas loses to OSU by 20 and at least three other games on their schedule. Sickening . . . sickening . . . sickening . . . that’s all I can say. Let’s go over the wrap-up:
* Missed tackle that would have resulted in Ohio St. 2 points & ball back
* Poor kickoff before half time and 15 yard penalty equals Texas 3 points.
* Three possessions given to Ohio St. inside the Texas 30 should have been at least 17 points instead of 9.
* Dropped touchdown pass by Ryan Hamby equals 7 instead of 3 points.
* Missed 50 yard field goal that could have been pooch punt makes Young drive 80 or 90 yards instead of 60. (Though I don’t blame Tressel for kicking it).

If even half of these things go OSU’s way . . . they win by two touchdowns. Give Texas credit for hanging around . . . but not too much credit. A rematch would have to go Ohio State’s way. What could have been . . .

On another note . . . the Big Ten had a chance to step up this year and get the critics off their back, but yesterday they showed that they suck hard. Michigan is way overrated . . . they should have never been ranked in the top ten. Iowa . . . well I don’t know what they were thinking. Purdue and Ohio St. are the conferences only chance. Another crappy year . . . but I can’t shake my hometown bias . . . even after this crappy start . . . I think it’s still the best conference in America. Don’t think USC would have their winning streak if they played against Big Ten opponents every week. But what does a hometown bias do for you?

Ohio St. still can run the table and make a big splash in the national title picture. I don’t see USC losing because they don’t play anyone all year (Notre Dame is not going to beat them Irish fans calm down). I really don’t see who can beat Texas. Ohio St. has the best linebackers in the country and they couldn’t slow Young down . . . I don’t see who will be able to. Somebody might come out of the SEC undefeated as well . . . so all the Buckeyes can do is hope for losses all around.

This by they way is the perfect argument for a playoff in college football. Why should a three point loss in September make you feel like your chances are over for the national championship? With teams only playing 11 games , it’s impossible to judge who’s better than who. College football needs an 8 team playoff styem. Sure there would still be arguments about the seventh and eighth teams, but that seems a little more moot than who should be number one and two.

Enough rambling. Man I wish we would have won . . .