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.

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

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.

Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.

Welcome to Holy Week: The Super Bowl as Religious Festival

One of the most intriguing aspects of the study of religion and sport is to watch the games evolve from sacred origins to a more secular place today.  Allen Guttman summarizes this evolution well: “We do not run in order that the earth be more fertile.  We till the earth, or work in our factories and offices, so that we can have time to play,”  (From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports – p. 26)  Of course, that is not to say that the sacred is completely absent in today’s games, and that is never more clearly on display than the week of the Super Bowl.  A little over a decade ago, Jospeh L. Price penned a brief essay entitled, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival.”  Though he doesn’t describe the comparison in great detail, his observation is keen.

In his book The Holy Trinity of American Sports, Craig Forney explores the elements of America’s civil religion in our three most popular sports: football, basketball, and baseball which he believes, “form a trinity of ‘major sports’ working together each year in portrayal of the national worldview” (16).  Forney, among others, point out that the ebbing and flowing of American culture is largely dictated by its sports.  Rather than January ushering in the start of a new year, baseball’s spring training, and college basketball’s March Madness provide a more accurate occasion for a new year.  Coinciding with the renewing of nature in spring, these spring sports capture the imagination of the American public and catapult us forward into a new season.  As sports continues its burgeoning throughout the cultural landscape, at both subtle and overt levels, sports dictates the framework within which much of culture operates – whether one is a sports fan or not.

What makes sports so powerful, I am in the process of arguing, is that it is so intertwined with other powerful realities: politics, economics, and culture to name but three.  The National Anthem serves as an invocation, as well as a military fly-over, and often a recorded message from the President.  The astronomical price of advertising during the Super Bowl is common knowledge and accentuates the economic power that sports have come to embody.  While sports have an obvious universal appeal, each culture has its own games and national imperialism often has sport as a key element (think of the prominent way that Americans emphasize (and proselytize baseball, basketball, and American football around the world), but have been slow to accept hockey (from Canada), and soccer, rugby, and cricket (from Europe)).

All of this comes together in the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  Football is a fall sport, but its championships are played in the winter.  College’s champion was crowed a few weeks ago, and now all eyes have turned to the American crown jewel of sports: the NFL, and it’s crowing moment – the Super Bowl.  To the extent that sports is America’s civil religion, the Super Bowl represents its most important religious festival.  There are regularly serious petitions set out to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday.  It is the culmination of a year’s worth of sporting events, set to restart itself with the basketball season, and just-around-the-corner MLB spring training.

If the Super Bowl is the chief religious festival in the United States, that makes today the start of Holy Week (and in true America style – our Holy Week actually last two weeks – with the additional week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl).  There will be non-stop talk about the game, the teams, the half time show, the commercials, past Super Bowls, past Super Bowl MVPs, the current state of football, and any other obscure, quasi-related topics they can find.  And the game will be played, after the seven hour pregame show, crowning a new champion who will be “going to Disney World” .  .  . and then . . . the whole year will start over again.

Stating that the Super Bowl is a religious festival is neither to affirm that as a positive cultural trait, or to chastise it as all too secular.  It’s simply an observation of our culture.  This weekend, our nation will be littered with Super Bowl parties, tailgate parties (all inside, in this part of the country!), fun and game.  It’s the one time of the year that, even if you don’t care the slightest for sports, come next Monday, if you don’t know what happened the day before, people will look at you like you’re Amish.  In any regard, I have no interest in the teams that are playing this year (other than the fact that as a Browns fan, I never root for the Ravens), but I will watch all the same.  I will enjoy a fun evening with people from my church, as well as friends from our neighborhood.  It seems to me to be the perfect night for America to truly embody the ethos of the New Testament ideal of koinonia . . . it’s just disappointing that it takes a sporting event to draw us together like this.

In any case, it’s almost baseball season!  This is our year!  Go Tribe!

 

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.

Laying an Egg

So . . . “God, Superman, and the Buckeyes.” I guess, due to the title of my blog, I am at liberty to review the second annual “Buckeye laying of an egg.” Last year, following the national championship blow out I was numb. Really surprised at how poorly the Buckeyes played – note, not how well the Gators played, but how poorly the Buckeyes played. I knew Florida was a great team, but they were not that much better than Ohio State. Only the most obvious football fan would not allow at least that much. I’m convinced those two teams could have played 100 more times and it would have never been that one-sided. Maybe Florida wins all 100, Ohio St. sure did nothing to argue against that, but I can’t imagine by that much.

So . . . how exciting was it for us this year to have an immediate opportunity to make up for that pitiful performance last year. The program’s quality took major hits all year, but a very unique opportunity to make ammends. And . . . it was like deja vu all over again! I mean, everything down to the opening big play, and then the final wide margin of victory. Wow. By no means do I think this Ohio St. team played as poorly as did last year’s team. But disappointment abounds. Normally, I would leave it at that. My team had a unique opportunity to play on a big stage in the biggest college football game of the year, the blew it, oh well, they did pretty well. [Note: I am writing this a week after it happened, so the levels of frustration and disappointment have gone down tremendously. Make no doubt about it, this was a huge disappointment.] But, it’s not the end of the world. We’re moving on to next year . . . however, if there is a fallacy in the current college football system, it’s that we’re not allowed to move on. Instead, the national media (intent on finding out who the BEST team is, must argue one). I’d be right there too if I was a USC fan or a Georgia fan. So . . . the talk goes on, and here’s my much-biased opinion (and surely someone will have an opinion here too!)

The battle of conferences
I grew up respecting every college football team (except Michigan). There was no reason to care about football outside of the Midwest, and if a team was brought up, there was hardly ever any ill-feelings (outside of Miami and Florida St. in some of there more thuggish years). Then I moved to Nashville and had many friends from the Southeast and realized that they were raised to hate the Big Ten. I am totally serious here: I’d never thought much about the SEC. Not for good, or ill, but they definitely turned me into SEC-haters. They bashed teams from all over the country. They play the best football in the country.

Then, after last year’s national championship, the case was settled for the national media. It’s a forgone conclusion for the national media – there’s the SEC, and then everyone else. Even the responses from Florida last year, and LSU this year. I’ve never seen such a disrespect for an entire other conference. Wow. Florida players last year lamented how they played four or five teams in the SEC better than Ohio State. This year an LSU player said Ohio State didn’t fight back like an SEC team. I’m glad they are proud for the schools they play alongside and they have their back, but I think they crossed the line of disrespect (as I’ve found to frequently be the case in the SEC especially with their fans). There’s no reason to typecast “all fans” and “all players,” and I know there are always exceptions, but the cockiness of this conference is ridiculous, and, I’m convinced, misjudged.

The numbers:
As an Ohio St. fan, the numbers don’t lie. I’m not here to justify anything. Ohio State stinks when it comes to their history with the SEC. From Ohio State’s most honored coach, Woody Hayes, to the underachieving John Cooper, and now to the Senator Jim Tressel, they just can’t figure it out. However, there’s more to football than numbers. Let’s look behind the numbers:
0 – 9 . . . this one is going to sit out there for a long time. Ohio State has never beat an SEC team in a bowl game. No way to sugar coat that one. There’s something in the air when it comes to that. However, let’s not get too carried away. Of the 9 times they’ve faced an SEC team, they’ve only been favored 3 times. In other words, even on paper, the team they were facing was supposed to win. The way the national media is talking you’d think that the top ranked Buckeyes were losing to bottom of the conference teams like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Not the case. Often in the Big Ten, (at least since the BCS era) they’ve had two teams in BCS bowls meaning the rest of the conference has had to play in a bowl slot higher than they’re supposed to.
7 – 2. That was the SEC’s record in bowl games this year. Impressive, no one is going to knock that. None of the other conferences come close to that. But, again, there is more to football than numbers. If the SEC is “clearly the best conference in the country” as is so often touted, then I would imagine they blew everyone out, right? Not even close:
* Ole Miss (and I’m really glad for them to win this game, helping overcome one of the most blatant vices of “the best conference” – racism – make some headway) over Central Florida. Ole Miss hung on at the end of the game with a touchdown late to beat UCF by 7.
* Tennessee is clearly outplayed by Wisconsin for 3 of 4 quarters and a late poorly thrown ball leads to the game-clinching interception (bad throw, not great play).
* Alabama wins a back and forth game with Colorado that could have easily gone either way
* Auburn, in a similar games, wins a come-from-behind victory over a team that played better than they did.
* Kentucky wins a game over a Florida State team that left half their team in Florida, and they won by only a touchdown.
* Arkansas got ripped against a Missouri team that got screwed out of a bcs game. Arkansas shouldn’t have been in this game so I don’t count that one against them.
* Georgia beat Hawaii. Big whip.
* Then of course there was the LSU win . . . which, by the way, was in New Orleans.

Why doesn’t anyone bring that up? The single most important thing in college football is personnel. That’s why everyone spends so much money on recruiting. Second most? I think it’s homefield advantage. Why do you think the NFL rewards teams with the best records with homefield? It’s a big deal! How does this affect the bowl picture? HUGELY! Yet, it’s only mentioned in passing. Consider this, of the 9 bowls SEC teams were in, they had a clear homefield advantage in 5 of them! Five! (Ole Miss played in Memphis, Florida in Orlando, LSU in New Orleans, Kentucky in Nashville, and Alabama in Shrevpoint). The other four sites were neutral at best (though Georgia had a clear advantage, more to do with opponent, Tenn in Florida, Auburn in Georgia, and Arkansas in Dallas).

My two points are this: consider the closeness of the games! 9 games, 7 wins – but only 2 decisive wins. Hardly a “best conference in the country” kind of statement. Secondly, when you consider the fact that 5 of the 9 games were played basically at home, how many of the “close” games could’ve gone the other way? Ask LSU that. They were so quick to jump on Ohio St. for not fighting back . . . how well did they fair on the road . . . oh yeah, they lost two games on the road to two teams that weren’t as good as they are. Interesting no one mentioned that . . . “glad we were at home.”

Since I’m a Big Ten guy, let’s compare how these things work against the other conferences. The Big Ten was represented in 8 games. They had a poor 3 – 5 showing, but looking behind the numbers is very telling. Whereas SEC teams played 6 home games and 3 neutral sites, the Big Ten played four outright road games (four of the top five teams in the conference played essentially away games: Michigan played Florida in Orlando, Ohio State played LSU in New Orleans, Penn State played Texas A & M in San Antonio, and Illinois played USC in their home stadium).

What about the games themselves? If the Big Ten is such a crappy conference, they must have all been blowouts. [Note, I think it should be pointed out more often that the Big Ten has 11 teams as opposed to the 12 in the SEC. I’ll give to the SEC that they have one more upper echelon team than the Big Ten does, but let’s not get carried away.] Michigan would have beat Florida by 3 touchdowns if Mike Hart doesn’t fumble twice at the goal line. Wisconsin beats UT without turning the ball over. Oklahoma State is clearly better than Indiana and I give them that game. I don’t know how Georgia draws Hawaii and Illinois draws USC, switch those games and the SEC gets another loss (face it Georgia fans, you’re not going out there and beating them as well as they played) and the Big Ten gets another win. That alone happening changes the numbers alot. Then, Michigan State, if they get any kind of quarterback play, defeats one of the best teams in the ACC (their qb threw 5! picks). And as significant as Ole Miss’ win over UCF, Purdue beat Central Michigan (it was a close game – but they had already played in the year, come on, no repeat games in the bowls!)

To me, what all of this says is, and if we learned anything about college football this year, it’s that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. And, as far as conferences go, there’s not a whole lot of difference between them. Sure, there might be more fan following in alot of those SEC schools because of the lack of professional sports in the South East, but that doesn’t mean it’s a clear cut better conference. C’mon. If you want numbers, then you’d like to know that head to head in bowls, the Big Ten and the SEC are all even over the past 10 years. What does that say? According to the national media, nothing!

And to top off all this unbelievable bias, everyone’s sure that LSU just had better players that Ohio State. Just like Florida did last year. Too much speed. Too much talent. Come on. If that comment gets made, then people have completely lost touch with reality. There are more Ohio State Buckeyes in the NFL than any other team expect Miami. More Buckeyes than any SEC school. And it’s not like there’s a lull coming. They keep putting them in there year after year after year. This is not about talent or ability or skill. It’s about the style of play. I was really impressed with LSU’s coaching and play-calling. In all honesty, that’s where I thought Ohio State had the biggest advantage. (I don’t think it was Les Miles as much as the rest of his staff, we’ll see how he coaches when all his boys leave). But chalk one up for the coaches as much as the players – that was especially evident last year.

I’m rambling along about a lot of things here, and probably no one is still reading, but I want to say one or two more words about the current system in college football because it is relevant. (This has definitely helped my grieving process 🙂

The obsession with knowing “who the best team” is, is out of control. The arguments people use in college football are ridiculous when you compare them to the NFL. Is LSU better than USC? That’s the big burning question out there. Well, suppose we have an 8 team playoff, USC beats LSU and wins it all, does that settle it? Is that more satisfying that what happened this year since they actually meet head on? They still lost to Stanford. Does that mean Stanford is better than LSU and USC? That’s just the stupid stuff that the current debate leads to. The strength of the BCS is that all games are important. You have to win them all (the negative side-effect is that if you lose your first or second game as a big school, you can easily lose perspective). That’s why all this talk about inter-conference strength has gotten fired up. Think about it, the SEC has to be vocal that their conference it the best because they seldom go out of their conference to play any meaningful games. Instead they battle it out in their conference, scream their conference is better than everyone else’s, and rest all of their prowess on that. Then they occasionally take a risk and Arkansas gets rolled by USC and Tennessee gets stomped by Cal, and I have no idea why these games don’t speak louder than they do. Instead, the SEC goes off into their SEC schedules and everyone assumes they have it so much harder than everyone else. It’s a farce.

I like Ohio State’s philosophy. They are scheduling a home and away with big schools for the next decade. They have a big one with USC coming up the next two years, they had the two with Texas, they have two with Oklahoma, Virgina Tech, and Miami Fl. Then the other two weeks they play Ohio schools supporting football in Ohio. I think it is a good philosophy. No one’s going to go out there and schedule three tough out of conference opponents. With all respect to the SEC, all conferences have a tough schedule. There are tough schools, mediocre schools, and patsies in every conference. No one walks roughshod through their conference every year. It’s rare that even a Hawaii or Boise State do it. You put them through, let them play against another conference’s school who has proved the same in their conference, and then have it out. One team shows they are better.

I do think a national championship has to be played on a more neutral site. It’s ludicrous to think that it doesn’t have an impact. I’m glad everyone was so proud of LSU for not getting down when they got behind by 10, but what happens if they get behind by 10 in Cincinnati or, for all purposes, Columbus? Instead of the crowd going silent, they go crazy? Maybe the exact same thing. There’s no way to argue either way, but it is worth discussing. Ohio State, even though they were the underdog was seeded higher, and they win a date to play on a field 80 miles from the 2 seed they are playing. That should be dealt with. I would have been much more satisfied if the game had been played at one of the other sites (no argument about the affect the crowd had on us against Florida 🙂 I just think it is a farce that all season long everyone makes such a big deal about it, and then come bowl season, it’s an aside to the discussion.

Finally, I have only heard one person mention the style of play (I think it was Michale Wilbon on PTI) and how that affects things. I really think the game plan that LSU played, and the style of play they use, would have gotten them blown out of some games in the Big Ten (I’m thinking of the Ohio State game against Michigan – cold, snowy, drizzly). I’m really going to be interested, and maybe proven totally wrong, by Rich Rodgriguez brining the spread offense to Michigan. Don’t be suprised if they win all their games every year and lose a couple weather-related games late each year. Tough to win games in the Big Ten when you can’t run the ball . . . run the ball . . . run the ball . . .

There’s always next year . . . my hope is that Ohio State defeats USC and salvages their image and the image of the entire Big Ten . . . but remember, LSU’s win over Ohio State was about LSU and Ohio State, not their respective conferences. The Big Ten represented just fine, time to give them some props.

Football talk

OK . . . This continues on a discussion from a below post, but I thought I would make it another post on the main page. Ohio St. beats Michigan four of five years – that demands a front page story. Go Bucks! What a great weekend. And the Browns pitch a shutout? You’ve got to be kidding me. Someone wake me up. Here is my reply to you Brian:

I have to say there is nothing greater than beating Michigan . . . ahhh . . . thanks for the props. Also, I appreciate your comment about the Harvard – Yale game. That is one of college athletics’ neatest contests. Did you see the game this year? It was on WGN. It went to triple overtime. Great finish.

Also, I understand your confusion on the regional broadcasts. ESPN was going crazy with their regional coverage – I saw like ten different lines across the bottom and couldn’t keep up with what games were going on where and such.

And as for Miami, what in the world happened? I watched the second half of the game and couldn’t believe it. I thought Miami was a little overrated because their offense has been so anemic, but then they went to Blacksburg, and I thought, maybe they’re for real. Now, I’m not sure what to think of them. That was a bad game – in the Orange Bowl even. Wow. They stayed in the top ten though.

Did you happen to stay up and watch USC and Fresno St. It wasn’t over until 2:30 Sunday morning, but I thought I’d try to overcome my “East coast bias” and check one of their games out. Here are my observations:

1 – Reggie Bush is the best college football player I have ever seen. Period. Now, I’m not that old, so I’m not about to make comparisons to players from further back (Hershel Walker, from what I’ve heard was quite the player). And I have seen some amazing players before. But I have never seen anyone like him before. He had over 500 yards of total offense. 500! I know Fresno St. isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain of defenses, but that’s ridiculous. Every time he touched the ball I really thought he was going to score. He should be a shoe-in for the Heisman.
2 – USC is not the best team in the country. If they played in the Big Ten, SEC, or the ACC they would have one, probably even two losses. In the SEC, they would really struggle because the play defense there this year (the Big Ten and ACC haven’t been as “defenseive” this year. They gave up 42 points to Fresno St. Fresno is an up-an-coming program, and they always put a respectable program out there, but 42 points? If you watched the game you know that they really deserved a better fate. Their quarterback threw two interceptions right to USC players (one went back for a TD), and they had two untimely fumbles. Take those out of the equation and USC loses. Put them up against those other conferences with better defenses and I don’t think Reggie Bush could have those yards, and Matt Leinart got eaten up pretty good by Fresno St.’s front four. Imagine what some of those other schools would do to them. Give me a break. My east coast bias wasn’t broken, but rather confirmed. The Pac 10 plays no defense. The Big Ten hasn’t exactly been lights out in the defense mode, but Penn St. and Ohio St. have two of the best in the country and I just can’t see USC winning those games week in and week out.

So anyway . . . Ohio St.’s season is over, until the bowl. If they don’t make it to a BCS bowl game it will be the shaft of the year. Because of the stupid way they have it set up, it looks like either West Virginia or South Florida (yeah, South Florida, give me a break) will get an automatic bid from the Big East. If South Florida goes and a high profile school (like Ohio St., Virginia Tech, Miami) get left out, I think that will mandate some changes next year. That just can’t happen.
OK . . . enough college football ramblings.

The Game

I have been remiss to this point in the week to not include a post about tomorrow’s Ohio St. and Michigan game. Sorry for all of you fans from other parts of the country – this is college football’s rivalry. It’s simply referred to as “The Game,” the game by which all are measured. One radio station here collected dirty underwear all week to send to Ann Arbor. Another radio station is having a “Bash Lloyd’s car party” tomorrow. And the list goes on of ways our community, for one weekd during the year, bashes the state up north (OK, it’s alot more than just for the week, but it gets really bad this week). I wish I had more time to reflect on the hugeness of this game . . . but that will have to do until after. You’ll know the outcome by the tone of my next post. GO BUCKS!