Dancing in March

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

march madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.