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Does Sports Matter Too Much?

To point out instances where we human beings don’t practice consistent values is easy. Things that should be important aren’t, and things that aren’t important get elevated to the status of “central to life”.

One of these latter is sports. By the time I moved to Ohio over a decade ago, I’d been exposed to irrational fandom (the Cornhuskers in Nebraska, the 49ers and the Giants in San Francisco) but this was the first time I’d encountered people who would actually dislike you if you admitted that you had no special loyalty to The Ohio State University Buckeyes football team—or worse if you expressed a fondness for Michigan State.

Full disclosure: I don’t follow team sports. I don’t know which mascot plays in which city with which shape of ball, nor do I care. But as for the way sports affects us, I have a few thoughts.

Recently in a city near where I pastor a group of high school football players allegedly plied a 16-year-old girl with alcohol until she passed out, violated her and dragged her unconscious from party to party performing variations on the theme. I say “allegedly” only because nothing has yet been to trial: it happened in public as friends took cell phone shots of it, some of which escaped into social media. Commentary on it was reposted endlessly, even by parents of the principal offenders, as though it were no big deal (one mother making the twin observations on Facebook that “boys will be boys” and “whores will be whores”).

As bad as that is, worse was that the authorities didn’t seem to take it seriously, either. School officials denied knowledge of it at first, and local prosecutors dragged their feet, even at one point offering immunity to the offenders. It seemed to many that this was because of how much Steubenville adores its high school football team. “Big Red” regularly wins against far larger schools and has gone to state championships numerous times. The boys involved were the team stars. Right away team boosters began to blame the girl—and they continue to. It wasn’t until five months later, after a persistent blogger pounded on the story, that it concentrated national attention and forced authorities to act with serious intent. (The parents of a student involved sued the blogger.)

Steubenville is only a few hours from a state university whose popular assistant football coach was a child molester for decades under the cover of his charity for children. Though Jerry Sandusky’s activities were known to his superiors, those in charge did nothing, because football was the boat that kept Penn State afloat—a boat no one dared to rock.

I don’t mean to say that such offenses are alway happening in sports. Team sports really does have the potential to develop leadership, sportsmanship, fitness and physical skills. But when it becomes a mania it has a cost, especially to education.

That we exalt professional athletes is bad enough. The profits are so enormous there that people like Lance Armstrong will use performance-enhancing drugs and lie about it for decades. I can understand why people enjoy seeing their own children playing a ball game, but the strong appeal of pro sports franchises puzzles me. The players aren’t hometown boys made good but highly paid professionals who often don’t even live in the city of their home venue. They have little loyalty to their city (I’m looking at you, LeBron) while the city’s loyalty to them seems more like religion than anything else, the way ancient people worshipped the geographically-specific gods of their region.

It troubles me most that education, especially higher education, is so heavily shaped by sports. What does it say about what we value that the football coach in some universities is far and away the highest paid person in the institution? If you want an eye-opener, read “The Shame of College Sports” in the October 2011 Atlantic magazine, about how NCAA rules force student athletes to work for free, while universities, coaches, and the NCAA itself make millions upon millions from them, shortchanging them on education in the process and throwing them away when they’re no longer useful. In short, “amateurism” is a myth, except to the players. Years ago when my wife attended a (not SDA) college with a strong sports program, her history teacher admitted to her one day after class that he’d felt obligated to give a very tall but inarticulate young man attending on an athletic scholarship, who slept through most of class if he came at all, about the same grade she’d earned—“a contribution,” he said, “to our basketball team.”

The whole business smells bad. And Christians have been pretty quiet about it.

I’m not an Ellen White fundamentalist, but I have much respect for her counsel and I believe we Adventists should always let her cast light on our Scripture-based decisions. Ellen White wrote about sports in schools before it was even a fraction as intense as it is today. She insisted that exercise is essential[1], though she favored physical work rather than play[2]. She didn’t condemn sports outright[3], as some have asserted, but she did warn about the effect of sports on the spiritual life when it becomes “a species of idolatry”[4]—which you can’t deny is all too common. As for Satan and his angels being there (which someone here will undoubtedly scoff at) have you ever seen a shouting match between parents at what is supposed to be a happy, harmless Little League game, or a fight between drunken fans in a stadium?

After decades of abstinence, some of our Adventist schools bought in to league sports. A friend in Adventist higher education admitted, “It helps us get and retain black male students.” To be clear, in our colleges league sports isn’t a moneymaker, like it is for many larger schools. Probably the opposite. Managed properly—which is to say, not emphasized at the expense of learning or spiritual growth—perhaps it does add value to education. Finding the balance between physical training and education takes Godly wisdom. From all I’ve heard our college and university leaders strive to stay well within the ethical norms. (Though one of our schools’ basketball games recently led to the unintentionally droll—to those of us who know the Adventist mythology—headline in The Intelligencer-Wheeling News-Register: “Jesuit Humiliates Washington Adventist.”)

And yet. Nowhere in the world is education so overshadowed by sports as it is in this country. A student at Oxford or Cambridge can join a collegiate football or cricket club, but no stupid person gets a free ride in those schools only because he’s brawny. In a world that is highly competitive professionally, many American universities have chosen to be very expensive youth entertainment franchises. And with respect to sports, the alumni insist that they stay that way. With the recent rollout of cheap online degrees by major universities, you’ve got to wonder when the party will end.

This is hardly an original complaint. Yet the situation keeps getting worse no matter how tediously often it’s pointed out. I understand why our schools have gone in for league sports, but I hope they don’t forget the dangers.

[1] “Vigorous exercise the pupils must have. Few evils are more to be dreaded than indolence and aimlessness.” Education, p.210

[2] “[Students should get] physical exercise through manual training, and by letting useful employment take the place of selfish pleasure.” Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p.354.

[3] “I do not condemn the simple exercise of playing ball; but this, even in its simplicity, may be overdone.” Counsels to the Church, p.161 Her granddaughter, Grace Jacques, describes frequent baseball games to which grandmother White made no objection, though “She was against game playing that took time from our studies, worship, and chores. But when our work was done, or just before the afternoon chores, we played.” My Special Grandmother (Review and Herald,1961) p.2.

[4] “A view of things was presented before me in which the students were playing games of tennis and cricket. Then I was given instruction regarding the character of these amusements. They were presented to me as a species of idolatry, like the idols of the nations. There were more than visible spectators on the ground. Satan and his angels were there, making impressions upon human minds. Angels of God, who minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation, were also present, not to approve, but to disapprove.” Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p.350.

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