Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sports Without Spirit

News from the world of sports is increasingly tarnished by reports of inappropriate or illegal behavior on the part of professional and collegiate athletes and coaches.  Too often, successful sports figures that we have grown to admire and respect are responsible for violent acts, use of performance-enhancing drugs, or other immoral or illegal behaviors.

Some who have studied the increasing frequency of inappropriate or illegal behavior among athletes attribute its cause to an inherent evil within sports.  For example, columnist George Will wrote that football generates an atmosphere of frenzy and violence in a game which he views as a three-hour adrenaline-and-testosterone bath.  For all its occasional elegance and beauty, it is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain.  On the other hand, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh oppose efforts to make football softer and safer, and he predicts the end of football if the “chickification” of the sport continues.

Jonathan Turley, a lawyer and liberal commentator, is concerned about what he calls the “corrosive effect” of sports on the educational programs of colleges and universities.  In a recent blog, Turley claimed that intercollegiate sports programs have a range of negative effects from…

lower academic standards to ethical violations to actual shielding of criminal conduct.  Despite such scandals, the blind support for popular football and basketball programs continues with excessive salaries for coaches and the continued use of students for this profitable and popular non-curricular function.

So, we are told that at least some sports like football are too violent and should be drastically tamed or eliminated.  Meanwhile, large intercollegiate sports programs tend to abuse athletes who often are left without assistance in balancing social, academic, and athletic priorities.  For this reason, Turley challenges academic institutions to decide between being a leading academic institution or just a facilitator for sporting events.   Why risk the university’s high academic standards for the sake of its athletic reputation?  Or does it have to be one or the other?  Hold that thought please.

I believe that the root cause of both the growing emergence of violent behavior among professional athletes and the misplaced priorities of universities between their academics and athletics is the tendency to downplay and even eliminate the spiritual dimension from sports.   Instead of viewing athletes from a perspective of the “whole person” with body, soul, and spirit, we have tended to view athletes as muscle-bound “hunks” or “scoring machines.”  For the sake of space, let us focus on the alleged “corrosive effects” of collegiate sports programs as pointed out by Turley.

Jonathan Turley rightly disdains universities that elevate their athletic programs at the expense of academic excellence, and in so doing fail to deliver on their promise to offer their students the opportunity to obtain a quality education.   However, Turley seems oblivious to the important role of athletics in the education of the “whole person” as a means of becoming a fulfilled, life-long servant and learner.  Instead, Turley expresses a narrow view of the role of athletics in education when he defines an athletic program as a profitable and popular non-curricular function.  Really?

Far from a “non-curricular function,” I believe a well administered athletic program is an important and essential curricular and extracurricular component at all levels of education, K through college.  To underscore the integral role of sports in a “liberal education”, allow me to share a portion of the mission statement of the athletic program of Cedarville University (CU) where I was privileged to serve as a biology professor for 32 years:

In addition to the priority given to the spiritual welfare of CU student-athletes, their mental, physical, emotional, and social welfare is also of the utmost importance.   At the heart of this concern is a strong focus on their academic success, which is complemented through the challenges of competition with the opportunity to develop character traits associated with discipline, ethical conduct, endurance, courage, leadership, sportsmanship, teamwork, and faith. [Emphasis is mine.]

At the heart of Cedarville’s athletic program mission statement is the notion that the challenges of competition including the character traits necessary to excel in a sport can complement the academic curriculum and enhance student academic success.  Traits that are essential to an educated adult—self control, interpersonal skills, loyalty, punctuality, teamwork, leadership, and ethical behavior—can be developed in the gymnasium, courts, and athletic fields in ways that strongly complement learning of these character traits in the classroom and laboratory.  However, the integrity of this curricular-extracurricular education will not be realized without a foundation based on the Scriptural teaching that students learn and develop in heart (seat of character and the will) through exercises that challenge body (physical senses), soul (emotions and personality), and spirit (moral-ethical awareness; relate to God).   All of these human dimensions function in an integrated manner and determine our character which is expressed through our behavior.   Therefore, good educational curricula must be able to engage each of these aspects of our being.

I’m sure that no university has fully mastered the challenges of guiding collegiate athletes to achieve a balance among their social, athletic, academic, and spiritual development.  However, successful education of athletes and all students requires cooperative and complementary efforts among professors and coaches who place the welfare of the student athlete as a whole person above his or her value as a contributor to university athletic achievement and prowess.

Thomas G. Palaima, professor of classics at University of Texas-Austin asks, What would it entail to do better by those top athletes?   Palaima suggests four elements of “doing better” for athletes.  Let’s consider two of them and how each one has an intertwined “spiritual-athletic-academic” nature:

1.    They need to be placed at educational institutions suited to their academic preparation and be provided with the tools to play the most important game of their college careers:  the competition with true peers in the classroom.   To which I say, amen!  But placing a son or daughter in a suitable college or university is but one milestone along the journey beginning with the love and prayers of a loving dad and mom at the child’s cradle.

Prayers and the active involvement of parents in a child’s life represent parental obedience to the Scriptural command to train up of a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6).  Sporting activity between parents and children begins on the living room floor and continues through backyard activities and on to the ball field or community courts.  In these settings, the son or daughter can mature physically and spiritually in a setting in which the sport can serve as a means to develop both the common character qualities and unique gifts that will prepare the child (and parent) for the decision about higher education—whether college, skilled trade school, or whatever.  Notice that the intertwining of spirit-sport-study can contribute to choosing the right path for higher education beginning at an early age.
Student athletes at CU invite faculty or staff members
to serve as honorary "coaches"

2.    They need to have time to study and to explore elective courses so as to choose a major and develop secondary interests that will serve them well the rest of their lives. And they need to do this, just like regular students, on their own initiative. 

During my years at Cedarville University, I was fortunate to serve as an academic advisor to many students including student athletes.  I have viewed this responsibility as one of joining with the student and the parents in the continuation of the mentoring process based on my growing acquaintance with the gifts and goals of the student.  As a credit to the academic and athletic programs of Cedarville, I have had many fruitful interactions with coaches who have partnered with me to assure that the student athlete is best served in accord with the university’s athletic mission.  I believe the integrated “professor-coach-parent” mentoring will assure the accomplishment of Palaima’s two final elements of “doing better” toward our student athletes; namely, (3.) assuring that they get their degrees before their aid runs out, and (4.) assuring that they are disabused of the dream that they will ‘go pro.’

In summary, intercollegiate sports have become increasingly commercialized and politicized as a means of advertising the college or university brand.  This trend has tempted institutions of higher education to lower academic expectations of athletes. In so doing, they exchange their pursuit of academic excellence for the chance to become a good “farm system” or “minor league system” in the service of the professional sports teams, while at the same time advertising the brand to promote student enrollment.

The solution to the problem is not to demean the role of sports at any level because of violent, illegal, or unethical behavior on the part of athletes.  Rather, it is to recognize our own selfish, unethical behavior as parents, coaches, professors, and administrators when we create the unreasonable and unbiblical hoops through which our sons and daughters have been asked to jump.  When we as parents publically criticize and demean “Tommy’s” pee wee coach for not treating “Tommy” like a star athlete, we violate the  most basic Scriptural teachings to LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTHLOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF (Mark 12: 30-31).  Is it any wonder when “Tommy” begins to break things (and people) when he reaches the pros?

On the other hand, when we view sports as a God-given platform on which to build up our children and grandchildren in body, soul, and spirit starting from the cradle and living room floor, then we set them on a trajectory that will help them to excel in the larger professional calling God has for them.  Let’s call for an end to the status quo, of “sports without the Spirit.”   May all Christians in athletics strive to add the “salt and light” necessary to create “sports with Spirit.”  Then, our sons and daughters can learn from both the defeats and successes of the game; and, also come to know the God-intended joy experienced by the great Olympic runner, Eric Liddell.  Thanks to loving parents and coaches, Liddell came to understand that God had made him “fast.”  And from his disciplined athletic training balanced with His commitment to learning from the Scriptures, Liddell was able to express the joy of heaven in his running, saying “When I run, I feel His pleasure.”  

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