catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


Do we even need a sporting chance?

Let me be as up front about this as I can. I am a high school teacher and a nerd. I played soccer in junior high, I watch my nephew play little league. I love cycling and snowshoeing and am fairly competitive. I think exercise is a vitally important component to education. I believe that the body is the temple of the soul and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Some of my best friends and favorite relatives are coaches. Having said all that, I am going to make the argument that, for Christians, interscholastic athletic competition should have no place in schools.

Before you object, let me lay out the case in favor of sports. Sports teach students good sportsmanship. They place an emphasis on understanding that our bodies (and not just our minds) are a gift from God. They promote cooperation and an appreciation of the value of a team. They allow us to glorify God with the talents that he has given us. Sports provide a relatively safe avenue to toughen kids up. They provide an opportunity for parents to spend time with their kids, and a chance for the family to bond by cheering on the same side of something. Sports allow Christians to witness by being a good example to other teams. And playing ball is just plain fun. That about covers it, right? Let me deal with each of these in turn.


  1. Sports teach students good sportsmanship.


    Certainly this is a laudable goal. Children should learn that whether they are winning or losing a game, the other team consists of a group of human beings who ought to be treated with respect as creatures created in the image of God. What is interesting about this, though, is what good sportsmanship stands in contrast to. We praise our children for example, for shaking hands with the other team, for not trash-talking against them or inflicting violence upon them. We look at this behavior of marginal tolerance with pride, thinking, "Look at those great kids! They could have insulted the other team, or spat at them, or fouled them unnecessarily, but they didn't. What great sportsmanship." In fact, good sportsmanship seems to mean treating the other team in a civil manner—the way we would naturally treat them in society if we met them anywhere other than on the field. I would argue that this isn't an achievement at all—rather a recognition that the students did not behave as badly as they could have.

    And when a team member does unnecessarily foul, or does talk trash, a couple of things happen. Some members of the crowd look upon that foul with disdain. Other fans mumble something about how that's just part of the game. The player might have to sit out for a period of time, or even for a game, though even this punishment seems to be part of the game—sometimes even an acceptable tactical sacrifice.


  2. Sports emphasize that our bodies (and not just our minds) are a gift from God and ought to be treated as such.


    I couldn't agree more. Christians have to beware of the trap of thinking that our minds are more important than our bodies. In fact, we have an obligation to God to develop both. The only question here is whether interscholastic sports are the best way to do this.

    One reason that interscholastic sports might not be the best way to teach students to honor their bodies is that they are not available to all. You can only have so many students on a team. Even allowing for junior varsity and freshman team options, there are a great many students who will, of necessity, be left out. Also, students whose bodies mature more slowly than others, or those who are handicapped may not have a realistic chance to play.

    Another difficulty is that the sports culture or hero worship and glorification of the athlete often leads to a culture of self-abuse. If being on a sports team teaches students to honor their God-given bodies, why is it that athletes don't have lower incidences of alcohol and tobacco abuse, drug abuse, teens being sexually active outside of marriage, anorexia, or self-mutilation? In fact, not only are the rates of these problems just as high for athletes, many schools identify higher amounts of all of these problems among student athletes than among the general student population.

    So if the point of interscholastic sports is to teach students to honor their bodies, it doesn't seem to be working.


  3. Interscholastic sports promote cooperation and teach students to work as a team.


    Christianity is a belief system that is focused on community. In the Old Testament, God directly guided a community of Israelites through the wilderness. Jesus, though he didn't need to, surrounded himself with disciples, and he commanded us to love our neighbors, even if they are Samaritans. So what possible problem could anyone have with sports on this basis? The church is like a body, and every person forms a vital function. What better example of this than a sports team?

    I have watched teams that work well together, and have seen in that working together amazing achievement. Each person pulls his or her own weight and the whole becomes greater that the sum of the parts. Perhaps, however, we should take a step back and think a bit about what all this effort is being applied to. Students commit countless hours of practice, work, and anxiety to the goal of beating the other teams and taking seriously what is, at its best, a game. While it is admittedly perhaps my weakest argument, think about what else that effort could be going to. Instead of trying to be better than someone else, we could be working together to help someone else. Instead of spending our time on something that is frivolous, we could be creating something.

    To be fair, I spend a lot of time as a high school teacher directing drama. Hours and hours go toward forging my students together into a team, teaching them how to contribute as a set painter or a leading actor. The difference that I perceive, at least, is that a play involves more people (our productions regularly give tasks to over a hundred students), exists to serve the audience, and, at its best, creates something with a though provoking message. Choirs and bands, math and debate teams (usually), and similar after school activities do the job of teaching students to work together while serving a higher end than mere frivolity.


  4. Sports give some students a chance to glorify God with their amazing talents.


    This is true. Over the last several years I have seen some remarkable examples of students who were truly humble, and who did give the glory for their actions to God. I have watched the eighth fastest runner in the state moving with a grace that is truly beautiful. I have seen a soccer team execute a series of passes that was simple and stunning.

    I have also seen many students who took the credit for their achievements (with adults often encouraging them to do so) until they fell into the trap of worshipping themselves rather than the God who made them. If we see professional sports as the pinnacle of sport, we can see few examples of humble servants and many examples of materialistic, self-obsessed, spoiled brats who care far more about how much they are getting paid than the game. It isn't all their fault either as the culture we are a part of has blown the importance of sport all out of proportion.

    The question I would put the coaches and proponents of interscholastic sports is, do we do anything to help students give the glory to God? I mean more than devotion and prayer before the game. Do we remind our players that they do what they do for God and not for themselves? Do we have any way of telling the students that it is not all about them? Do we ever tell them that it is just a game? I would argue that we usually don't. Often, instead, we quietly emphasize to them the idea that sports are more important than school work, spending time with family, and, ultimately, than anything else. It is true, the preceding is a generalization, but one that I think holds up based on general observation.


  5. Sports provide a safe opportunity for students to toughen up.


    Okay, I think we need to do a little decoding on this one. The term "toughen up" I think, is code for one of two attitudes. The first attitude says that it is fine and good to spoon-feed little kids about how Jesus loves everyone and how we sing songs in Sunday school, but the fact is, that isn't really the way the world works. The business world or work world is a tough place. You need to look out for yourself, and frankly, all this business about being nice doesn't work so well when you are up against the competition.

    The second attitude uses the term tough in contrast with other things that students, particularly young men, should stay away from. In this attitude, sports teach boys to be men. It teaches them to be strong and tough, to ignore pain (whether their own or the pain they inflict on others), and it gives them something that is a little more masculine than playing an instrument, making art, or reading a book under a tree. This attitude often disguises homophobia or other insecurities. The real problem with it is it promotes a view of manhood that is non-biblical.

    Think about David, one of the tough guys of the Old Testament. This is the guy who, as a kid, through ruthlessness and athletic skill, brought down a giant. David was certainly not anything other than a heterosexual (as his relationship with Bathsheba, etc. shows). And yet he was no one-dimensional cartoon tough guy. David wrote psalms, played the harp, and wrote love poetry. Joseph was a strong carpenter and hard working tradesman, but he also seems to have been a loving and affectionate father. And Jesus preached a gospel of acceptance but also was outraged by sinfulness and wrongdoing and turned the moneychangers' table over in the temple.

    All of these were men who were strong in body and mind, who could fight and love, who knew how to create as well as destroy. We live in a culture that works to toughen up our young men and fit them into a stereotype so that they can become consumers of Terminator Three and heavy metal and WWF Wrestling. We don't need to work on toughening them up, we need to work on softening them so that they can be good fathers, good and compassionate leaders, good and respectful husbands.


  6. Sports provide opportunities for parents and children to bond, for the entire family to be cheering for something.


    Once again, I cannot argue with this. I enjoy taking my family to the local minor league park or watching my nephew play little league. It is a great thing for the community to be able to cheer on their school.

    There are, though, three ways in which sports can be warped until they are no longer family friendly. All three cases result from taking the games too seriously.

    First, interscholastic sports can require a remarkable amount of time—time which the student generally spends away from his or her family. Sports begin training mid-summer with "optional" gym nights and usually take four or five nights a week through the season. Threats of being benched or even kicked off the team ensure an amazing attendance record. That works out to a lot of dinnertimes missed and, often, a growing alienation between the student and his or her family.

    Second, though team sports can bring the Christian community together, they can also tear it apart. My high school has a tremendous rivalry with the other two local Christian high schools. Pranks, booing, and sometimes even a hatred for students from that school have driven a wedge between two institutions that ought to be working closely together. Whenever the subject comes up, people assure me that it is all in fun, yet I am amazed by how many adults take it seriously and seem to think less of a person if they came from the other school. I am also concerned about what it all must look like to an outsider who sees only Christians squabbling with each other.

    Third, some athletic events seem to bring out not parental support and family bonding but insults and angry expressions. Anyone who has been to a little league game is familiar with this problem—loudmouth parents who put down their own kid and everyone else's along the way. Sometimes sports are not about achievement but about unreasonable expectations that kids feel guilty or angry about not meeting. To be fair, his may represent more of a problem with some parents than with sports (and unreasonable expectations can go along with music, drama, grades, jobs, and so on).


  7. Sports can be an effective tool for evangelism—giving an opportunity for our kids to witness to the world.


    Again, I agree, up to a point. I have seen students praying in front of huge crowds at the state final basketball game and I have no doubt that makes an impact upon the crowd. Sometimes newspaper coverage gives my school's athletes a chance to tell their stories and it is impressive stuff to read.

    The problem here, of course, is that not every Christian playing on a sports team acts differently from anyone else. When we fail to show concern for our God and those around us, we do so in front of huge numbers of impressionable people. You might object that this is no different than any other area of life. You would be right about that—except that the potential for angry words and violent action is so great in the heat of the moment. A fight is far less likely during a choir concert or math team competition.


  8. Sports are a lot of fun.


    I remember the joy of playing snow football in junior high, and the fun of sand volleyball with my church's young people's group. These activities, however, are the most fun when you can play them, not watch them. Again, interscholastic sports limits the participants greatly. A friendly game of pick-up basketball, a game of touch football with friends on thanksgiving afternoon, and similar games are fun without being overly serious.


If there is a bottom line to my arguments it is this, we take sports far too seriously. They are meant to be fun and relaxing. When we make them an occupation, or worse still, an object of worship, we stray from what God intended them to be—just a bit of fun.

Discussion topic: Making the team

Do you agree or disagree with the arguments Boerman-Cornell lays out in his article? Should raising funds for education include or exclude large amounts for interscholastic sports? Is this issue just a matter of personal opinion or is it something worth fighting for?

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