Shakespeare supposed that “if all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.” The modern world may be approaching that point of self-defeating saturation in sports. We still don’t match the Romans in number of holidays, but as leisure time continues to open up, sports more than anything else are expanding to fill the space.
When will our absorption in athletics have gone too far? Some people think it already has. Secular critics often designate sports “the new religion.” Christian thinkers of various stripes have called our sports-mania idolatry.
Until Oral Roberts University came along, evangelical colleges shunned big-time sports without giving much thought to the possible benefits. Now the Christian campus hears persuasive voices on both sides of the question. It is a healthful development: whatever the outcome, the role of athletics deserves sober, intelligent appraisal. Although anti-sport sentiment is now fashionable, and domes are being built atop stadiums rather than cathedrals, not all the arguments from a biblical perspective come down on that side.
Christians have given little thought to the place of sports in human affairs. This is a mistake. We need to examine everything we do in light of good stewardship. Scripture leaves no doubt about the Christian’s obligation to make the best possible use of his body, strength, time, and possessions.
In keeping silent about sports, Christians have neglected a ubiquitous human activity. As one student of sports put it, “There is no society known to man which does not have games of the sort in which individuals set up purely artificial obstacles and get satisfaction from overcoming them.” Fascination with athletics is one thing that is shared by Communists and capitalists and virtually every shade in between. The Chinese Communists have recently begun promoting baseball in a big new way, presumably so as not to be outdone by Americans and Japanese.
Although few will quote Scripture to justify it, Christians have as much interest in sports as anyone else. There are thousands of bowling and softball leagues among both Protestant and Catholic churches. Many a pastor looks wistfully at the zeal with which his parishioners follow their favorite teams. Some undoubtedly wish they could muster up the same enthusiasm for church affairs.
Among evangelicals, sports zeal used to be tempered by little more than an aversion to Sunday play. For better or worse, that reservation has largely dissolved in North America. But a deeper question about the whole role of sports seems likely to come into focus. People will be asking, for example, the extent to which the principle of a “simple life style” advocated by the Lausanne Covenant should affect athletics. Although this covenant, which came out of the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization, makes no explicit reference to sports, a simple life style surely rules out large recreational expenditures. Again, to confront the issues is spiritual therapy. We must stop muddling along in mindless assent or dissent.
The most stimulating discussion of the subject is in Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), a seminal work by the distinguished American philosopher Paul Weiss. He traces the long neglect of serious thinking about sport back to the ancient Greeks, who “tacitly supposed that the popular could not be as philosophically important as the rare, solely because it was popular. What appealed to the many, it was thought, could not contain any significant truths. Following out that idea, one is tempted to conclude with Aristotle that God thinks only of what is noble and pure, and that we ought to try to follow his example.”
Weiss effectively counters this idea by asserting that “we men are all imperfect, living in an impure world; we at least cannot and ought not avoid a study of the finite and the corrupt. It need no more corrupt us than a study of insanity will make us mad.” Moreover, he notes, “the common can be good and desirable. And whether it be so or not, it can be dealt with carefully and thoughtfully, and from a perspective not necessarily known or shared in by its participants.” The inadequate Christian articulation of many sports figures who testify to their faith in Christ does not mean that it cannot be done better.
Most evangelical colleges have carried on a variety of athletic programs, but with a low profile. The general feeling seemed to be that an athletic emphasis would diminish academic respectability. Many a secular educator, of course, has argued along a similar line. It is in part valid, because in the past money invested in athletics reduced the amount available for academic development. But massive federal funding of higher education in recent years has freed more funds for athletics. Many universities that grant highly regarded degrees have outstanding athletic teams as well.
Evangelical schools are usually small, and this limits their potential for sports visibility. Oral Roberts University set a whole new set of precedents when it broke into the Christian higher educational scene a decade ago. Its futuristic campus on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, cost more than $50 million. Edward B. Fiske said in the New York Times that ORU boasts “probably the most sophisticated technology of any liberal-arts college in the country.” Students have access to remarkably advanced electronic data machines to assist study. The school won regional accreditation less than six years after it opened its doors.
ORU’s fine facilities were a great help in the development of its athletic program, and money was available for athletic scholarships and recruitment campaigns. An attempt was made to break into the big time through basketball. It worked. The 1971–72 team won twenty-four of its twenty-six games and set a scoring record among American colleges. Even with tougher schedules in succeeding years the team has been earning national rankings and has played in post-season championship competition. At home games, crowds of more than 10,000 watch from the comfort of theater-style seats in the $11 million Mabee Center. The school is reportedly making a financial profit on its athletic investment already.
ORU’s venture provides a good window for an appraisal of the pros and cons of Christian participation in sports. Spokesmen for the school are reticent about going into the sports rationale in any detail; they want to avoid any suggestion that sports take priority over studies at ORU. But there is no doubt that Roberts, the founder and president, takes great pride in his teams. He tells students that God told him to make athletics an integral part of the university program, “on a par with everything else … just as important as biology or English or history or anything you do here.”
Roberts sees his school’s participation in big-time sports as an evangelistic tool. It “offers one of the greatest opportunities for a Christian witness, without which millions of people might never be reached,” he says. “If we can display a strong witness on the floor or field, take the good with the bad, the victories with the defeats, and keep a dynamic Christian attitude, it’s got to have a positive effect on people’s lives for Christ.” He claims God showed him that “go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” meant going into the sports world, in which so many millions are absorbed. He thinks that TV and press coverage of ORU athletic events serves to draw attention to the Gospel he preaches.
Roberts also believes in athletics for the sake of physical fitness, which, he emphasizes, is more closely allied with the mental and spiritual side of human nature than most people realize. “When your body is sick,” he says, “your mind is slow and your spirit depressed. But when your body is well, your mind can be much more alert and responsive, and your spirit can be much stronger.”
Roberts could claim considerable support at this point from Weiss, who observes, “An adequate characterization of good health would in any case give body, mind, spirit, and position significant roles.” At ORU, all-around fitness is a way of life, and the system of exercise called aerobics is required of students just as certain academic and spiritual practices are.
Jesus concerned himself greatly with the bodily well-being of people. But is athletic competition necessary for physical fitness, especially in view of the ever-present risk of injury? Theoretically, no. But great athletic personalities provide important motivational models. When they lead disciplined lives and perform excellently in competitive sports, their example encourages many of their admirers to do likewise. The urgent need for more self-discipline today is obvious. Perhaps only in some of the performing arts is as much discipline practiced as in athletics.
It is often said that sports help to relieve aggressive feelings. Some experts challenge that notion, especially since such sports as football, hockey, and lacrosse also serve to arouse aggression. These experts would probably agree, however, that sports help people to forget their troubles. Sports also counter boredom, a pervasive problem as leisure time increases but the wise use of leisure lags behind. No doubt there is a “better way to spend an autumn afternoon,” but a lot of football fans might not know what it is.
Weiss argues that “athletes make more vital that harmonization of men which religious men suppose God’s presence in the world entails.” Both the scholar and the athlete, the one through study and knowledge, the other through action, are, says Weiss, dealing with limited versions of the “ultimate finalities”—nature, the ideal Good, and God.
The biggest ethical question in the modern sports enterprise may have to do with recruitment practices and subsidies of college athletes. Inconsistencies and inequities abound; Christian college boards and administrators can hardly be blamed for wanting to steer clear of the whole area. The vast amount of money gambled on the outcome of college games further darkens the picture.
About the only thing that can be said is that Christians are obliged to live in an evil world and that withdrawal serves only to strengthen the forces of error. Politics and business can also be very dirty, but many of today’s Christians are convinced that the challenges in these realms must be confronted. And every once in a while a Mr. Clean makes it to the top in sports. A recent example is UCLA’s John Wooden, who has achieved basketball immortality in everyone’s book.
Christian colleges need to lead the way toward a more mature appreciation of athletics and a more balanced participation. The people in the pew look to the institutions of higher education for guidance in many important aspects of life. Why not sports?
The sports that are given the most attention in schools and colleges—baseball, football, basketball—must be only spectator sports for most people. They require youthful, fit bodies plus extensive organization and equipment. Sports that are much more accessible to the average person, like tennis and ice skating, are not being very thoroughly taught at the high school and college level. Christian colleges could do a great public service by giving more attention to physical activities that can provide exercise and enjoyment throughout most of a person’s lifetime.
Involvement in sports, as in many other realms of human activity, will always have its awkward moments for the Christian. (At least Protestant schools needn’t suffer the headline indignities that befall Catholic schools—such incongruities as “Our Blessed Lady Crushes Sacred Heart,” or “All Angels Pounce on St. Benedict the Moor.”) But there are values there that should not be unthinkingly rejected.
The Apostle Paul uses enough sport-related figures of speech to convince many people that he may have been a sports fan (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:8; 1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:14; Heb. 12:1). His secret was that at some point he subjected his inclinations to the control of the Spirit. We should do no less.
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