Friday, March 6, 2009

Christian High School Athletics: A Balanced Perspective

by Ron Livesay, 1999

High school athletics can be a great rallying point for school spirit and unity. Athletic events are a great deal of fun for the participants, the rest of the student body, parents, and other spectators. School athletics can be a great force for either good or evil, depending on the underlying philosophy of the school and how that philosophy is practiced. When the good side of athletics is emphasized from a Christian perspective, then there can be many positive learning experiences for those involved.

However, as with anything good, there can certainly be a down side. It is imperative that we in Christian schools not do anything to allow the negative aspects of athletics to do harm to the testimony of the Gospel of Christ. If Christian high school athletics do not have a balanced perspective, there are frequently severe consequences for the students, for the reputation of the school, and for the testimony of the Gospel. What are some of the potential problems that sometimes become real problems in Christian high school athletics?

WIN AT ALL COSTS. There is all too often a great deal of stress on winning to the exclusion of everything else. Frequently, this emphasis comes more from coaches and parents than from the students themselves. Winning is sometimes elevated to supreme importance. A famous coach once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” High school coaches who believe that their sport and their team are the most important things in the school and maybe even in the world sometimes parrot this warped philosophy. It is indicative of misplaced priorities and an out-of-focus view of life. T-shirts and bumper stickers often proclaim this philosophy with slogans such as “Second place is the first loser.” This kind of emphasis not only elevates “me” and “my team” to the highest level of importance, but it also ignores the potentially positive learning experience that can come from losing. No one ever died from losing a game, and the benefits of losing can sometimes outweigh the benefits of winning. I once heard a coach say to a group of ten through twelve-year-old boys on his baseball team, “There’s no such thing as a good loser.” This sounds like a great way to ruin the enjoyment of the game for children and young people. In reality, I believe it is really much more accurate to say, “No one can be a good winner until he learns to lose with grace and dignity.” It is important to learn to lose with class and to win with humility.

The athletic philosophy of our school flows naturally out of our educational philosophy. Therefore, the primary goal of our athletic program is to bring glory to God through encouraging our teams to perform to the best of the ability the Lord has given them. There are a number of other goals based on Biblical principles that flow naturally out of this primary goal. First of all, we want to teach respect for authority. Players need to respect coaches, while coaches, players, and fans need to respect officials. Second, we want to teach the principle of putting aside individual desires and goals for the good of the team. Third, we want to teach players to realize that often their true character will come out in the heat of competition, and that there are valuable lessons to be learned and adjustments to be made. If winning comes about as a result of aiming at these goals, that is great. If we lose, it is not the end of the world, and there is likely a valuable lesson to learn through it. Winning must never be allowed to become our primary goal.

As a basketball coach, I love the game and desire the best for my players. However, there are times when I have to say to those who would turn basketball into life, “It’s only basketball,” or, “It’s only a game.” Basketball is not life. No sport is life. Last season, one of my players came to practice in a T-shirt that said, “Christ is life. Everything else is basketball.” I have to appreciate the perspective that this slogan represents, in that it puts Christ first and foremost in the life of the Christian. While Christians may legitimately enjoy sports, they need to be kept in perspective and in a proper position of importance relative to those things that really matter. Jesus Christ is to be preeminent in all things, and everything else is to be secondary. “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18, NASB).

Sports are only one of the many things we do and enjoy, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not really very important, and the outcome of a game loses its significance rapidly. Emphasis on winning as the only thing that matters can result in several negatives. There can be a loss of the fun of playing sports. There can be a loss of the valuable learning experience that often results from losing a hard-fought game. Finally, there can be the creation of a great deal of undue pressure, which is not in any way needed by young people.

Being a teenager and a high school student in today’s world can be very stressful without any additional pressures. Involvement in athletics ought to be a stress-reliever, not a stress-producer. Sports are, after all, games, and games are to be played for fun. Quite often, if the adults would get out of the way, the young people involved in playing games would be able to have the fun the sports were designed to produce. If playing a game is not fun, and if nothing positive is happening because of playing that game, then the student should find something else more profitable to do with his or her time, regardless of any pressure applied by coaches. No one should feel compelled to play on a team. Sports are not for everyone.

SPORTSMANSHIP. If sports are not handled well by coaches and fans, those who participate can learn many wrong lessons, especially in the area of sportsmanship. Poor sportsmanship is demonstrated on a regular basis at high school games, and Christian high schools are not immune. It is quite interesting that some Christians seem to believe they can shed their Christianity at the door to the gym or gate to the playing field, just as one might take off a coat when entering a building. Christianity is not something we can “check at the door” and then pick up and put on again when we leave. A Christian does not cease to be a Christian during a game; therefore, appropriate behavior and decorum relative to Christian testimony must never be forgotten, no matter what the score, no matter the perceived quality of the officials, no matter the disappointment. If parents, coaches, and others, who ought to be teaching young people by example, choose to behave in an inappropriate manner relative to sportsmanship, we cannot help but teach them the wrong things. The Scripture says to “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6, NASB) If our speech and actions do not bring honor to our Savior, then the only alternative is that we are bringing Him dishonor.

One of the areas of greatest concern is the necessity of showing proper respect for officials, because this is an area where our school's testimony can be greatly harmed, and the effectiveness of our ministry can be hindered. Whether officials are good, bad, or average, they are, by definition, the legitimately appointed authority over the event. Therefore, there is never a biblically justifiable reason to place ourselves in a position of rebellion against that authority. In reality, to do so is to stand in rebellion against God Himself, since He is the one who gives all authority. “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2, NASB).

The Biblical principle of servants and masters applies most appropriately to the relationship we have to those who have been given authority over us, including athletic officials, even if some perceive them to be of poor quality. "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable" (I Peter 2:18, NASB). As Christians, we need to realize that officials, opponents, and opposing fans are either our brothers or sisters in the Lord or lost sinners who need our Savior. Either way, they should be treated with respect. Our Christian testimony is of far greater importance than the outcome of any athletic contest.

ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS. All too often, students see sports as a ticket to a free ride in college. Overzealous parents and coaches can unintentionally do young people a great disservice by encouraging this kind of thinking, thereby setting them up for a big disappointment. When I first began coaching, I listened to some “gung-ho” coaches and fell into the trap of believing that it was in the best interests of my players to encourage some of them to pursue athletic scholarships. Now, several years of experience have demonstrated the fallacy of that thinking, and I do not feel good about having done that. The reality is that very few, if any, of our athletes have ever been the type colleges want - the biggest, strongest, fastest, and most skilled. For every Michael Jordan, Mark McGwire, or Lisa Leslie, there are hundreds of thousands of young athletes who aspire to such lofty achievements, but who lack the talent, physical strength, size, and/or work ethic to make it a reality. It is not at all uncommon for league MVP, All-Section type players to find they cannot make the team, let alone get a scholarship, at even a small college.

Our high school has existed since 1983, when we added the tenth grade. Our first graduation was in 1986. Of all our graduates, we are only aware of six, including both young men and young ladies, who have had any opportunity to be on a college team in any sport for even one season, and even fewer have received any scholarship money. Some have played a season or two of volleyball, some a season or two of basketball, and only one got a scholarship to a large university. Due to a number of factors, that student transferred to a small Christian college after the first semester and became the only one of our graduates to play sports throughout college. Those with experience in these matters have advised me that if a student is not being actively recruited by his or her junior year, it is not going to happen at all.

In view of the numbers of young athletes hoping for scholarships, and also in view of the very real possibility of injury at some point, depending on athletics for a college education is not far removed from depending on winning the lottery for retirement. In a very few cases it works out and is a positive experience, and that is great. For the vast majority of students, however, it is not a realistic option.

Even if a player is able to make a team, very few high school students are in any way prepared for the huge year-round time commitment required of college athletes. Studies have shown that high school sports have a very positive impact on academics. On the other hand, a college athlete with a scholarship is almost literally owned body, soul, and spirit by the coach, and being a student becomes secondary, at best. The graduation rates of athletes at many universities are appalling. Any student who is really serious about college is well-served by leaving athletics in high school and concentrating on studies in college. There is a time to leave the games behind and get on with real life.

Athletic scholarship money is very limited. Free rides are not a reality except at the highest levels of competition, and we are interested neither in promoting secular universities nor in encouraging our students to get into the rat race of big-time athletics. Generally, big money scholarships are only available at the large universities, and we are much more interested in promoting solid, Bible-believing Christian colleges than secular universities, which frequently are hotbeds of secular humanism, atheism, and evolution, all of which are designed to undermine the truth and the faith of young people. We would be denying everything we believe in if we were to actively encourage attendance at such institutions, especially if our motivation has to do with students going there to play sports rather than to meet legitimate educational needs. We do understand that, of necessity, some students may end up at such universities in order to get the major they need. It is our prayer that, if they do go there, they will have the strength to stand for the Lord and against the tide of modern, unbiblical thinking.

Small colleges frequently give their athletes very small scholarships, which are not very much when the costs of college and the time commitment are considered. The most generous sources of college money are the state grants and institutional scholarships for academics. The wisest thing a high school student can do relative to college scholarships is to get the best grades possible throughout high school and score as high as possible on the SAT or ACT. In short, our school seeks to provide a positive and enjoyable experience through sports, but we do not operate under the illusion that our athletes can use sports as a stepping stone to college or to fame and fortune. We need to be more tuned in to reality and common sense than that.

CONCLUSION. It is the desire of the faculty and athletic staff that young people participate in sports while they can, enjoy the experience, and learn some valuable Biblical principles in the process. This will only happen if we remain continually vigilant to keep athletics in proper perspective relative to the overall ministry and purpose of the school. “…. whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, NASB). “…so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18, NASB).

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