For Our Sports Fans

By Mike Willis

I enjoy sports. I played high school football and ran track. I use to root for the University of Texas when they had a football team and have dreaded Thanksgiving Day for several years because I know that the Texas Aggies are going to defeat them. My passion for football has been satisfied only by the success of the Dallas Cowboys. After moving to Indiana, I learned that there was another sport being played outside of Texas called basketball. After a few years, I learned to root for the Indiana Hoosiers, despite the antics of their coach Bobby Knight. Earlier this year, I really enjoyed their victory over the University of Kentucky much to the chagrin of our associate editor. I have written this to assure you that I enjoy sports.

But, America has become obsessed with sports  from pee wee leagues to professional competition. Recently, there have been several incidents reported on the sports page that have become the focus of state and/or national news. I think some of them deserve comment.

The Tonya Harding Story

A few weeks ago, a thug attacked Nancy Kerrigan, one of the United States’ best figure skaters, just as she finished practicing for the U.S. Nationals competition for a spot on the Olympic team. The man used a club to hit Kerrigan on the knee. She was unable to compete the next day.

As the story unfolded, the media were stunned by the knowledge that the motive for the attack was to cripple Kerrigan so that she could not compete against Tonya Harding. Harding’s body guard Shawn Eckardt, hit man Shane Minoaka, and getaway car driver Derrick Smith are negotiating plea bargains. Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly has also been implicated and all involved are questioning whether or not Tonya was involved in the plot. To say the least, she surrounded herself with some unsavory characters.

What a change has occurred in sports. When we played football, we were taught to abide by the rules of the game and to play to win as hard as we could, but to accept defeat honorably. Far from molding character, some competition destroys character, as is evident in the Tonya Harding incident. The win-at-all-costs philosophy, the willingness to do anything honorable or dishonorable to gain an advantage over an opponent, has become an accepted part of sports.

In another time, coaches generally conducted themselves in such a way as to be a worthy example for young men to follow. Now coaches are sometimes the problem. Winning becomes so important that NCAA rules are violated to “buy” the best amateur athlete. The spirit of win at all costs has infected all levels of athletics, from professional levels to pee wee baseball. Organized sports is some-times more interested in winning than in being a wholesome, enjoyable activity that children do together.

The assault on Nancy Kerrigan and these rule violations remind us that big money is involved in sports. Where this kind of money is present the temptations that go with it abound and not even Olympic athletes are immune to temptation. The Tonya Harding story is a story about greed. It reminds us that what Paul wrote to Timothy is true: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced them-selves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:10).

Confessions of Sin

Another story that attracted attention in Indiana was an incident in a basketball game that the Indiana Hoosiers played. Coach Bobby Knight’s son Pat plays for the Hoosiers. In a recent game, he made a bad pass, the ball was intercepted, and the other team scored a basket. Bobby Knight called time out and proceeded to verbally assault his son for his errant pass. When his son sat down on the bench, Knight continued his harangue and proceeded to kick his son (some say a chair).

The president of Indiana University suspended Knight for one game and a statement of apology appeared in the Indianapolis Star. I am writing from memory, but Knight’s statement went something like this: “I am sorry if I have offended any true Indiana fans.” That reminds me of some of the confessions I have heard about at church services. There is nothing in the confession that says, “I was wrong for what I did.” Rather, the confession is “I am sorry if I have offended anyone.” Such a “confession” acknowledges no wrong committed and manifests no intention to change one’s conduct. It is more a confession that the other person over-reacted to something than an admission of wrong.

The Lord revealed that sin is properly corrected by repentance, confession and prayer. He said, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). Again, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Such a confession, acknowledges that the conduct is sinful, confesses his participation in it, and calls upon God to forgive the sin. Too many confessions are more like those of Bobby Knight than like the Lord commanded.

A couple of days ago, Georgetown University’s coach, James Thompson, was ejected from a game. I do not know what he did. The next day the paper recorded Thompson to have said, “I was wrong. The referees did the right thing in throwing me out.” I appreciated his acknowledgement of wrong committed. I don’t know much about Georgetown’s coach, but the way he handled this incident commended him to me.

Obsessed with Sports

I remember reading a synopsis of the five reasons for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon in which he listed the Romans’ obsession with sports at the coliseum as a cause of the fall of the empire. I did not understand how or why that could contribute to the fall of a nation until I have witnessed it in our own age. The obsession with sports is one thing that is rooting out spirituality. We don’t have time for God because of basketball practice, the bowling league, one’s favorite team is playing on ESPN, or going to a professional game. And sports preempts every other event. When a conflict between worship services and sports occurs (whether practice or the game), sports usually comes out on top.

A few days ago there was a great basketball game between Purdue University and Indiana University. Both teams were ranked in the top ten and it was a very good game, even though Purdue won. The game was played at Lafayette, Indiana and the house was packed, although the temperature outside was -270 with a wind chill factor of -500. The next evening was worship and temperatures were approximately the same and a light snow was falling. We cancelled services. I did not disagree with the decision to cancel worship services, but doesn’t it say something about our society’s emphasis on sports that the game would be played before a packed house and the next night worship services were cancelled? Anybody who went to the ballgame was a true “fan,” but anyone who went to worship in weather like that is a religious fanatic or nut!

America needs to become balanced in its attitude toward sports. Paul wrote, “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). We enjoy watching sports, but let us remember how little sports really matter and concentrate on godliness.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 5, p. 2
March 3, 1994