“They’re nice, but not a priority.”
Ask Reformed people about their school’s sports teams and that’s the response you’re likely to get. Most of our schools have a team or two, but we don’t spend a lot of effort on them, or a lot of thought.
Unfortunately, our lack of thought leaves us vulnerable to some very serious problems. We have to be careful because these teams can either be a potent force for good in our schools, or just as potent a force for evil. Without proper guidance, school sports teams may do more harm to the students than good.
Sports are good
There are many arguments for a school sports program (Shauna Stam outlines several in this article). But in Reformed schools where the moral development of the students is an even higher priority than academics, one of the arguments frequently used is that sports build character.
There’s a lot of history to this argument. 2400 years ago Plato insisted that physical activity made a man both physically and mentally tough. A little more than 400 years later the apostle Paul linked perseverance (Heb. 12:1), and self-control (2 Cor. 9:25) with athletics. In the 1800’s the Muscular Christianity movement promoted physical activity across North America believing that good Christians could be created by developing good athletes. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was also started by those that believed sport developed character.
These last two groups thought that sport was intrinsically moral. They believed that just by playing a sport you would pick up character traits like teamwork, daring, discipline, cooperation, courage, perseverance, loyalty, and self-restraint.
Sports Are Bad
The biggest problem with this approach is that these character traits don’t make you moral. Sure, many of them would be useful to a Christian, but how many of them would also be equally useful to a mafia bodyguard or mob hitman? Teamwork, daring, discipline and cooperation? Those look good on anyone’s resume. These traits themselves are morally neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts.
Rather than being intrinsically good, sport instead has a tendency to reinforce negative behavior. Left on its own it teaches kids that winning is all that matter and cheating or cheap play is only wrong if you get caught. Kids will even learn how to retaliate without getting caught. Opponents are viewed as enemies to be conquered and the kids learn they can get away with griping about the refs too. After all, authority figures only deserve respect when they get the calls right.
This dark side to sport is why it needs a higher priority in our schools. Sport is a moral quagmire for even the most upright players. There are moral challenges every time a student steps out onto the court, field, or ice.
Yes, students will be confronted with moral challenges in other areas of school life, but they will be of a more black and white variety. In any of their classes they will have to decide if they are going to either do their own work, and test…or cheat. It’s black and white. Even the students that do cheat know what they’re doing is wrong. They might still succumb to sin, but they don’t have to figure out whether they’re sinning.
But in sport there are vast areas of gray. Kids have to contrast caring for their opponent with figuring out how to get past him to score the winning goal. Jostling is involved in most team sports, but how much physical contact is too much? Or for that matter, too little? Just how far do you go to win the game? It is this grayness that makes the playing field either one of the most potentially useful environments for character development, or one of the most harmful ones. An attentive and intelligent coach will force his players to work through these challenges, and will guide them back when they make the wrong decisions. He will bench his best player even if the ref didn’t notice the player’s cheap conduct. He’ll allow players to respectfully query the ref, but nothing more. He’ll explain that without opponents there is no game and won’t tolerate any bad sportsmanship. He’ll sit his team down to discuss the gray moral areas and the challenges present on the playing field. He’ll teach them to turn the other cheek even when the opposition is playing cheaply or the refs are missing calls. A good coach will brag about how many good sportsmanship awards his team has won. He won’t leave them on their own, and he won’t let them learn the bad lessons of sport.
A bad coach…will just let the kids play.
Sports teams are a low priority in most Reformed schools and that has to change. It isn’t so much that every school should have countless sports teams but if we are going to have them, then they had better be a priority. And if we can’t find enough quality coaches, we should consider having fewer teams.
Left to its own devices sport can be pretty bad…but in a Christian school, with an attentive Christian coach it can also be an awesome means for moral character development.