“They’re nice, but not a priority.”
Ask Reformed parents about our school’s sports teams and that’s a response you’re likely to hear. It’s an understandable answer. With all the effort that has to go into finding and hiring good teachers, and developing curriculum, and fundraising school building projects, there may not be much energy left to think through how our sports teams can best be put to use.
However, sometimes that means that the coaches are simply whoever is willing. And being willing is a good attribute; that’s a virtue, certainly. But what other qualifications should we be looking for?
If we’re going to have sports teams in our schools they need to be a priority. And that’s because these teams can 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 than good to our sons and daughters.
Sports are good
Sports can do harm? That may strike you as a bit over the top. After all, one of the arguments frequently used in favor of having these teams is that sports are said to 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 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 could be seen as morally neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts.
The fact is, rather than being intrinsically good, sport has a tendency to reinforce negative behavior. Without guidance, sports can teach kids that winning is all that matters. Athletes may learn that cheating or cheap play is only wrong if you get caught – kids will even learn how to retaliate without getting caught. They’ll start dehumanizing their opponents by viewing them primarily as enemies to be conquered. And left on their own, kids will 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 many will be of a more black and white variety. In any of their classes they will have to decide if they are going to do their own work, and their own test…or whether they’ll 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 encourage them to fail boldly, to get back up after messing up, and to stop caring how they look. He’ll teach them that it really is how you play, and not whether you win or lose that gives God the glory. He’ll talk about what it means to be a supportive teammate, and be others-focussed. 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.
But a bad coach…he’ll just let the kids play.
Sports teams are a lower 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 we need to be mindful as to how we are going to run them. It’s important enough that 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 young men and women to develop and grow athletically and spiritually.