Thursday, April 21, 2011

Questioning Sports’ Game Book for Life

[For the next few months, my blog comes from my Page 1 comments in my role as Senior Editor of Youthworker Journal. Check it out at]

We’ve all heard the mantra that “sports builds character.” But I wonder what kinds of character lessons our unquenchable cultural fixation with sports is passing on to young people.
            A century and an ocean away, British prep schools operated on the assumption that elite young men could learn through athletic competition much of what they needed as future military, government and business leaders. The theory was that cricket, rowing and other sporting activities could teach tomorrow’s ruling class about moral authority, courage, dignity, fair play, and the importance of teamwork.
            That was then—where are we now? Sociologists agree that sports are a training ground that reinforces the driving values of our culture. Unfortunately, one of the primary lessons is that the number-one goal—both on the field and in life—is to win at all costs regardless of whether it requires cheating, performance-enhancing substances, or dirty play.
As I argue in my book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Baker, 2005), for many young people, sports does more harm than good. But as soon as I say this, many will write me off for being sacrilegious toward one of our culture’s major sacred cows. Even in the church, many have blindly baptized sports, accentuating its perceived benefits and ignoring its darker side. In many churches, pastors joke about the primacy people place on sports (“Don’t worry, the service will be over before kickoff!”).
There are hundreds of ministries, parachurch organizations, and sports camps targeting modern gladiators or their young progeny. And where would our youth ministry programming be without basketball or soccer tournaments?
            Many of these activities accomplish much good, as we see in the roundtable discussion of sports ministry leaders in this issue. But too often we forget to ask the hard questions. Questions such as:
• What kinds of lessons does sports really teach kids about life?
• What kind of character are we developing in kids when we endorse competitive T-ball, paid trainers for Little Leaguers, and child cheerleaders for pee-wee football?
• What impact does our fixation on money and celebrity in pro sports—one example being the growing number of broadcasts of high school sporting events—have on impressionable young people?
• And what does God think about the behaviors, language, and attitudes that characterize our modern equivalent of ancient gladiatorial events?
            This issue of YouthWorker Journal is trying to challenge you to develop a theology of sports. We hope the articles help you do that. I would like to say more about this, but I can’t right now. I have to throw on my jersey and heat the cheese sauce. The Notre Dame-Stanford game is about to start.

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