Recently, my pastor David Prince debated the question of whether Christians should involve themselves or their children in football or other violent sports. Prince defended violent sports, saying that they build teamwork, trust, courage, self-sacrifice, and suffering.1 Prince, having done well in sports, is a testimony to its ability to teach these character traits. So, I agree with my pastor in part. However, I would contend that sports and sports culture only teaches these traits to those who are somewhat athletically gifted. For those, like myself, who are scrawny, weak, and uncoordinated; sports often teaches the exact opposite of these qualities. In addition, sports culture treats the weak as second class citizens at best, and subhuman (or even sub-Christian) at worst. I offer my own story as a case study.
From Joy to Humiliation
Until I was eight years of age, I was a baseball fan. In particular, I was a Cincinnati Reds fan. The 1970s was a great time to be a fan of the Men of the Machine. It was perhaps the best assembled team in the history of baseball with giants like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Ken Griffey, Sr. I wanted to be the next Johnny Bench. So, when my dad enrolled me in Pee Wee baseball, I was overjoyed. By the end of the season, that joy turned to humiliation.
Throughout the 1980 Pee Wee season, I hit the ball only twice. The first time was a foul. The second time, I hit the ball straight to first base. Every other time I went to bat, I struck out. Every time I went to bat, my teammates groaned and rolled their eyes. When I went to bat, the parents in the crowd cursed me out. Between the loud cursing and the opposing team yelling “Eh batabatabata swing,” I could not think to calculate, or even estimate, the speed of the approaching ball. Perhaps the worst part was the fact that my dad was so embarrassed by me, that he did not attend my games. I desperately tried to improve, going to every practice session. I Practiced my swing at home. I visualized hitting the ball. Nothing improved my ability to play baseball.
Instead of teaching teamwork, trust, and courage, baseball taught me individualism, wariness, and humiliation. It was humiliating being the worst player in the entire league. I became wary of my coach and the few teammates who said I would get better. The rest of the team, desiring to have nothing to do with me, taught me that I had to work alone. Thus, baseball had the opposite effect on me.
The next year, my parents thought that I might do better at another sport. They chose one that they thought required less skill than baseball. They chose soccer. In the year that had passed since my baseball failure, my fellow classmates got bigger, faster, and stronger. I remained much the same in stature. Thus, I became the worst player in the soccer league. I desired to do well, but I did not have the coordination, endurance, and strength that my fellow players seemed to have by nature. Again, I was left by my teammates to improve by myself. I lost trust in my fellow players and my coach. As teasing escalated to harassment, I had little reason to trust my own teammates, and good reason to fear the opposing team, some of whom were at least a foot taller than me in size. Soccer had the opposite effect on me.
Discouraged and humiliated, I took a hiatus from sports until eighth grade. At that time, London Middle School incorporated Orienteering into its sports program. Orienteering was the one sport that I excelled in. Although I was small and slow on my feet, I could out-think the rest of the team using my trusty compass and topographical map. It was building up my confidence and determination to succeed. I loved Orienteering; however, since Orienteering was not a team sport, did not draw crowds, and did not bring money into the schools, London dropped the program after one season. Again, I was discouraged. I took another hiatus until my sophomore year of high school.
The last team sport in which I was involved was golf. I figured that it would be an easy sport to master. All it involved was walking and hitting a little ball with a club. My average score was a little over 90, which would have been good over eighteen holes, but London Country Club had only nine holes.
During one meet, the opposing team was lined up to the side of me while I was teeing off. Instead of being propelled forward, the ball shot sideways through the midst of the other team. As they dived for cover, they shouted profanities the likes of which I had not heard since playing baseball. It was not my only golf disaster.
During a practice, I teed off for the first hole. I looked for over a minute, trying to see where the ball landed. It dropped right in front of me. It had gone straight up and down. On another occasion, I was sitting in the clubhouse after a practice. I overheard the club owner talking to one of the other golfers about some kid hitting the ball straight up and down. It was the funniest thing he had ever seen. This conversation changed my outlook from humiliation to a little sense of pride. Who else could claim that he was not just the worst golfer on the team, but the worst to set foot on the grounds of London Country Club? I lost all motivation to improve at golf. The sad thing is the fact that my coach did not give up on me this time. Unfortunately, my previous extra-curricular sports failures, and my failures at sports in physical education classes had convinced me to give up.
Throughout middle and high school, my physical education classes included team sports such as basketball and flag football. I was too uncoordinated to run and bounce the basketball at the same time. The football was too unwieldy for me to hold, throw, or catch. Again, practice did no good. Since the team captains always chose me last, I learned that no one wanted me to be a part of the team. So much for teaching teamwork.
In addition to team sports, my physical education classes included Olympic sports. It was one sport in particular which brought me to an all-time low in humiliation, discouragement, and even depression. Being a middle school boy, I was starting to take an interest in girls. During one physical education class, the sport was rope climbing. All of the boys, except for me, were able to climb the rope to the rafters. I couldn’t even get one hand above the other. Then the girls had their turn. Even the overweight girls could go up the rope by a few hand-lengths. Is it no wonder that throughout middle school and high school, whenever I asked a girl out, I’d get a response like “Not if you were the last man on earth,” or “Don’t even look at me you ugly thing.”
Outside of physical education classes, those who were on the football, basketball, baseball, and other team sports treated me like an inferior. They threw me into lockers. They would treat me as if I was stupid. They made fun of me for not having a girlfriend. By the end of high school, I loathed the sports culture. My friends tried to console me by saying that things would change in college. They didn’t. I was still treated like a second-class citizen.
The only thing that changed in college was my faith. I became a Christian. My new faith taught me to endure suffering for the sake of Christ. However, to this day it is hard to suffer for being a scrawny weakling. What makes the struggle even worse is that sermons are often filled with sports analogies that flood my mind with negative images from the past (I realize that this is my problem with which I have to deal). Some pastors even link manliness with involvement in sports. Some in the Church see me as having little worth.
I have had a few interviews with Churches in which the search committee asked the sports question, “So, what team do you root for?” When I answer, “None, I really don’t care for sports,” I am met with an awkward silence. After the silence, the interview becomes very short and awkward. I am disqualified from ministry in those cases because I do not fit in the sports-saturated culture of the American Church.
The ill effects of the sports culture has effected me to this day. Although I know that Christ neither accepts me based on my performance, nor rejects me for my failure, I still struggle with seeing myself in those sports-related ways. Although I know that I can have confidence approaching the throne, I still struggle with trust and doubt as to whether God will hear a failure such as I. These are sinful thoughts from the pit of hell; yet, they plague my mind.
If involvement in sports has taught me anything good, it is suffering. As pastor Prince has said, “The lessons learned agonizing and striving in [sports] can readily prove instructive for [spiritual warfare].”2 We strive amidst trials, tribulations, and sufferings in the light of the hope of the resurrection to come. This is a lesson that only a Christian can glean from sports.
I used to wonder why I could never improve at team sports. One clue comes from my family. My Grandmother Hunt was 3’9″, my mom 4’11”, and my dad 5’4″. I inherited my small size. My coordination problems and strength building issues come from another source. After my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I took a test to see if I fell on the autistic spectrum. The test showed that I had higher-functioning autism. I have learned that autistic people often have trouble building upper body strength. People with autism sometimes struggle with a lack of coordination. In other words, even if I were practicing baseball or soccer to this day, I would most likely still be a sports failure. Sports success is tied to natural-born ability and the grace of God. God had different plans for me.
I know I am not the only “nerd” who has suffered the tribulations I have described above. Since sports involvement and its culture tend to discourage, humiliate, and cast out the weak, how should the Church redeem it? After all, should not the Church be a refuge for the weak? I leave the question up to debate.