How to Lose in Sports

I hate losing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a card game, a touch-football game, or Scattergories. Losing is like being forced to drink a tall glass of cottage cheese while watching your puppy get kicked by the opposing team.

One of the worst days in UO history.

One of the worst days in UO history.

I know that sounds slightly extreme, but it used to be a lot worse for me. Whenever I’d lose or my favorite team would lose, it used to depress me for days. Not minutes. Not hours. Days. The worst was whenever my beloved Oregon Ducks would lose a football game.

Growing up, the Ducks used to lose often, so fall was always a rough time for my heart. But once I hit high school, winning became a regular thing for the Ducks. It got to the point that in my freshman year of college—attending the University of Oregon, of course—the Ducks were well on their way to go to the national championship game, led by the Heisman-trophy-candidate quarterback, Dennis Dixon.

But while playing Arizona, Dixon’s knee gave out, a season-ending injury. Without their starting quarterback, the Ducks flailed and lost the game, forfeiting all national championship aspirations. They limped through the remainder of the season.

Needless to say, I was devastated. This was the worst loss of them all. I wasn’t just depressed, I was angry. I felt like this had been some sick cosmic joke, to come so far over the years just to fall flat. It was unjust.

Trying to cope with the loss, some friends wanted to watch a movie. If something else occupied our minds, then maybe we would feel better. Someone chose the movie Blood Diamond, which had come out on DVD not too long before. If you don’t know, Blood Diamond is a movie about conflict diamonds and how they are used to fund rebel armies who use child soldiers to wage their wars. It’s a gruesome but very well-made film.

There’s this one scene in the movie where the rebel general invades a village looking for new boys to join his army and slaves to mine for diamonds. The general massacres much of the village and rounds up all the males, boys and men. Hands get chopped off. Mothers get shot. It’s horrible.

I remember watching the scene and feeling disturbed because the crimes committed were so wrong. But then I suddenly felt more disturbed. I realized that although I was moved by this injustice, I was not angered by it—not like how I was angered by the supposed injustice of the Duck game. I was more furious about a football game than I was about an evil man brainwashing children to kill people. I remember thinking, I am a horrible human being. Football doesn’t matter as much as people.

Jesus took me to the mat for that one. Thankfully, from that point on I’ve had a sobered perspective on losing. Sometimes I have an initial emotional reflex, but it’s always tempered with that memory.

A couple years later, the Oregon Ducks actually ended up going the national championship game but we lost because of a last second field goal. I was fine. Watching the game was actually one of the most fun experiences of my college career.

I’m not saying losing should be easy. I understand the pain of losing a game. In a high school soccer playoff game, I missed a penalty kick that would’ve tied the game. Instead, we lost because of me. The pain is real, especially for the players and coaches. I’m not going to take that away from anyone. But I do know that sports is just a part of life, not life itself. While we’re losing games, people are losing loved ones. We should consider ourselves blessed when the most traumatic event in our life is just losing a game.

At the same time, we shouldn’t devalue the losses. Don’t pretend like they never happened. They’re tools to teach us, grow us. In many ways, you learn more when you lose than when you win. There is such a thing as getting back on the horse, stepping back into the ring, and the come-from-behind win.

Everyone is going to lose at some point, definitely in sports but also in life. The question is not if you will lose, but how will you react.

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The Glory of the NBA Finals

NBA FinalsThis year’s NBA Finals is shaping up to be a pretty intense battle. With the Miami Heat’s win over the San Antonio Spurs last night, the series is now tied 2-2. (Side note: I call the Spurs to win it all in Game 6. I love seeing the Bugatti Veyron lose to the John Deere tractor) 

Every time a championship series or game comes around for a major sport in America, it’s fascinating to see how people get caught up in it. They celebrate the players. They paint their faces. They don the jerseys of twenty-year-olds. They gladly pay hundreds and thousands of dollars to watch these games. After huge plays, grown men with jobs where you have to wear a tie to the office scream and dance around like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert (If the Oregon Ducks make it to the National Championships in football, I’ll be right there with them).

Why does something like the NBA Finals—sweaty men in tank tops rolling around a rubber ball—draw out such behavior from millions of people?

It’s because humans have an innate desire for transcendence. We were created for it. We want to be a part of something bigger, something beyond ourselves. We want others to join us for that same mission—there’s automatic camaraderie and fellowship among fans like I’ve never seen before. Ultimately, we want to celebrate that which is greater than us, that which is glorious. 

This truth goes beyond sports. This is why those teenage girls faint at the sound of Justin’s girly pipes. This is why families travel to the Grand Canyon just to stare at it. This is why billions of people engage in some form of religious practice.

We know we were meant to be a part of something greater. In those moments, we don’t mind being small. We’re just grateful to be a part of it. 

The reason we feel that tug is because it’s supposed to be fulfilled in God. The Finals is not the end of our desire to touch glory. Instead, we were created to celebrate God’s transcendence—His glory, His might and power.

The Bible describes some pretty awesome displays of God.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of His glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. Isaiah 6:1-4

That is true transcendence. That is what we were made for.

Is it bad to enjoy the Finals? Only if we see it as an end to itself—as glorious within itself. Please enjoy the Finals, but understand that the glory of anything on this earth is a dim candle compared to the blazing sun. See it as a signpost directing our attention upwards, a reminder that we were made for a greater glory and transcendence. May it be like an appetizer, creating an insatiable hunger for God and His glory. Then go home and watch the Spurs win. 

The NCAA’s Monday Justice

Monday was a day for justice.

First, James Holmes—the movie theater mass murderer from Friday morning—had his first day in court. But since much more is to come of this, I am going to focus on another case of Monday justice, the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State.

Punishment had already being thrown (and even more yet to come) at the many individuals involved in the horrendous cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s sexually abusive acts. Nothing had yet been levied toward the institution that facilitated all of this cowardly evil—the Penn State football program. That’s where the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) comes into play. The NCAA is the regulating body of all the major universities’ athletic programs. As such, the association felt compelled to discipline Penn State for its negligence.

Slate lists the sanctions as being:

A $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, and the vacation of all wins dating back to 1998.
The penalties also include the loss of 20 scholarships per year over four years and a five-year probationary period. The NCAA likewise announced that any current or incoming football players will be free to immediately transfer and compete at another school, a decision that is sure to deplete the Nittany Lions squad moving forward.

The severity of such a penalty is unprecedented but the situation prompting them is also unprecedented. Previously, all of the NCAA’s sanctions towards a university athletic program had been because of “cheating” in its various forms. That all changed on Monday.

Many have already asked, what right does the NCAA, a body that is supposed to focus on athletic violations, have in disciplining a program that had not “broken” any NCAA rules? Every right. They had every right, because Penn State had neglected to protect the children, allowing a monster to continue in his rampage unseen, and instead opted to protect a football giant-of-a-program and a football god. The NCAA had the right to judge this sports program because the program had gone too far.

Penn State had created a world and culture in which the highest good was not loving God and loving your neighbor, but loving your team and loving to win. You cheer for your team. You adore your team. You protect your team. You die for your team.

But to be honest, this is not just a Penn State problem. What happened there was bound to happen sooner or later somewhere else in some other form because we all kind of let this happen. As Americans, we have created a culture of football, sport, and celebrity that is larger than life—larger than God.

Our team, our coach, our star can do no wrong and how dare you for suggesting otherwise. If the situation had occurred in Eugene, I shudder to consider how our university, football program, and community would react.

Next time you attend a college football game, look around, and try to prove me wrong. They are worshiping.

I am speaking from experience; in the past I have been caught up in this hysteria too. Don’t get me wrong, I love football but we have taken this too far in the name of championships and bowl games. And it doesn’t just have to be football. Any time we elevate something above morality, truth, and God, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

May this Penn State situation be a wake up call to the rest of the nation that football is not more important than a human life—than a child’s well-being. This is precisely the message the NCAA is trying to send to the other institutions of this country.

“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. Let us hope he is right.

Outside Penn State’s football stadium was placed a 7-foot tall bronze statue of Joe Paterno—the former winningest coach in history, the coach who should have done more. It has now been torn down by the university.

Let us make sure that we tear down our idols too, lest we fall with them.

Love and Basketball—and God

With the NBA Playoffs rolling along and baseball season in full swing (pun definitely intended), I was thinking about our love for sports—how we can love sports too much. I was reminded of this excerpt from Matt Chandler’s book, The Explicit Gospel, which smashes me over the head with conviction every time I read it:

As I write this, March Madness is going on. It’s the greatest sporting event. (I say that because it’s also the last athletic venue in which David can still beat Goliath. There’s not really another venue like it where a college you’ve never heard of that has, say, eight hundred people in it can upset superpowers in the basketball world.) But here’s the thing about fallen men and women who love March Madness. All over our country, fans are nervous. I’m not joking. They’re nervous in their guts, they want their team to win so badly. They watch the games and yell at their televisions: “No! Yes!” Kids are crying in fear, wives are running for more nachos—it’s chaos. It’s madness. With victory comes elation and surfing a thousand websites to read the same article over and over and over again, and with defeat comes destitution of spirit and days of mourning and moping, angrily arguing on a blog and about who really deserved it or an official’s botched call.

Every bit of those affections, every bit of that emotion, and every bit of that passion was given to us by God for God. It was not given for basketball.

Where is the nervousness in our guts when we’re coming into an assembly of those pursuing God? Where is the elation over the resurrection? Where is the desolation over our sins? Where is it? Well, it’s on basketball. It’s on football. It’s on romance. It’s on tweeting and blogging.

Are you really going to believe we’re not worthy of hell?

Thank God for his response to all this blasphemous nonsense: the wrath-absorbing cross of Christ. (51)

Matt is not saying that sports or even enjoying sports is a bad thing. Sports are a good thing—a gift from God. But, as Mark Driscoll would say, when we take a good thing and make it a god thing, then that is a bad thing. It is called idolatry.

Boba Fett Meets The NFL

Football has once again stepped into the limelight of scandal, but this time it is the paid professional adults who must give account not the amateur twenty-somethings.

The NFL released a statement on March 21st that the New Orleans Saints had instituted a program with their players that “included ‘bounty’ payments for ‘knock-outs’ [knocking a player unconscious] and ‘cart-offs,’ [injuring a player to the extent that they need to be driven off the field with a John Deere tractor] plays on which an opposing player was forced to leave the game. At times, the bounties even targeted specific players by name.” Basically, to motivate their players to play harder and to help them win games, the Saints were paying for them to intentionally injure opposing teammates. Think, bounty hunters with helmets and body armor—almost sounds like science fiction, right?

Upon examining the evidence, NFL commissioner issued swift and severe discipline on the Saints including:

A $500,000 fine; a forfeiture of second round draft picks for 2012 and 2013; a suspension of the head coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season without pay; a suspension of the General Manager for eight games without pay; an indefinite suspension of a former defensive coordinator; a six-game suspension of the assistant Head Coach without pay; and also the punished individuals will be required to participate in certain programs to help discourage bounty programs in all levels of football.

What has happened here is a graphic distortion of the spirit of sportsmanship, competition, and also human decency.

It is bad enough when a player tries to intentionally injure an opposing teammate. I have seen my brother, now a wide receiver for Oregon State, be the target of multiple shots from ill-willed players—one helmet-to-helmet hit left him unconscious after a punt return. But for the coaching staff to monetarily encourage the carnage, it is downright sadistic and corrupt.

I absolutely love sports and specifically football. It is a great game. When I hear about sports scandals, my initial reaction is to get so angry because all I see are grown men running in tights, who are paid millions of dollars, ruining something I really enjoy. But the more I think about the Saints and other scandals (the Miami Hurricanes, North Carolina, Penn State, Ohio State, and USC) I can’t help but think that we the sports fanatic have helped create the problem.

ALL I DO IS WIN

Our society has taken the American dream of the pursuit of happiness to its inevitable conclusion—if losing bring me sadness then the only path to happiness is through winning.

It is my right to win. I need to win. I will win at all costs.

When the accomplishment of a determined goal is the ultimate pursuit of a life, it becomes idolatry, it becomes worship.

We are willing to sacrifice things for what we worship. Nothing becomes more important than what we worship. This is why Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Everything goes out the window for what you treasure. This is why someone would be willing to end a colleague’s career through intentional sabotage and assault just to earn a trophy and an iced up ring.

This is not just among players though. Attend any sporting event, professional, college, even grade school (sometimes sports parents are the most vicious), and you will see that fans have been calling for the heads of their enemies long before there was a price on them.

How are Christians to react to such a worldview?

WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN

Christian sports fans, if we are really honest with ourselves, there are many times when we suffer from cognitive dissonance—holding two opposing viewpoints as true at the very same time.

1. We love Jesus and want to please Him.

2. We want our team to win. We want our team to win real badly.

It is not impossible to love Jesus and at the same time want your team to win. The problem is when our desire for our team to win trumps our desire to please Jesus.

Rarely does this occur in outright rebellion: “Forget you Jesus! Have fun with the weak and the lowly cause I’m watching the Packers!”

Instead, our hypocrisy happens in subtle ways: We hurl insults at opposing players to get inside their heads and demean them. We argue and complain when penalties are rightfully made against our team. We demonize referees…period. We call for the head of our rival’s star player. We think fans of our rival must be missing a few crucial brain cells to be willing to cheer against our team.

We are not consciously defying Jesus; we just forget about Him altogether.

Forget Him and it is easy to begin thinking that something else matters. Forget Him while you are alone with your girlfriend and it is easy to begin thinking only her body matters. Forget Him while you are at your workplace and it is easy to begin thinking only the corporate ladder matters. Forget Him in the arena and it is easy to begin thinking only your team matters—after all, everyone else is cheering for them.

And when only your team matters, nothing else really does.

Moral Obligations and Joe Paterno

 

Much will be said in the coming days and week about the scandal exploding at Penn State.  Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator from the program, is being charged with sexually assaulting multiple children over a span of time while in employment at the university.  Many witnesses and victims have come forth to testify against Sandusky.  Among them is a former graduate assistant who claims he witnessed Sandusky rape a young boy in the football team’s showers in 2002.  This graduate assistant immediately brought it to the attention of the head football coach, Joe Paterno.  Paterno notified the athletic director and the vice president of the university and that was that.

There was apparently no follow up, no confrontation, no call to the police, and not even an investigation into the identity of the boy and Sandusky was able to retire from the university with position and prestige.

As more and more details have surfaced about the horrendous actions that Sandusky allegedly committed, outrage over Paterno’s inaction has led him to announce Wednesday that he will retire from his position as head coach at the end of the football season. Update: As of Wednesday night, Joe Paterno has been fired by the board of trustees from his position as head coach.  Thousands of Penn State students rioted in response to Paterno’s termination.

NOTHING WRONG

Joe Paterno (84) is known as one of the greatest living legends of college football.  He has coached as Penn State’s head coach for 46 years and owns more wins than any other major college football coach in history.

All of this has been tarnished in just over the course of a weekend.

While Paterno committed no outright heinous act, people have accused him of failing to fulfill a moral obligation.  A coach should above all protect people, not just his football program.

I find this extremely intriguing.  Most sports scandals involve an act of commission: adultery, cheating, steroids, brawls, drugs, play-for-pay, or domestic violence.  They committed an act to get in hot water.

You do not see many scandals where the person is accused because of doing nothing wrong.  But that is precisely the problem; Paterno should have done something.

Paterno preached, “Do the right thing” to his players and yet he did nothing.

GOOD AND EVIL

Every time there is public outrage over a scandal I am reminded that even in the midst of our postmodern, relativistic, your-truth-is-your-truth-and-my-truth-is-my-truth society, we still have a moral standard and this standard is written on every human heart by God through the conscience (Romans 2:15-16).

People were disgusted with Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs.  Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring and animal brutality caused even my loveable little sister to call for his head on a platter.  Coach Jim Tressel’s cover up at Ohio State and the University of Miami’s problems with amoral boosters have put a huge blight on college football.

You can quibble about the gray areas all you want but at the end of the day, right is right and wrong is wrong.  There is absolute good and there is absolute evil.  Ask any victim of sexual assault.

This includes even the things we fail to do.  James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  Theologians identify such inaction as a sin of omission.

DO SOMETHING

When you fail to include the whole truth in a story because it could alter someone’s perception of you; when you know your wife needs help around the house but you decide to play video games or watch TV; when you know someone really needs a strong rebuke in love but you flounder in small talk; when you know someone weaker is being abused and subjected to a powerful monster but you shove it under the rug hoping it will work out on its own, it is sin.

I think it is so easy to lower our standards when it comes to sins of omission.  We justify, make excuses, or shift blame.  We think no one will notice or get hurt because we haven’t done anything wrong.  But that is precisely the problem; we should have done something.

THE HEART OF JESUS

Jesus was the opposite.  Instead of justification, excuses, and selfishness, His heart was full of compassion.

Continually in the Gospels, it states that Jesus had compassion for the lost and the broken.  This compassion was a deep pity, a true sorrow over their condition.  But it did not stop at emotion, Jesus’ compassion always moved Him to action.

When Jesus saw the poor, the broken, and the diseased following Him, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” and in response he sent his disciples to them to proclaim the Gospel (Matthew 9:36).

When four thousand men followed Jesus out to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.  And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32).

It was compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to forgo race, religion, and prejudice to bandage the wounded traveler (Luke 10:33).

It was compassion that caused the father of the Prodigal Son to throw off social restraint and dignity and run to embrace his slop-covered, wayward son (Luke 15:20).

It is compassion that causes the Lord to forgive all the junk in our lives if we come to Him (Lamentations 3:32; Micah 7:19; Zechariah 10:6; Romans 9:15).

Do we feel anything when we see a need?

Let us remember the heart of Christ, the essence of the Gospel—in the little things and in the big things—and do the good we know we are called to do as followers of Him.

Sport-ology: Why We Need Sports

I have been surrounded by sports my entire life.

My father was a college track coach before becoming an athletic shoe designer. My grandparents were track coaches for decades. Their love for sports was definitely past down to us kids. The smell of sweat and grass was my permanent scent for the first eighteen years of my life.

Some of my earliest memories of sports involved watching the Michael Jordan fly across the court, embarrassing opponents left and right. My family and I lived in Taiwan for a good chunk of the 90’s and most of the NBA games they showed on TV were exclusively of his Royal Airness.

It never rains in Autzen Stadium

The first time football began to intrigue me was when the Oregon Ducks made it to the 1995 Rose Bowl. My whole family traveled down to Pasadena to watch the “Grandaddy” of all bowl games. Unfortunately us kids had to watch the Ducks lose to Penn State on a small TV at a relative’s house.

OBSESSION

We live in a country that is obsessed with sports.

The largest and most expensive structures built within cities are dedicated to the furtherance of the fanatic experience. Even in our struggling economy, billions of dollars are spent attending, viewing, playing, and experiencing sports.

Bitter rivalries between sports teams match tribal war proportions. You can mock someone’s politics, faith, or mother but God help you if you put on a Washington Huskies jersey in Eugene, Oregon—the brass knuckles to your spleen will send you back up the I-5.

The fact that sports can have grown adult men fist-fight each other whilst defending the honor of their team (which are represented by cartoon animals, mind you) manifests just how much love there is for sports. If drunken-sports-related brawls were dollars (streakers on football and baseball fields would be fifty cents), our economy would be unstoppable.

RECEIVE, REJECT, REDEEM

Since we are surrounded by such a gluttonous amount of athletic display, how are we as Christians to react to sports? Sports are a major part of our culture and they are not going away any time soon. Is there anything from sports, in the words of Mark Driscoll, Christians can “receive, reject, or redeem?”

Whether it is because of the rampant idolatry, psychotic fanaticism, materialism, self-glorification, steroids, play-for-pay deals, perspiration, violence, competition, or Laker Dancers many Christians have decided to reject sports. It just seems so worldly and so devoid of God.

The evidence seems to show that sports bring out the worst in human nature. Scandal after scandal has plagued the recent college football offseason. Every year we discover baseball players seeking to “enhance” their performance through the use of drugs. I have even seen my fair share of parents on the brink of going to jail for assault because they did not like something that happened in their child’s football game.

Shirl James Hoffman (Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports), who wrote an extensive column for Christianity Today regarding Sports and Christianity, states, “while honesty, sympathy, and generosity are the idealized derivatives of a life lived with God, recent data reveal that immersion in a culture devoted to proving one’s superiority squelches rather than reinforces these virtues.”

And yet, other Christians have received sports and all its inglorious baggage. Unfortunately, in many cases Christians are the ones perpetuating the self-aggrandizing, dishonest, rage filled, sexualized, and greedy attitudes running on the fields and filling stadiums.

Ted Kluck (The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto) regarding Hoffman’s article, stated, “For many [Christian athletes], God has become nothing more than another lucky pair of socks—another performance-enhancing drug.”

Sports are fun and we like to win. We like to know we are better than others. It is as simple as that.

AN ALTERNATIVE

The big question Christians need to ask themselves is what does the Bible say about sports? More than you would think.

The biggest sports fan in the entire Bible is the Apostle Paul (although Elijah, who outran a chariot, comes in a close second). Paul saw sport (which was used as pagan worship in that day) as a means to communicate Gospel truths to his readers.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Just as athletes work hard and discipline themselves to compete, Paul exhorts his readers to live the Christian life.

In fact, at the end of his life, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Paul wrote much more about sports than even these two verses but they offer a glimpse into Paul’s perspective of sport. It is something to be redeemed, not whole-heartedly received but not rejected.

Christians need to take a biblical theology of sports; sport-ology, if you will.

We cannot cut ourselves off from the world in monastic fashion but we also cannot welcome with open arms the self-glorifying, win-at-all-costs attitudes that many athletes and fans retain.

Whether we play them or we watch them, in the end, sports can be another beneficial way to learn about living the Christian life.

In further posts, we will examine specific lessons that can be gleaned from the wide world of sports.

What are some that you have learned?