Is Student-Athlete Becoming an Oxymoron?

Is it just me or have sports gone a little mad recently?

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz almost come to blows after a game in October. Ndamukong Suh was suspended for slamming an opponents head into the ground and then stomping on him during a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving and showed no remorse afterwards. He then wrapped his car around a tree and had his passengers lie about their injuries. Throughout the current season there have been numerous brawls during and after high school and college football games. It’s crazy.

What I have found really interesting, however, is how the people involved have responded to these incidences.

On Saturday, the annual rivalry basketball game between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University was marred by a brawl between the 2 teams with 9.4 seconds remaining. Here’s a clip if you haven’t seen it:

Perhaps even more frightening than the brawl itself was the reaction afterwards by the Xavier players. In the post-game press conference, they actually bragged about the fact that they were “gangsters.” Rather than being embarrassed over how they behaved, they were proud that they had enhanced their street cred.

In the opposing team’s press conference, UC’s head coach Mick Cronin took the exact opposite stance and laced into his players by saying he had never been so embarrassed, indicting society for the over-glorification of sports, and telling his players they had forgotten that college is about getting an education and not about playing basketball. has the complete transcript and link to the video here. It’s definitely worth reading or watching the entire thing.

Similarly, last month in my home state of New Jersey, 2 different high schools faced disciplinary problems involving their football programs. In Wayne Hills, 9 players were suspended after allegedly beating another student. The head coach responded by having the entire football team show up in uniform to a school board meeting and bullied the board into allowing the players to participate in a state playoff game. When the school board finally enforced the suspensions, parents filed lawsuits saying their children’s constitutional rights were violated.

In Matawan, 5 players violated an unspecified portion of the school code and were suspended for 2 weeks, including the state championship game (which they ended up winning without those players). Their head coach, Joe Martucci, said of the punishment,

“I told the parents, ‘This is where it’s at.’ I know a couple of people were upset, but athletics are an extension of the classroom. If you do something wrong, you have to pay for it.”

In an article on the difference in the reactions of Wayne Hills and Matawan, Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger, wrote of Martucci’s decision,

He knows there is something bigger here, a lesson to teach young people about the consequences of their actions. Isn’t that the point of high school athletics?

It’s a harsh message that affects an entire team of young athletes, but it’s the right one. The only one, really.

Politi was lambasted on Twitter for his stance against Wayne Hills’ reaction, a sign that perhaps as a society we have indeed forgotten that high school and college athletics are about reinforcing life lessons. They are not ends in and of themselves. As Cronin said in his post-game tirade:

These guys, very few of them are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball. They are here to get an education at two great universities and they need to appreciate that. The world don’t revolve around them, around basketball. They need to learn how to act, they need to have respect for the fact they are on a scholarship, that people come to see them play. That’s just the facts of college athletics.

Yet, I fear that even Christians fail to remember this point. In my former career as a teacher, I was around Christian schools that refused to suspend students from athletics because of academic or disciplinary problems. The excuse always was that it wasn’t fair to the other athletes to have them play short-handed or even forfeit a game for lack of players. Of course it isn’t fair, but either is life. The bad behavior of one frequently has consequences on others. In Christianity, we usually refer to this as sin.

The primary benefit of sports is that they teach perseverance, discipline, teamwork, and other important life lessons. The moment they stop reinforcing the lessons being taught at home, school, and church, is the moment parents, and Christian parents especially, should pull their kids off the team.

So how do you know when sports has become to much of a focus, when it has ceased to be a tool and instead has become an end in and of itself?

  • Is your child allowed to fail? Is your child ever made to feel intrinsically inferior (by you, a coach, teammates, etc.) because of failures in athletics? Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for winning and losing in sports. I can’t stand the idea of giving out a myriad of awards just to make sure everyone gets one. But there is a difference between recognizing the outcome of a game, or the fact that someone has a different skill set than another, and making a child feel like he’s less worthy because he struck out, missed a free throw, or made a mental error in a big spot. Kids should be allowed to fail, but they need to be shown that they are still loved and accepted when they do.
  • When your child fails, is always someone else’s fault? Do you blame losses on the coaches, the referees, teammates, etc? Teaching kids that failures can always be blamed on someone or something else is the exact opposite of what sports should be teaching. Too often I’ve seen parents and coaches feed their players’ conspiracy theories about referees, and that is a sign that sports and winning has been elevated to too high a place. Blame-shifting and a lack of accountability in sports helps lead to blame-shifting and lack of accountability in other areas of life.
  • Does your child win gracefully? Sore winners are just as bad as sore losers, and winning is as good an opportunity to teach good sportsmanship as losing is. If this lesson isn’t being taught, there is a problem.
  • Is there ever anything that takes priority over sports?This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to high school athletics. I have seen schools push for less homework (or no homework) on the day of big games or games that involve some travel time. What lesson does this teach? It teaches that sports are more important than academics.If athletics consistently cause your child to miss school, church, and family events, it teaches them that sports are the most important thing in life. Unlike some, I don’t have a big problem with occasionally missing church for sports. As long as it’s not incredibly frequently, it might be the right thing for some families and some children. (This is especially true if opportunities are taken to missionally interact with the other players and parents, like people I know who occasionally miss church for sports but also diligently teach their kids how to share their faith with teammates.) But ask yourself, do they ever miss games and practices? If they sometimes are allowed to miss church but neverallowed to miss sports events, they are being taught that sports are more important than church … even if you verbally say that they’re not.Now, I don’t mean to say that students should be allowed to miss sports for any reason. Part of being a student-athlete is balancing both of those roles, and ideally, student-athletes should be taught how to handle a full academic load, being an active part of a local body of believers, and playing sports. But I have heard parents, coaches, and athletic directors say it is never acceptable for an athlete to miss practice because of a family vacation, big exam, school project, youth retreat, etc. I’m tired of the reasoning that says, “when you join a sports team, you make a commitment that you have to honor,” as if the student didn’t also have commitments to his family, his schoolwork, or his church/youth group. For some, joining a sports team somehow involves a commitment that no other group or organization (outside of perhaps marriage) entails. What a joke! Sports are only one part of a healthy person’s life. And in reality, they should be a lesser part. Unless your child is LeBron James (and trust me, he’s not), if he cannot handle academics, sports, and church at the same time, sports should be the first thing to go. Because sports simply reinforce lessons that should primarily be learned in home, the classroom, and the pew. They are an addendum to, not the focal point of, a child’s education.
  • Does your child ever lose sports as a punishment? This is very similar to the previous point. If bad grades or behavior result in being grounded from social activities, youth group, etc. but never sports, it conveys the attitude that sports supersede other commitments and priorities. If sports are important to your child, they should taken away at the necessary times to teach a lesson.

Incidences like the brawl between UC and Xavier or the football programs in NJ should cause us to examine our own attitude and commitment to sports. If they don’t, then one day we might find ourselves suing a school district so our child can play a game after being arrested or, on a smaller scale, planning our entire lives, including church attendance, around sports schedules. I cannot see anyway in which an overemphasis on the importance of sports leads to God-honoring behavior.

Disclaimer: I love sports. My family has owned season tickets to the New York Giants since the 1950s, and I’ve been going to games since I was 4 years old. I grew up playing baseball and basketball in organized leagues and every other sport I could with friends in my neighborhood. In high school I played freshman basketball and was on a varsity track & field team that won back-to-back state championships. My concern over the importance we place on sports comes from introspection and (I hope) maturing in my faith and understanding of Scripture. It doesn’t come from an inability to play sports or lack of interest in them.

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