Madness in More Ways Than One
By the time you read this, the climax of March Madness may be already behind us. For those of you who don’t follow college basketball, that translates to mean that the NCAA men’s basketball championship game may already be over. If you’re reading this on Sunday April 2nd, you still have time to tune in tomorrow night for basketball’s grand finale. You probably already know why the entire tournament is called ‘March Madness’ - because life in our sports crazed culture seems to revolve around the ‘sweet sixteen’ teams who battle it out for national supremacy throughout the month of March. Given the amount of time, money and emotional energy Americans put into the NCAA tournament, it is well-labeled ‘madness.’
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like sports—basketball in particular—very much. In fact for the last three years, I have become a regular fixture at the City Auditorium and MSU Dome for the District 12 and Region 8 Class B basketball tournaments, cheering on Doug Wagner’s Des Lacs-Burlington Lakers. Though I attended my first Lakers game to support Doug, I soon found another important reason to keep going: my son Carson loved it! I suppose I’ve never met a five year old boy who didn’t enjoy a high school basketball game, and Carson is no exception. Therefore, each March when tournament time comes around, you can find us (and usually Terri and Evan too) at one of the games.
Sports in our culture is not merely an athletic outlet for young people. It is a bonding agent for important relationships. Yes, there are other and even more important bonding agents for fathers and sons, but sports holds an unusual power to connect men and boys who were designed by God to see so much of life in terms of physical skill, teamwork and a drive toward glorious victory. I try not to make too much of sports, for boys are quickly influenced by their fathers’ values, even to a fault. At the same time, I cannot deny Carson’s love for games and his natural athletic abilities. I accept the fact that he will likely always have a love for and some involvement with sports. In my mind that’s neither good nor bad, it is simply a fact.
In light of that fact, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my responsibility before God to raise him (and his brother) to think of and be involved in sports (both as a spectator and a participant) in a way that most honors God. Unfortunately, this is a subject rarely discussed among men in the church, but it is so important for shaping the hearts and lives of our sons. I am well aware that for most boys and men (and not a few girls and women) sports is a means to self-glory—glory on the field/floor as a winning player; glory in the stands as a winning fan. Even worse, for many it becomes a means of self-identification and personal value: “I am valuable when I am a skillful winner. I am not valuable as an unskillful loser.” In this way sports potentially wields a tremendously dangerous power—a power it does not deserve—over the lives of our children.
The question in my mind is: “How should I raise my sons to love sports and through it glorify God and not themselves?” Christian leader C.J. Mahaney offers the following advice to Christian fathers like me which I find so helpful: First, we need to be teaching our sons how a biblical worldview affects both how they play a sport and how they relate to others with whom they are playing. Also, we should pray with our sons before a game, that God might fill them with His Holy Spirit and help them exhibit the fruit of the Spirit during the game: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. But what if a fruit of the Spirit conflicts with the nature of the sport itself? We need to help our sons wrestle with that question and perhaps make the difficult but valiant decision to choose a spiritual life by walking away from a much-loved, but questionable, sport. After a game we need to encourage and celebrate not just evidences of physical prowess in our sons but the evidences of godliness they demonstrate. Mahaney well states, “Fathers who aren't theologically informed are more impressed with athletic ability, statistics and final scores than they are with biblical masculinity and godly character.”
Consider these other suggestions to help us as dads help our sons play well:
I suppose I’ve given much thought to that last point lately because of a certain high school basketball manager from Rochester, New York who upstaged March Madness a few weeks ago. His name is Jason McElwain. You’ve likely seen the amazing video clips of Jason, a developmentally-challenged student who faithfully managed his high school team up until this his senior year when his coach let him suit up for the last game of the season. The coach hoped Jason would make just one basket, and I’m sure that’s all Jason was hoping for. Instead he dropped six three pointers in four minutes, setting a new school record!
You probably felt like I did if you saw that video: Good for you Jason! You finally got to play and, more, you got your day in the sun. For a moment in time America stood and applauded Jason McElwain. But why? For an unusual athletic accomplishment which certainly did deserve our praise. But what if all of Jason’s shots in the final game of his high school career had been air balls? Then the crowds would not have cheered, the camera crews from around the country would not have shown up to interview him and his fellow players would not have hoisted him to their shoulders in praise. If Mahaney’s final point is true that the young man handing out towels and water bottles and tossing balls to the starring players during practice is the image of true greatness on a team, then perhaps our culture’s effort to praise Jason’s shots more than his service is the mark of our greatest madness.