I cheered when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

I hope that the hapless Astros might someday cobble together a 15 game win streak.

And, as always, Hook ‘Em.

I make those statements so that you know I am not a prude when it comes to sports.  I enjoy a good game and I have my favorites.

This morning I heard an interesting commentary from the sometimes interesting Frank DeFord.  (To listen to the podcast called Sports Reporting:  The Way It Was . . . And Is, click here.)  Deford’s melodic voice sometimes is cogent and sometimes is not and is always cranky-old-manish, but this morning something he said struck a nerve in me.  He asked whether or not sports builds character.

It is something we’ve heard, perhaps young men more than women, over and over and over again all our lives.  “Sports build character” is almost chanted as irrefutable proof that high schools and colleges are justified in spending millions of dollars on stadiums and gymnasiums.  It is also what brings solace to parents standing in a February cold rain all day on a Saturday while their 6th grade son or daughter chases a soccer ball around in the mud.  Or sits on the bench.

Colin Kaepernick showing his character by belittling Cam Newton’s character.

I disagree.  I do not believe sports builds character at all.  Sports may reveal good character, but it doesn’t build good character.  Good character is built by:

  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • Civics classes
  • Churches
  • Books
  • The military
  • Experiences
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Public service
  • Merit Groups (Like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts)

Character comes from a great many places–and from almost anywhere, except sports.  I will grant that coaches, as leaders, can help build character.  However, a coach is just as likely to not.

Paradoxically, sports tends to teach the wrong kinds of lessons, I think.  Sports teaches:

  • Arrogance
  • The bigger, stronger, faster are better
  • Privilege
  • Win at all costs
  • Cheating is okay if you don’t get caught
  • People are disposable
  • Classism
  • Misogyny
  • Triumphalism
  • Violence

In fact, let me recant myself.  Sports does teach character.  It teaches bad character.  When people got angry at Richard Sherman earlier this year for his antics after the NFC Championship game, they should have stopped and considered that his statements were the logical results of what sports teach.

I’m not against sports, really I’m not.  I just think we need to stop lying to ourselves with the deception that if we make our children play sports then it is undeniably a good thing for them.  It is not.  It is but one option in a large range of options, and it is an option that may get them hurt, bullied, or belittled.  I’m not even sure people under the age of 16 ought to be allowed to play league sports.  Of course, there is no money in that.


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Several years ago I recall watching that not-very-good science fiction movie “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and jumping out of my skin when the film came to one of its dramatic peaks.  The intergalactic quest leads the miserable characters to a supercomputer which was designed to discover the meaning of life.  After millennia of waiting the answer is finally found.  The meaning of life is 42.

That movie was dreadful and not very enlightening, but I’ll always have a fond place in my heart for it because of that answer, “42.”  As a country boy who grew up in the deep woods of East Texas, I knew that the computer was talking about dominoes.  42 is a regional domino game in East Texas and Oklahoma.  Legend has it that it was invented by farmers who were told at their church that playing cards was evil and a tool of the devil.  So these deacons and Sunday school teachers designed a game that worked like spades or hearts but involved regular dominoes.  It wasn’t long before 42 was played all across the dusty prairie on hot summer afternoons and cold winter nights.

This trip my wife and I are playing a lot of 42 with my father, mother, and sister.  Now, for Mrs. Greenbean and I it is all just fun; something to pass the time.  But for my folks, it is almost a bloodsport.  42 means so much more to them than to us.  There are years of implied meaning, history, and ancient curses behind every “trumped trick” and a convoluted past behind each glare.  One can almost hear the voice over for a movie trailer, “This time, it’s for real . . .”

Each family has its own sacred games.  I’ve visited in homes where Scrabble is played with vengeance or Monopoly determines inheritance.  We Greenbeans like chess, Clue, and solitaire.  I’ve seen my wife and daughters play solitaire for hours.  My oldest daughter likes to play Sims on the computer.  When I analyze it, I can see that we four just do not have that competitive edge that I see in my parents or in other families.  Perhaps that is why I do not understand professional sports.

Life does not have a score; and I am busy living life.  The things which really—really—really matter are measured in time, sweat, tears, and thought.  So, how do I reconcile why so much is invested, emotionally, into 42 by my parents and in other games by other families?  Ah, I think I have it.  Games have become the ultimate metaphor for life; so much so that the moron Charlie Sheen can coin, “Winning!” as he describes his life.

Here is where I work at it harder than I probably should and begin to think in sociological or theological terms.  Maybe competition has come to mean so much because deep down most of us do believe that life is competitive and that only the winners survive.  Games could be the life-metaphor of choice because of some psychological outworking or manifestation of Darwinian Theory.  Economics is certainly about winning and losing.  So is politics.  Then there is war.

Is a spirit of competition compatible with my calling as a follower of Christ?  The New Testament calls me to share my resources.  The church as a faith community is about koinonia not cutthroat.  The reality of fellowship demands that I view myself in partnership with God helping those around me—not in competition with them.

I’ll have to think about this for a while, but the implications of how competitive churches often are with one another might betray a certain Darwinian view of the Holy Spirit, and that would be heresy.