Editor’s Note: In light of March Madness and our cultural obsession with sports, we thought it the perfect time to post this three part guest-blog series on sports:
“Such an account…will enable us to distinguish what it is worth caring about a very great deal, from what it is worth caring about a good deal less, and both from what is not worth caring about at all“1
What should Christians make of the pursuit of winning in sports? Should winning be the principle measure of success? Evaluations of that question in popular discourse (and even some academic discourse) tends to extremes.2That is, for some winning is the pinnacle of success in sports and therefore a great (perhaps the highest) good to be found in athletics. This can be seen in the prestige given to championships, it can be seen in marketing clichés such as the NBA’s “win or go home,” and it can be seen in the endless drive to quantify and commodify athletic performance, even to the point of dehumanizing athletes.3
Others see winning and the desires it creates in athletes, coaches, and fans as the primary source of all the corruptions and evils in sport. For the Christian who succumbs to such thinking, the danger is idolatry: worshiping worldly goods or success rather than God. Consider, to take but one example, that the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) twenty-year-long “paper courses” academic fraud scandal was driven, in large part, by the fact that UNC “yearned for the taste of athletic triumph.”4 UNC wanted to win by hook or by crook. As a result, they shamelessly sacrificed academic integrity at the altar of winning. Winning became their god. Therefore, from a theological perspective, the vice in such behavior is found in the idolatrous disorder of one’s loves. Education, honesty, and neighbor are all more important than victory and everything is less important than the love of God.5As St. Augustine said in the City of God:
But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously. So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love.6
Good conduct flows from good character and good character flows from the right ordering of our loves.7Yet, pursuing victory as the highest good in sport cannot be reconciled with such a right ordering. Critics therefore allege that the pursuit of victory is inherently corrupting, which means that any serious form of competitive sport should be met with suspicion.8
The inherent friction between the ethos of competitive sport and Christianity, so vehemently denied by evangelicals in the sports world, is accepted as a matter of course by those outside it. Some shaving off the corners of the Christian ethic, some tweaking of Paul’s vision of the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace and gentleness is required to compete. [Emphasis added]9
How ought a Christian evaluate such dichotomous approaches? Are either of these two extremes correct? Is a desire to win somehow un-Christian, or could winning be a way to “glorify God”? Moreover, if one wants to hold that neither extreme is correct, then how might a Christian navigate between the “Scylla and Charybdis” on this question, so as to avoid crashing into the rocks of a “win-at-all-cost mentality” on the one side or succumbing to the whirlpool of “athletic pacifism” on the other?
I will offer a preliminary answer to this question in two steps. First, I will give a general normative framework for analyzing whether winning is a good and what type of good it might be. Here I will argue that winning ought to be understood, especially in educational contexts, as a “third order good.” That is, winning is a real good, that can be pursued unapologetically, as long as it is not treated as the highest good, or is treated as more important than any of the goods above it. Second, after establishing this basic framework, I will close this blog series with some brief reflections on how scripture and theology can clarify, supplement, and expand on the framework proposed.
The bottom line is this. Seen in its proper context, Christians should recognize winning as a real good. They need not apologize for knowing, as the old ABC Wide World of Sports opening montage put it, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Nor does such a recognition mean that Christians must shy away from admitting how much of the modern Western sporting culture inordinately idolizes victory. “Athletic pacifism” is a mistaken overreaction, but that does not mean that the dominant philosophies (and theologies) driving modern sporting culture are good, virtuous, or healthy. As Christians look to be “salt and light” in the sporting arena, they must avoid both extremes. Doing so will have real costs. It may mean lost opportunities, less prestige, and even persecution. When tempted to “go along to get along” or measure success by worldly standards, Christian athletes, coaches and fans would do well to remember that material success, absent faith, discipleship, and virtue, means very little. For “it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold” that we are redeemed, “but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19, NIV). (To be continued…)
- Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2009), 177-178.
- For a range of takes on these issues broadly conceived, see the following secular and religious sources: Shirl Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010); Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports: End zone, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit, Rev. (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994); Jay Coakley, “Assessing the Sociology of Sport: On Cultural Sensibilities and the Great Sport Myth,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50, no. 4-5 (2015): 402-406.
- For examples of this, see: Nate Jackson, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, (New York: Harper Collins, 2013); Steven Ungerleider, Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001); John Hoberman, Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, (New York, The Free Press, 1992).
- Jay Smith & Mary Willingham, Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 44.
- “No sinner, qua sinner should be loved; every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account, and God should be loved for himself” St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21.
- St. Augustine, “City of God: Book XV, Chapter 22,” newadvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120115.htm.
- “The person who lives a just and holy life is one who is a sound judge of these things. He is also a person who has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less…” Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 21.
- Here’s one secular example: “The craving to win, whether in business or in sport, is the modern version of the labours of Sisyphus – a sentence to never-ending labor without a goal. “Peter Singer, How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (New York: Prometheus Books, 1995), 206. Here is another: Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case against Competition, Rev. Ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
- Hoffman, Good Game, 156.