Don’t Be Blinded By The Spectacle

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From my latest article for WorldMag.com:

We all know that “the big game” is on Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, that is. And how could we have missed it with all the hype and controversy? It started with allegations of the New England Patriots cheating by deflating footballs in the AFC Championship Game. Of course there were subsequent calls for the tar and feathering of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Such a strong reaction always happens when you have football’s biggest stars and biggest egos in the spotlight. And the Patriots aren’t alone. The NFC champion Seattle Seahawks tote a trailerful of egos to Glendale, Ariz., for Sunday’s show, as well featuring their rather verbose head coach Pete Carroll and defensive back Richard Sherman.

As part of the show we’ve had the opportunity to see star running back Marshawn Lynch turn himself into an internet meme by answering every question at media day with “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” At various times both teams have claimed to have had hurt feelings or to have been saddened by all the accusations and trash talk going on. Poor souls, what drama. In all it is one enormous social media stirring, television feeding, and a heap of a spectacle.

Which, of course, is a genuine shame because it’s a distraction from the real story: one of the best Super Bowl matchups in recent years between two teams on historic runs of success. In the era of free agency, being a playoff and championship contender year in and year out is nearly impossible. But the Patriots have consistently done it since 2001. And of course the Seahawks are playing in their second straight Super Bowl, a rare feat on its own these days.

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Read the full post HERE.

In Defense of Villains

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From my latest article at WorldMag.com:

The New York Yankees are the bullies of baseball, always buying other teams’ players and the wins that go with them. The Oakland Raiders are (or were) every bit as dirty and sinister as their dread logo indicates. The Los Angeles Lakers are just so glitzy and glamorous. The St. Louis Cardinals are like that snotty-nosed kid in school who never did anything wrong and was the best at everything. And the New England Patriots win a lot, sure, but they’re always cutting corners, the buncha cheaters.

Each of these teams has, at one time or another, been seen as a villain in its sport. While those without a rooting interest ignore some teams, these pro franchises are nearly universally loathed. Counter intuitively, though, that’s a good thing.

No story is complete without conflict, and nothing creates conflict like a proper villain: Darth Vader, the White Witch, Voldemort, Kaiser Söze, Shredder, the Yankees. You might look at sports and think that all the conflict happens between the lines during competition, and while that’s usually true, sports villains make for drama. They take the level of interest in a mere game and give it a shot of passion. They draw in fans who might otherwise be disinterested. Villains are just plain interesting.

What makes sports so much a part of everyday life and makes it so parallel to our normal experiences? Drama does, that same drama brought about by villainy! It’s what makes sports accessible and engaging instead of just rule-bound athletic competition. Without drama, sports would not connect as often to our shared emotions and dreams: tension, fear, excitement, exhaustion, failure, elation, heroism. We learn lessons from sports because of these connections, not because of the skill level of the athletes.

Villains are, by definition, despicable and not to be imitated. We don’t condone their actions, and in fact, we despise them. Yet we need villains because they provide a crucial ingredient to the value of our sports and stories.

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Read the full post HERE.

What Sports Teaches Us About Perspective

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

Ohio State third-string quarterback Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship Monday night against an underperforming Oregon Ducks team and their Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. It was an unlikely and wonderful story. The day before in the NFL Playoffs, Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos lost to the Indianapolis Colts, with Manning struggling mightily.

Those are the basics of the stories, but you may have looked beyond those simple facts in the midst of the sensational narratives being presented on social media and in the press:

  • It wasn’t just a remarkable performance by Jones but rather the most remarkable quarterback performance we’ve ever seen. He should definitely turn pro even though he has started only three games in his college career.
  • Mariota, despite his awards, is bad enough to slip right out of the first round of the NFL Draft.
  • Manning? Well, he’s done, finished, kaput. Who cares that he’s one of the greatest players of all-time? He performed so badly that he should clearly be put out to pasture.

This is what happens when we lose perspective. We get reactionary and lose sight of history, trends, entire bodies of work, and reality in general.

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We are so accustomed to this kind of response to sports we barely notice, and while it’s annoying, over-sensationalizing entertainment is not a problem in the grand scheme of things. But what about when we do the same thing in politics or in the church, when we react to the fall of a pastor into sin or lose our temper over a perceived misstep by the president? All of a sudden it’s more than annoying—it’s harmful.

A loss of perspective leads us into the most polarizing places . . .

Read the full post HERE.

photo credit: CraigInDenver via photopin cc

Rick Carlisle’s Winning Combination

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

David Thorpe, an NBA analyst for ESPN, recently tweeted, “One of Rick Carlisle’s best attributes is his intense belief that he can get more from a player than what previous coach got.” Carlisle, who coaches the Dallas Mavericks and is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA, may appear arrogant for believing this, but it’s true.

Carlisle’s belief is based in confidence, vision, and a stellar track record. He has turned various collections of castoffs, malcontents, and one-trick ponies into playoff teams. In a world where we so readily discount and write off people for their faults, Christian leaders should take note. How does one do what Rick Carlisle has so consistently done?

First, see the goal not just the methods. Carlisle coaches with a view toward the endgame, the win. He doesn’t seem to care which methodology will get him there: Play slow or fast, big or small, old or young; shoot threes or grind it out in the paint. He flexes to the players he has and that flexing puts them in a position to succeed. If he stubbornly clung to a single system he would not get the most out of everyone.

Second, see the cans not just the can’ts. Carlisle finds out how players can help the team instead of fearing how they might hurt it. He puts a collection of specific skill sets on the court together. Then he puts them in a system and in positions that use those skills and diminish their weaknesses. He asks players to do just what they can and no more, and it works.

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You can read the full post HERE.

New Year’s Resolutions For Sports Fans

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From my latest article at WorldMag.com:

Most of us make New Year’s resolutions about our budgets, waistlines, relationships, or jobs. We commit to a Bible reading plan or just to read more in general. We want to be better this year, smarter, more mature, more successful. In general, we make resolutions about those areas of life deemed important. How often, though, do we consider the sheer amount of time we spend on sports: watching, playing, discussing, reading? In terms of sheer volume, sports hold a high priority in our lives, and that is why making a few resolutions as a sports fan makes a lot of sense:

  1. I will not let any team or player’s performance ruin my day. No matter how bad your team is doing, how wide that field goal was, or how much that walk-off homer hurt, it is still not worth having a bad day over. Don’t kick your dog. Don’t yell at your kids. Don’t pick fights with co-workers. Don’t slack off at work. Sure, it’s frustrating, but all of those things you would sacrifice to a bad mood are of much greater significance. (If you think otherwise, you might have some other resolutions to make.)
  2. I will never make my sports fandom personal. The fans of other teams are not your enemies. If they see you as their enemy, that is their blind spot and you don’t need to take the bait of their insults. As hard as it is to remember, you aren’t on the team and your identity isn’t found in the team . . .
Read the full post HERE.

 

The Top 5 Most Significant Sports Stories of 2014

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

The past year provided several seminal sports stories. There were remarkable performances by athletes and teams, but what marked 2014 was the significance of events off the field. For Christians like you and me that’s especially significant because, since such events have greater cultural significance and provoke a greater response, they deserve our attention. So, without further ado, here are the five most significant sports stories of 2014 (not ranked in order):

  1. Jason Collins becomes the first openly homosexual player in the NBA and Michael Sam becomes the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team. 
    Once a bastion of hyper-masculinity and testosterone-driven bravado, professional sports leagues aligned themselves with much of the rest of society in terms of openness to homosexuals. Will we see a significant change in the demographics of professional teams? Time will tell, but even reaching this point shows a significant shift of the cultural landscape.
  2. Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice headline a rash of domestic abuse cases and are suspended by the NFL.
    For a long time athletes could get away with almost anything because of their profile and skill set. No longer. Because of social media and the growing societal awareness of domestic violence, a movement is growing to do away with the double standard. How will professional leagues respond? Will athletes become sacrificial lambs or be made an example of? We don’t yet know, but we do know their protective bubble is deflating.
  3. Donald Sterling is removed as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers after making racist remarks. Athletes at several levels wear “I can’t breathe” shirts in the wake of Eric Garner’s death.

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Read the full post HERE.

A Better Way Than Enjoying Failure

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

One of the weirdest and most unpleasant aspects of sports is a fan’s intense desire for opponents to fail. I have certainly been party to this sentiment, rooting for Brett Favre, Chris Webber, Paul Konerko, the Chicago Bears, and other rivals to fall flat. It’s become accepted part of fandom. After all, there must be a winner and a loser, right? But that doesn’t make rooting for failure much more palatable or profitable.

Last weekend two of the NFL’s most polarizing and controversial players, Johnny Manziel and Jay Cutler, took the field at quarterback for their respective teams and failed miserably: Manziel completed only 10 passes (plus two to the other team) for 80 yards in the Cleveland Browns’ 30-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, while Cutler tossed three interceptions (he leads the league in that category) in the Bears’ 31-15 loss to the New Orleans Saints Monday night and has since been benched. The two QBs have well-earned reputations for bad attitudes, petulance, and rubbing fans and opponents the wrong way. Even so, the overflow of glee and mockery at their failure in the mainstream media and on social media was striking (though not all that surprising). Such players are exactly the type fans love to see fail.

As a Minnesota Vikings fan, it comes easy for me to take pleasure in the struggles of Cutler and the Bears. (I am actually in the minority who likes Manziel.) But I must constantly remind myself that rooting for my team does not give me license to take pleasure in the failings of another. My gut reaction to Cutler’s awful game was smug happiness. But if that is the emotion I, or any other fan, choose to rest in we are lowering ourselves humanly speaking and harming the games we love.

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Read the full article HERE.

Athletes and Influence: What Is Their Responsibility?

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From my latest post at WorldMag.com:

“I’m not a role model . . . Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Charles Barkley, known for his bluntness and candor, famously said the above during his NBA playing days. And he was absolutely right—at least his sentiment was. His skill on the hardwood should make no difference as to how he is viewed as a person and should have no influence on anyone. He should be recognized for his playing ability and appreciated as such. It’s that simple.

Except that it’s not.

In reality, athletes (and all celebrities) carry great influence into many areas of life. They popularize fashions, normalize language, and exemplify ethical and moral standards. While we’d be wise to downplay this influence in our own lives there’s no denying its cultural power. But it does raise the question: Do athletes have a responsibility to use their position to change culture?

The short answer is “No,” at least not explicitly. Professional athletes are famous for their performance in competitions and are primarily focused on their work, just as you and I are focused on our vocations. Most people expect nothing more than that for them to be decent. But that does ignore the tacit influence they do hold. Just by being decent people, by wearing a pinstriped vest, or by playing certain music, they make a difference. No, celebrities do not have a responsibility to do or be any more than anyone else. But when they choose to do so, the impact is massive.

. . . intentional, clear statements turn an athlete’s platform into a mighty tool. They reach more people with a message in less time than just about anyone. The media takes notice. Fans watch. And they raise awareness and kick-start conversations. The ripple effect is enormous.

. . .

Read the full post HERE.

photo credit: Dave Malkoff via photopin cc

Do The People Around You Make You Better?

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

Bad company corrupts good morals. That sounds like something your dear old grandma used to say, and she actually got it straight from Scripture. She said it because it’s been proven true time and again. When we surround ourselves with questionable characters they turn us into the same. But is the inverse also true? Does good company enhance good morals?

Not long ago I watched the Sacramento Kings defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves. The difference in the game was the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins, a behemoth center with uncanny skills who simply decimated the Wolves’ front line. Cousins came into the NBA with a skill set that destined him to be one of the league’s best big men, but his temperament and immaturity threatened to undermine his potential. He was known more for temper tantrums and confrontations than post moves and piles of rebounds. But in the game I watched I saw none of that. He competed with fire and demolished the Wolves with nary a stare down. In fact, Cousins has been markedly different this year than in previous seasons. What changed? Good company.

. . .

Those who are excellent not only exemplify it but they also encourage it in those surrounding them, making them want to be better. Remember Michael Jordan’s six championships? He brought the best out of role players and those with moderate talent and even set them up to be heroes. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have certainly thrown to good receivers over the years, but more remarkable is how they have turned marginal players into NFL stalwarts.

It isn’t a great leap to see the implications for our own lives. When we surround ourselves with the highest quality people they make us better.

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Read the full post HERE.

Can Christians Root For Immoral Athletes?

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“Can Christians root for athletes who do bad things?” On a recent Happy Rant podcast we discussed this question. Can a Christian feel good about rooting for guys like Jameis Winston, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and others? The question arose because the number of prominent star athletes getting themselves in legal hot water seems to have skyrocketed. In years past we might have been able to ignore an indiscretion or two, but now they confront us at every turn.

The question rises from more than just the prominence and frequency of athlete missteps. It stems from our acute awareness of them and insatiable appetite for information about them. Once upon a time tabloids were smutty news that scratched a guilty itch. Now we get tabloid news piped to our phone screens every minute. We don’t have to browse; we get notified. This pervasive awareness of celebrities, athlete or otherwise, completely changes the nature of our perceptions and interactions. We believe we “know” them intimately as people, so instead of just watching how they perform we judge them the way we would acquaintances or co-workers.

More than any other kind of entertainer, this applies to athletes which causes a unique conundrum. Sports are entertainment, plain and simple, just like movies, music, and books. Unlike those other forms of entertainment, though, athletes play themselves instead of playing a part or a role. Actors play other people, parts we quote and remember. Authors create characters and fade into the background. Musicians are like athletes in that they perform as themselves, but their sounds can be carried in one’s pocket, listened to in the car, and enjoyed without every seeing them. We can close our eyes and lose ourselves in the music and forget the musician playing it. Athletes don’t play a part or create a story for us to get lost in; they perform as themselves and nothing else. Their own names adorn their jerseys. When they take the field we simply see them. We may “know” other types of entertainers, but the delineation between performance and person separates us from their morals. That line for athletes is nearly rubbed out, so we must question our fandom.

But how must we question it? In every form of entertainment except sports we appreciate the performance or art form for its own merits. We hear the notes of heaven in a beautiful song. We marvel at the creativity of a story and relish the sublimity of an acting performance. Each one is evidence of God’s creativity imprinted on mankind. We are able to do these things often in spite of the performers moral failures. And we ought to be able to do the same in sports, to separate the on-field performance from the off-field activities. Some fans find this hard to do in good conscience; that’s understandable because it feels like ignoring something immoral. But it ought to be the goal.

When we learn to see the athlete and his or her performance as two separate things we gain two significant benefits. First, rather than trying to ignore a moral dilemma we can actually confront it better. Too often in deciding how to respond to an athlete’s off-field behavior their on-field exploits come into play. That’s nonsense; they are people, employees, and citizens and must be responded to as such. And we can only do this if we are able to recognize their humanity apart from their performance. The second benefit, though, is that we are able to enjoy sports more deeply. Instead of besmirching the exquisiteness of the games with off-field issues we can see it purely in the performances and competition. The game itself between those lines and for those halves or innings or sets or holes is unsoiled by what happens elsewhere. We root for the performance, not for the person. And when we make this distinction we are able to both root for athletes and abhor deplorable behavior without compromising beauty or justice.