I have always found watching sports of any kind boring, but I have assumed that others legitimately found real pleasure in it and simply avoided it myself.
Eventually, I began to consider whether organized college, university, professional and amateur sports might have a dark side worthy of critique. I have noticed some.
Having admitted my own personal disinterest in them, let me point out what I consider some of their ethical and theological problems.
Throughout my teaching career, I have several times been pressured by college / university coaches and others to give special consideration to student athletes that they did not deserve.
I will never forget when a student-athlete in a large, general education religion course (at the national research university where I studied and taught as a graduate student) clearly, unequivocally cheated on a final exam.
There was no question about it, and the university had a very strong “honor code” that required that cheating students be suspended and possibly even expelled.
And the honor code also included that teachers and teaching assistants who discovered cheating and did not report it were subject to very strict discipline.
As I was reading through the student athlete’s “blue book,” I found that he was repeatedly crossing out words he spelled correctly and misspelling them exactly the same way as the friend sitting next to him during the proctored exam.
He was copying; there was no doubt about it. I could prove it.
Of course, I had to report him to the university’s proper authorities who, as it turned out, clearly wanted to let him off the hook.
They put pressure on me to withdraw my accusation and pass him for the course. I would not and he “dropped out” of the university.
Something similar to that happened other times, later, and it became clear to me that at least some student-athletes in academic settings are treated “specially” even in terms of the consequences for failing and cheating.
I have been called to coaches’ offices and subjected to attempted coercions to pass student athletes who clearly did not deserve to pass my course. That has not happened to me at the institution where I now teach, but I only teach in its seminary.
A few years ago, I attended a football game between two teams of a major college/university conference. One was a Christian university.
I left early, as soon as I saw and heard “fans” around me on the Christian university side of the stadium standing and shouting at the tops of their lungs, “Kill ’em, kill ’em, kill ’em!”
They meant the visiting team players. I was appalled at such fan behavior – especially by fans of a Christian university’s team.
Where I live and work now is a region of America especially known for fanatical interest in and support for especially football.
It may not be there now, but a local sports museum had (perhaps still has) a plaque that says, “This is not just a museum; it is a non-denominational house of worship.”
Everyone jokes about football being the “real religion” of this state, but I do not think that’s just a joke.
In every way I know, and I have a doctorate in religious studies, football here functions as a religion for many people.
When a new, extremely expensive university stadium was built, a leading booster of the team, a civic leader and alumnus of the Christian university was quoted as saying that this, the new stadium, was “the most inspiring thing” that has ever happened at that university.
I wondered whether he had forgotten or never knew about the great “student revival” that inspired not only that campus but also the whole country in the 1950s.
It’s written about in the histories of the universities, some of which I’m sure he must have read.
Here, high school football stadiums are huge and very expensive; a great deal of money goes into football programs in schools. As an educator, I have to wonder: What if that money was dedicated to the support of academics?
Are these flaws in contemporary American sports mere peccadilloes unworthy of serious criticism by an ethicist? Perhaps.
But I have come to the conclusion that sports in America is often illogical, in competition with other valuable activities, and needs reform.
If I had my way, all team players and competitive athletes would have to be drawn from the citizens of a local or student body associated with the team or sport rather than recruited from other places.
For every dollar devoted to sports by a college or university, one would have to be devoted to academics (for example, a library).
Athletes would be given no special privileges or treated differently than others in their communities – other than good training and praise for their prowess and performance.
Fans who shout things like “Kill ’em!” at any of the players or other fans would be asked to leave the event immediately – as would fans who are drunk or disorderly.
Student athletes would not be required to attend practices or games at times that conflict with their religious meetings.
In general, athletics would be demoted from what it has become and returned to its proper proportional role among other practices and events in society.
I do not question people’s right to participate and support contemporary American athletics/sports; I only question some of their rationality and ethics.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”