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Christian History Home > News > 2003 > College Sports: Prodigal Son of "Muscular Christianity"

College Sports: Prodigal Son of "Muscular Christianity"
In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics.
Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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Inappropriate payments and academic fudging on behalf of college athletes. Rampant performance-enhancing and recreational drug use. Cursing, furniture-throwing coaches. Medically questionable practice regimens that may have contributed to players' deaths. The past decade has not been kind to college sports.

Texas's Baylor University has been pursuing a very public quest to become America's "Protestant Notre Dame"—a top-ranked research university with an explicit Christian commitment. But recent revelations of drug use and under-the-table scholarship payments in the athletics program, on the heels of a basketball player's tragic death, are currently distracting everyone's attention.

Other than the fact that this scandal is occurring at a Christian school, this feels like "old news"—sadly familiar in the big-money world of Division I college sports. But it may lead the faithful to ask a new question: Should a Christian student think twice before getting involved in high-profile college sports like basketball or football? What kind of values will he or she learn in that setting?

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this question would have been unthinkable. Why? Because college sports was imbued with an ideal called "muscular Christianity."

This was the belief that physical activity and sports, especially team sports, developed character, fostered patriotism, and instilled virtues that would serve their participants—and their participants' God—well in later life. In other words, team games taught their own high ethic, and that ethic could and should be a Christian one.

1857 serves as a convenient date to mark the origin of muscular Christianity—and of the notion that college sports should be the training ground for youths' spirits and consciences as well as their bodies. This was the year British author Thomas Hughes published his blockbuster school story, Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Hughes's book romanticized the Rugby school (his own alma mater). There, from 1828 to 1842, under the stern but benevolent oversight of the Christian headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold, the institution of the British public school had been permanently redirected towards the in loco parentis moral training of its charges. Among the most valuable instruments in the moral trainer's bag of tools were the cricket pitch and the football field.

Though Arnold was much less the sports enthusiast than Hughes made him out to be, the myth of Tom Brown—the high-spirited student learning fair play and moral uprightness by playing manly sports—soon eclipsed the fact of Tom Arnold. Thus was school-sports-as-moral-enterprise born. (A side note: in 1875, a 12-year-old French boy named Pierre de Coubertin read Tom Brown's Schooldays and began forming the ideals that would animate the Olympic movement.)

The actual term "muscular Christianity" appeared first in an 1857 review of a book by Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Hughes picked it up in the sequel to Tom Brown's Schooldays, called Tom Brown at Oxford (1860). Hughes wrote in the latter book that the muscular Christian must train his body and discipline his habits so that he would be fit to protect the weak, advance righteous causes, and "subdu[e] the earth which God has given to the children of men." The name "Tom Brown" itself soon became a shorthand for a social panacea of healthy living, fitness, and presumptively Christian morality.

The ideals of muscular Christianity entered America, and especially American schools, during the Civil War era. At that time recreation and athletics were becoming a fixture in a public education system driven by the ideals of such evangelical reformers as Lyman Beecher and his family. At the nexus of muscular Christianity and college education stood the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA).

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