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 ...