All That's Good in Sports
July was, without question, the worst month in recent memory for professional sports. Each one of America's big three got its own black eye.
- Barry Bonds pursued baseball's most hallowed record, the career home run mark, amid suspicions of steroid abuseand a pesky perjury investigation.
- Michael Vick, the NFL's second-highest-paid player, was arraigned in federal court on charges of illegal dog fighting.
- And, most damaging, Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee, was accused by the FBI of betting on games in which he'd participatedthe cardinal sin in all sports.
Overshadowed by these negative headlines was a noble decision made by Utah Jazz guard Derek Fisher: He asked to leave his team.
Fisher wasn't seeking to damage the Jazz, which had advanced to the Western Conference finals a month before. Indeed, his decision had nothing to do with basketball. It had to do with priorities.
Fisher, a quiet, steady Christian witness in a league of bling and groupies, left Salt Lake City in order to focus on his daughter's health. Only 11 months old, Tatum was diagnosed in May with retinoblastoma. The rare cancer threatens not just her left eye, but her life. Fisher gave up millions of dollars, and possibly his career, in order to move to a city with the right combination of medical specialists.
Such an admirable, selfless move is rare in the world of pro sports. Athletes are ridiculously overpaidBoston Celtics star Kevin Garnett will make nearly three times as much as the entire U.S. Senate next yearand lauded with a kind of hero worship no person can live up to. Some don't even try. As hall of fame forward Charles Barkley reportedly said, "I am not a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."
Furthermore, when athletes do try to live righteously, their public piety often falls short. Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson, an outspoken Christian, was arrested on the eve of Super Bowl XXXIII for soliciting a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover police officer.
Fisher, in keeping with Jesus' warning in the Sermon on the Mount, has never been one to "pray standing on the street corners." He plays basketball the same way he testifies to his relationship with Christ: by his actions more than his words.
Every line of work has its challenges. Pro sports may have more than most. Yet Fisher has consistently modeled keeping first things firstor what the apostle Paul might have called "press[ing] on toward the goal to win the prize." We can learn from athletes like him.
"Life for me is about more than the game of basketball," Fisher told reporters after his announcement. Wiping away tears, Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller admitted, "He's focused on the most important thing."
As it turned out, Fisher was rewarded for his sacrifice. A couple of weeks later, the Los Angeles Lakers offered him a new contract. At a loss of $7 million, he will continue his career in a city where Tatum can get the care she needs.
In sports, as in life, doing the right thing doesn't always lead to such win-win situations. But it remains a victory in God's court. Here's to those whom God celebrates, "those who [have] been victorious," whether they be athletes, accountants, or, dare we say, evangelical thought leaders.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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