Sports with a Deeper Purpose
Just in time for the 2011 college football season, the October Atlantic cover story issued a thorough (read: 25,000-word) indictment of today's college sports. Pulitzer-winning historian Taylor Branch likens the current system, in which TV networks, coaches, and the bureaucrat in the middle of it all—the NCAA—to a plantation reaping millions off the backs of young athletes, many of them African American. Noting the legions of scandals now facing the NCAA, Branch calls for U.S. colleges to abandon the spirit of amateurism — that noble ideal that athletics can be a moral-forming institution in collegiate life — in favor of a simpler idea: Start paying student-athletes.
Julie Davis, the newly appointed athletics director at Wheaton College, Illinois, is in a different world. She appreciates the dilemmas of Division I sports, but her perspective reflects the unique place athletics has at a Christian school.
Davis, Wheaton's first female athletic director and associate director since 2003, spoke with CT about the Atlantic essay and the role athletics play in shaping students Christward.
You say the scene Branch describes—of antitrust lawsuits, jerseys exchanged for free tattoos, TV ads—is a world apart from your own. What are the main differences between Div. III and Div. I athletic programs?
Div I schools give athletics scholarships. So the students at Div III schools should not be receiving any money based on ability. At Div I schools, in some cases, you're getting an education because of your athletic abilities. Another big difference is that Div. I athletics are typically massively revenue-generating, linked to endorsements and networks in terms of television contracts. That is just not the case at Div 3 schools. The notion that Div I athletic programs are a business has become more true over the years. And it's becoming a larger business.
And being a Christian Div. III school removes you even farther?
Yes, our goal is to be growing kids to be whole and effective Christians through their athletic experience. Sports provides a unique opportunity because of the idea of competition and team and working together for a common purpose and a common goal. There is something unique about our world that enables us to shape students pretty effectively.
What's so unique about the spiritual dynamics in sports?
Athletics provides deeply emotional experiences, so it's in the context of an emotional experience that the teaching point can be made. When you have competed and lost, for example, the teaching point is, How do you handle disappointment [in other arenas]? How do you handle huge success? Where are we directing our joy as the result of success? Another notion that's powerful is working together for a purpose, and that you can't achieve that goal without your teammates. That deep sense of needing each other and leaning on one another is a powerful example of the body of Christ. And the fact that you are working for something beyond yourself, you are working on behalf of the team, in the same way that much of our Christian walk is modeled in a parallel fashion. So translating that from an experience on the field into kingdom work is the goal.
Does competition—at the very core of athletics—undercut those spiritual lessons? Sports puts athletes who are Christians in the position of wanting to smash their opponents.
Yes we do! [laughs] That question lurks around the edges of conversation; CT recently wrote about that. We compete within a set of rules and we need to be fair in that, but we also need to not be afraid to honor God by being really good. I don't think it does us or the name of the Lord any good to be less than excellent. So our competitiveness is driven to really be all that we can be for the glory of God. We are out there representing him, and to be less than excellent is not a positive thing.