How Christians Do March Madness
Image: Hope College

A few years ago, an ESPN poll ranked the biggest rivalries in college basketball. Of course, Duke University and the University of North Carolina topped the list. Then came the University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut women’s teams, then the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville.

At No. 4: Calvin College and Hope College.

The two Division III Christian schools never make it into the big-time March Madness brackets like the Division I schools listed above. In fact, they rarely get covered on TV and don’t have much name recognition outside of the Midwest or certain church circles. (Calvin happens to be in the national spotlight at the moment, as alumna and donor Betsy DeVos is President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.)

But even without national prominence, the Knights and the Flying Dutchman are in many ways the quintessential adversaries—demonstrating exactly what makes sports rivalries so exciting. As Christian colleges, they also force us to consider the theological implications of competition in the body of Christ.

In summary:

Hope versus Calvin fills every criterion for what makes any rivalry great—close regional proximity (like Michigan vs. Michigan State), ongoing league and national success (like Duke vs. North Carolina), similar size and academic mission (like Army vs. Navy). But the Hope versus Calvin rivalry adds one more element that other high-profile rivalries don’t, an element that should bind but has over the years divided. It’s ironic really, for it is religion that adds to the zealous nature of the rivalry for all who play and watch.

The two schools stem from a schism among Dutch Reformed settlers in West Michigan. A group split from the North American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), to start a new denomination in 1857. The newly formed Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) was still very Dutch and very Calvinist, but disagreed with the RCA over language and hymns during worship as well as public or Christian schooling (Calvin’s DeVos has recently reinvigorated this debate). Leaders of the RCA founded Hope College in Holland, Michigan, in 1866. A decade later, the CRCNA founded Calvin College in Grand Rapids—a mere 35 miles away.

One of the reasons that rivalries tug on our hearts—and make us debate, shout, paint our faces, bumper-sticker our cars—is because of the ongoing narrative of struggle. Hope and Calvin have steadily maintained their back-and-forth one–upmanship throughout nearly a century of athletic competition.

In men’s basketball, their teams have squared off 196 times since 1920, with Hope winning 101 and Calvin winning 95. Since Calvin joined the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1953, both schools have won the league 31 times, and at least one of the two has won the league or shared the title in 60 of the 64 seasons since then. Calvin has won two NCAA Division III national championships; Hope has finished as national runner-up twice. Its last matchup, in February, drew fans at 80-plus viewing parties across the country.

Yet while Calvin-Hope is a rivalry par excellence—its fan bases follow the action of both teams fiendishly and its participants stake their competitive credentials each season on the outcome of the rivalry games—the schools are also neighbors. Historically, many of the players and fans grew up together, went to school together, played basketball with and against each other in their youth, and even went to church together. Hope and Calvin are neighbors, sharing the same geographic region. The schools are also “neighbors” in that they share a presence in the larger body of Christ’s followers.

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How Christians Do March Madness