In 1940 undefeated Cornell visited Dartmouth on a late-autumn afternoon with the hopes of securing the national championship of college football. Cornell hadn't lost in three years, and the Associated Press had ranked them No. 1 in the nation all year, and for good reason: they had pummeled all comers by an average score of 30-2.

Dartmouth was not about to roll over, though, and gave Cornell the fight of the season. The teams slogged it out in an exhausting defensive battle—until the fourth quarter when Dartmouth kicked a field goal to take a 3–0 lead.

By the time Cornell was able to drive to the Dartmouth 6-yard line, there were only 45 seconds left to play. Three running plays brought Cornell to within inches of the goal line. With nine second remaining and staring at a fourth down, Cornell called a timeout. But before they could get off the next play, they were flagged for delay of game and penalized five yards. For its final play, Cornell attempted a pass, which Dartmouth broke up—after which the refs huddled immediately. Because of the penalty, the refs were confused—did the previous play occur on third or fourth down? The hurried officials decided to give Cornell one more down. Now with three seconds left, Cornell threw a pass over the middle for a touchdown and the win.

Though there was no instant replay at the time, there was replay—but it took 24 hours to develop the film. The evidence was unmistakable: the refs had given Cornell an extra down. Given the rules, however, the refs were powerless to reverse the score.

But before the day was out, Cornell's coach and university president telegrammed Dartmouth: "We congratulate you on the victory of your fine team. The Cornell touchdown was scored on a fifth down, and we relinquish claim to the victory and extend congratulations to Dartmouth." The gesture of sportsmanship cost Cornell both the game and a national championship.

We were reminded of this noble story last week at a conference on sports law and ethics entitled "Winning at All Cost, Today's Addiction," sponsored by the Valparaiso University School of Law. There were talks and panels that included the likes of Bob Costas and Dick Patrick (USA Today), as well as dozens of lawyers whom I had never heard of (but whose infamous athlete clients I had). There was much talk about steroids and recruiting violations and fights both on the courts and in the stands, as well as talk about legal and medical issues. But I was most interested in what participants thought about the causes of the ethics crisis in sports.

A serious problem, of course, has complex causes. Take just one crisis: baseball's steroid scandal. Bob Costas said, "The media should have started talking about this in the mid-nineties." One lawyer pointed the finger at colleagues who overzealously defend clients they know have taken steroids. Baseball owners, player union representatives, and even clean players came under indictment—why start trouble when fans were once again finally streaming to the parks in record numbers to watch Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds hit home run after home run after home run. Steroids were "good" for baseball, no?

Bill Curry, former NFL lineman (with two Super Bowl rings), college coach, and now ESPN analyst, argued that the larger problem is cultural. He said that professional athletes are driven by fear of losing one's position and pride in competing with the best. When he was a pro, playing in the NFL was more important to him than "God, family, money, parties—anything." And he would doanything to stay competitive, to be one of the best in the world. That included using steroids, which he did for a short time (thanks to the intervention of his father, he stopped immediately).

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That was when I began thinking that this is where the Christian can, uh, step up to the plate. After all, the Christian athlete knows that winning isn't everything. The Christian coach knows not to try to gain an unfair advantage in competition. What we need, I thought, is just more Christians in sports to bring salt and light to the arena.

And then I was reminded that the big, bright modern sports machine is bigger and darker than we sometimes imagine.

In the fall of 1990, fifty years after the Cornell-Dartmouth game, the now legendary Promise Keeper Bill McCartney coached the Colorado Buffaloes in a dramatic victory over Missouri 33-31 on the game's last play. Replays shown immediately after the game demonstrated clearly that Colorado had accidentally been given a fifth down, and it was on that fifth down that they had scored the winning touchdown.

McCartney had already established himself nationally as a dedicated Christian who tried to follow Jesus Christ in all righteousness. But when shown the irrefutable evidence of the refs' mistake, he defiantly refused to concede the game to Missouri. What made the incident more bitter for Missouri and much of the nation is that Colorado went on to become the national champion that year, an honor they would not have won had they lost that game.

Let's be fair. McCartney coached in the modern era, with that big, bright sports machine incessantly droning 24/7/365, "Winning is everything, winning is everything, winning is everything." In addition, many sports pundits across the land defended his decision. And last but not least, Colorado alumni, boosters, and administrators would have crucified McCartney had he handed the game to Missouri. (Then again, didn't Jesus say that following him entailed taking up one's cross?)

The point is not to single out or excuse McCartney. Instead, I suggest that righteous individuals, no matter how committed, are no match for the principalities and powers of American sports. Are sports corrupt through and through? Of course not. But where they are corrupt, they'll need more than a few heroic religious individuals to make a difference. Probably something on the order of a company of people, a people called out, set apart--a fellowship grounded in such a way that not even the gates of Hades will overcome it.

Mark Galliis managing editor of Christianity Today.


Related Elsewhere:

Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)

Christian History Corner remarked on the history of sports and Christianity:

Football's Pious Pioneer | Amos Alonzo Stagg instilled in football Christian values that remain apparent today. (Jan. 14, 2005)
Muscular Christianity's Prodigal Son, College Sports | In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics. (Aug. 15, 2003)
Citius, Altius, Sanctus | The modern Olympics, though hardly Christian, hail from an era when athleticism was next to godliness. (Feb. 15, 2002)
Olympia Revisited | Christianity and the Olympic Games were once competitors, but at other times have been on the same team. (Sept. 28, 2000)

Other Christianity Today articles on sport includes:

'Be Happy!' | How the ancient Olympics differed from the modern spectacle. (Aug. 10, 2004)
Sports Mobs and Manners | There's a difference between cheering the home team and being boorish. (Aug. 25, 2003)—A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com.
Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (April 17, 2001)
God on the Gridiron | Should there be a wall of separation between the church and football? (Nov. 15, 1999)

ChristianityToday.com's sports channel features articles from Sports Spectrum magazine about Christian athletes and sporty devotionals.

Athletes in Action shares the gospel with 1 billion people annually through its sports programs.

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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