Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ichabod U: Glory, Righteousness and College Athletics

“Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.” Douglas MacArthur’s matchless prose explaining the heart of collegiate athletics at West Point drives home the guiding principle that most college sports programs have long abandoned in pursuit of gold and glory: Collegiate sports must exist at the core for the purpose of bearing fruit that will benefit the rest of society as a whole. Athletic excellence is not an end unto itself, but a pathway to a profound understanding of strength and weakness and victory and defeat leading to the development of character for the benefit of the nation and the world. The processes that produce athletic glory are pointless if they do not at the same time develop consistent moral courage, uncompromising virtue and committed sacrificial leadership.

As the Penn State scandal unfolds, it is undeniable that the purpose of College Athletics at Happy Valley has been hijacked, corrupted and sold to the highest bidder. Nevertheless, as I level those charges, I feel the need to inspect my own soul, and the soul of our nation’s entertainment driven culture. It is far too easy to point fingers lambaste Penn State’s football program as an Evil Empire, when in truth it is a powerful reflection of how our culture as a whole has elevated the achievement of athletic glory as the penultimate indicator of success and accomplishment. When winning athletic contests and heroics on the fields of play serve as the best indicators of manhood, leadership and public service, all other measures of behavior and social contribution will suffer, no matter how many poster-sized checks with large numbers written on them are held up as indicators to the contrary.

Innocent young children were lured in under the pretense of trust and protection for the primary purpose of unspeakable violation and victimization. These crimes occurred under the umbrella of the Hero Status athletic victory affords. Even when the crimes were exposed, the need to win and protect athletic records spoke louder than the need to seek justice, love mercy and to walk humbly before God. This hellacious flip-flop did not occur overnight. It has occurred slowly, subtly and gradually. What began as educators seeing a need to ensure that students weren’t only exercising their brains at College, but learned to develop as whole persons physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually has been obliterated over time as the love of money has choked out any direct connection between education and athletics. If Joe can make touchdowns and draw the crowds, who cares what happens behind close doors? The families that have been devastated by an unhindered sexual predator, that’s who, and anyone who hasn’t bowed down and compromised themselves and their very souls to the idols of athletic entertainment.

In the Bible, a sad historical account is given of the prophet Eli’s failure to address the evil committed by his own two sons, even as he served as Israel’s prophet with the direct responsibility of speaking into the nation’s well-being on all matters, especially those relating to righteousness and justice. His sons were also members of the nation’s spiritual leadership, and possessed full knowledge of the responsibilities and burdens their positions carried. Nevertheless, they chose to live lives of debauchery and self-gratification at the expense of others. The justice God meted out was swift, leading to the deaths of Eli’s sons and his own death as well. When Eli’s daughter-in-law heard of the violent deaths of her husband and father-in-law and of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant she went into labor and gave birth to a son she named Ichabod which means, The Glory Has Departed.

There are parallels too close to ignore between this tragic Biblical account of the abdication of leadership and the parades of failed leadership we see in United States collegiate athletics. Moral failures are being exposed nation wide and people once considered heroes are being more rightly identified as frauds and charlatans. But lest we take satisfaction at these discoveries, we must remember that these people did not elevate themselves to such grandiose and perverted levels of stature – WE DID! It’s time to revisit the purpose and goals of College Sports. Jesus said no one can worship God and money. One will be served, the other neglected. As long as money-making is the chief end of college sports – and it is – the glory will never return. The question is, are we more concerned about the people God has placed in our care to develop into leaders of tomorrow, or are we more concerned about being entertained by them? The right choice will contribute to the richness and vitality of our nation. The wrong choice will engrave ICHABOD on our goalposts for decades to come. Until next time…


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