Dark clouds shadow the beginning of the 2016 college football season. From the Baylor sexual assault scandal—which resulted in the firing of coach Art Briles—to NCAA violations at Ole Miss and Alabama, many fans wonder if/when their school will be next.
This doesn’t bode well for America as a whole. In many ways, sports operate as a magnified expression of society. Want to track where a people group is headed? Watch its athletics. If the recent crisis says anything about our nation, it’s that we’re obsessed with instant gratification.
Take last year’s firing of University of Georgia head coach Mark Richt. In his 15 years at Georgia, Richt led the Bulldogs to two SEC championships and an impressive 145-51 record. Richt, a professing Christian, also represented a moral symbol of sorts in the Southeastern Conference. Not only did Georgia remain scandal-free during his tenure, but Richt also founded an organization to help former players adjust to life after football. But the school parted ways with Richt after last year’s 9-3 regular season because he hadn’t yet made it to the big one (despite being close, twice). For reference, it took Bobby Bowden, now regarded as one of history’s greatest college football coaches, 17 years to win a national championship.
In our world of fast-food dependence and lightning-fast technology, Richt’s firing is just one example of a trend in college sports that prefers immediate, complete satisfaction over diligent, long-term discipline. It’s no longer a matter of winning, but winning it all, fast. About a third of college football head coaching dismissals happen within four years—just enough time to see players recruited by the former coach graduate. With intense pressures placed on universities to quickly build dynasty-level programs, it’s a wonder anyone is surprised when we hear of athletic staffs or players taking shortcuts.
Sports can reflect Christian virtue while also supplanting it with the negative norms of society.
Yet, as damning as this climate is, there is vitality to sports that shouldn’t be discarded. On numerous occasions, Scripture makes a correlation between athletic competition and faith—namely, as it relates to the quality of perseverance (“let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”). Much like in sports, piety requires commitment, patience, and resolve. Some Christian thinkers go further by describing sports as a sort of “cultural liturgy,” rituals that offer us a unique picture of human flourishing and common grace. In a sense, we can better know God by observing healthy competition.
Notice the duality here. Sports can reflect Christian virtue while also supplanting it with the negative norms of society. In this case, our culture’s propensity for instant gratification.
The answer to this dilemma seems to be an appeal to the very thing that makes the Apostle Paul use sports as an illustration: perseverance. In other words, the willingness to wait 17 years for a successful coach like Bobby Bowden to win a championship.
Notice that a call to perseverance doesn’t require college athletes and coaches to be less concerned about winning, or even winning right away. But it does imply that they should make a turn toward pursuing long-term, healthy success. This also makes practical sense, especially when recent theories suggest that certain forms of greatness can only be achieved through persistence.
We must also acknowledge that college football’s perseverance problem worms its way from the bottom to the top—originating with fans and moving to school officials and coaching staffs. The way out, then, isn’t solely reliant on university administrators understanding the incubation period for success, but also boosters, season-ticket holders, and diehard fans who generate pressure on those very administrators. After all, these scandals aren’t only an indictment of the game. They’re an indictment of us as well.