I can’t remember not being an athlete. From the time that I could walk, I participated in sports and extracurricular activities. During my earliest years of life, I danced. I did gymnastics for several more years, though I wasn’t good at it. (I was too tall and flimsy to control my body.) By the time I was 11, I started racing competitively, and that’s where I found my niche. I was fast and strong with nearly a perfect hurdle technique. I worked hard. I won often. I grew confident.
As I reflect on those small wins in life, I think about the women Olympians I looked up to over the years … gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Mary Lou Retton. (As a young girl, I actually met Mary Lou at a “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Winning Without Drugs” event.) I looked up to track stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”), and of course the star hurdler, Gail Devers.
These women athletes are God’s image bearers who display his confidence and character. They remind us with their physical ability and strength that our bodies are good. With their performances, they sacrifice not only for personal honor, the team, or our country, but by disciplining their bodies, they honor their creator who is the Lord.
As they perform with neatly placed hair and perfect makeup (I never did that), they celebrate God’s beauty in the masterful creation that is the human body. They acknowledge that God does care about our bodies and participating in sports is one way we can celebrate its beauty.
Our bodies are created to worship. With so many negative images bombarding our young women today (see the video clip below), it is important that we raise our voices to share a different message. Young girls need to know that they are not simply a consequence of what they wear, their body size, what they eat, or how men (or other women) view them. The airbrushed images in magazines and commercials should not define them.
I am calling now for a release … freedom … a proclamation that young girls everywhere have a choice to take on positive images. I am not implying that we encourage more self-help or self-esteem building techniques. I am rather stating that we should encourage girls to value the mind, body, and soul, realizing that they are not separate entities from each other.
By the time I entered college, I was meditating on passages like the Apostle Paul calling all Christians to approach life as a runner who desires to win a prize. In order to win, Paul says we must all go into strict training (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Strict physical training requires countless hours of focus, dedication, and hard work. It requires personal sacrifice and a reordering of priorities if you want to win. With that understanding, this passage provides a simple truth: focusing to develop physical discipline (particularly early in one’s life) can correlate to the development of spiritual discipline. Disciplining ourselves in mind, body, and spirit is as an act of holistic worship toward God since we are called to do everything as unto the Lord.
God’s image bearers should reflect his character and the reality that his creation is indeed good. God’s image bearers should reflect his desire for creativity and honor and excellence. Encourage girls to honor God with their bodies for “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13b, NIV).
We can honor God through physical conditioning; therefore, in the words of that great motivator Edna Mode from The Incredibles, “Go! Fight! Win!” Let the girls run, jump, spike, throw, leap. Let them sweat, burn, and sacrifice. Let them honor God with their bodies. Let them play sports.
SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
You’re an adult. You hear of or even see another adult sexually abusing a child. It could be at your church or school. It could be next door or in your own home.
What would you do?
You would do everything in your power to stop it, or at least call the police, right? Especially as Christians who take seriously God’s command to protect “widows and orphans” (in other words, the most vulnerable in society), there’s no way you would let another adult abuse a child. So, why is there likely an adult near you in position of leadership such as, a priest, pastor, coach and mentor, who is abusing a minor?
It’s estimated that one out of three girls and one out of six boys in the U.S. is molested by an adult annually. The abuser is usually someone close to them, such as a family member or coach on their team. There are an estimated 493,000 registered sex offenders across the nation. Many of them were child abuse victims.
The Penn State University tragedy, where former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts of child molestation has returned this issue to the forefront. Sandusky denies molesting several boys in his Second Mile mentoring program, during a 15-year period. The revelation that has only this year come fully to light, has led to the resignations and firings of top university officials, including the president and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. The Penn State community is in shock. Sounds like the church.
Child molestations perpetrated by men of the cloth have been well documented. How do molesters go unnoticed despite other adult Christians being around? The signs are there but not easy to detect. A search of several websites yielded molester profile clues such as:
• Adults who prefer jobs where they have access to children
• Men who seem to love children and to whom children are drawn.
• A person who is either extremely authoritarian or passive.
Basically, the only near certainty is that most molesters are men (though based on recent media coverage there seems to be a growing number of women offenders as well). Anyone — teacher, coach, priest or pastor — can be a child molester.
But adults don’t always want to see the signs, either. Adults have jobs and reputations to protect. If we blow the whistle, it could lead to a firing or losing that next promotion or pay bonus. Adults put other adults on pedestals; when our icons are accused of wrongdoing, we identify personally and go into denial. Adults build and worship institutions that become our identity. We pride ourselves in attending a prominent school or church. This is in part how priests and pastors have been able to molest minors with impunity. But eventually as we put more value in the institutions than in the caring for those most vulnerable among us, the institutions, like all idols, must crack, even fall. They can never bear such weight that is reserved only for God.
Still, sometimes adults sense the sin, and just don’t know what to do. The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry advises to do the following if a child hints that they’re being abused:
• Take them seriously and show that you understand and care.
• Don’t be judgmental, but encourage them to talk freely.
• Tell the child the abuse is not their fault
• Tell them you will protect them and act to prevent the abuse
• If you’re a family member, report the abuse to the local Child Protection Agency
• If you’re outside of the family, report it to police or the district attorney.
God reserves a special place in his heart for children, and he views their innocence as a virtue that we must all embrace. Recall, for example, the words of Jesus in Luke 18:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The Bible doesn’t specifically address child molestation, but it’s clearly a sin. Doing nothing about it is a sin, too. James 1:27 reads:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Penn State community is asking itself, “How did this happen to us? Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we see the signs?”
They are questions for all of us adults to ponder.
If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is raising his son to be a nerd.
No, really. Do it now. I’ll wait.
Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.
We need more nerds in the church.
Let me explain.
More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes
Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.
On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.
Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.
The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.
In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.
This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
This is why Granderson wrote what he did.
Musicians: Icons of the Black Church
For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.
But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.
So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.
After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.
People are watching, y’all.
Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.
This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.
We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.
No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?
Ministry: Theology in Action
Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.
I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.
That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.
So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.
Growing up in Atlanta the emphasis in my home and church community, outside of a relationship with the God, was education. In fact, since slavery the black community has valued education as the means of economic empowerment and political liberation. Education is so powerful that slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write for hundreds of years in this country. Many of us had parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles drill these words into our heads: “get an education.” Sadly, many black communities have been sabotaged with the deception of short-term gratification so that the empowerment brought through education is no longer valued. In the place of education has emerged an emphasis on entertainment and sports as the primary means of upward social mobility that many find troubling. In particular, an overemphasis on sports has dire consequences for black males.
In 2010, Dr. Krystal Beamon, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote a fascinating article explaining the phenomena of black males being herded into sports. In “Are Sports Overemphasized in the Socialization Process of African American Males?,” Dr. Beamon explains that there has been elevated levels of sports socialization in the family, neighborhood, and media in the black community creating an overrepresentation of black males in certain sports. One of the results of this overemphasis, according to Beamon, is that black males may face consequences that are distinctly different from those who are not socialized as intensively toward athletics, such as lower levels of academic achievement, higher expectations for professional sports careers as a means to upward mobility, and lower levels of career maturity. In other words, the sports emphasis is putting black males at a disadvantage later on in the marketplace.
Much research has demonstrated that, compared to their white counterparts, black males are socialized by family and community members deliberately into sports, limiting their exposure to other hobbies, like reading, and to non-sports related role models early in life. In some families, for example, parents are more interested in basketball practice than homework completion or good grades. The overemphasis also continues to feed stereotypes about black men as athletes, and these stereotypes are exacerbated as the mass media limits projections of black males as working in professional, non-athletic, or non-entertainment vocations.
A recent NCAA study reports that high school athletes have a 0.03 percent chance of playing in the NBA and a 0.08 percent change of playing in the NFL. With these odds, many black males are being inadvertently sabotaged if their families and communities socialize them into sports as a way to become successful and escape poverty in the absence of forming them morally and educationally.
What is needed are new role models and peers that reinforce the virtues that form and shape character and equip young men to be successful in the marketplace, whether they play sports or not. If black males are to be protected from the sabotage of hopelessness, the pursuit of accelerated upward mobility, materialism, and so on, individual Christians have to get more involved in the lives of black youth to nurture a broader imagination for the purpose of one’s life beyond being famous, making money, and achieving physical prowess.
If education is not emphasized as the means of success, if learning is not celebrated, if the exploration of multiple hobbies and opportunities are not encouraged, we may be inadvertently setting a trap for self-destruction, because the consequences of not being prepared to participate in the global marketplace are serious.