Category Archives: Sports
We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
Jeremy Lin and the Knicks finally lost a game. Look for some of the “Linsanity” to fade. Expect a second wave of rumLination to follow, as the bandwagon backs over the kid from Harvard. I don’t even watch the NBA anymore, and
basketball was my sport. I don’t know what it was, but after Jordan, Magic and Larry and their supporting casts went away, it sometimes seemed like the NBA turned into the athletic version of the Kardashians. LeBron is still hated for leaving Cleveland. Truth is, if the NBA game has changed a lot in recent years, so have games in general.
We can recite the litany of why’s:
- Win no matter what.
- It’s about the money, the mansions, the bling and the babes, no matter what you say.
- Shame has lost its identity in our world—no publicity is the only shameful state.
- Tradition, love of the game, team: why do they sound “quaint”?
- If you want an indicator, consider that staying for your junior year in college is considered “noble”. Since when did education become a liability and being rich a necessity?
Maybe that’s why “March madness,” the NCAA’s annual “survival of the fittest” is so much more attractive to me than the NBA. I was a high school basketball player. I wasn’t great, just okay. Co-captain of my high school team as a senior and all that. But years after I graduated, I kept playing—intermural in college, even playing with the high school kids as a pastor until my joints wore out. All because there was something FUN about the physical test of shooting, dribbling, passing, playing. Most of all, trying to win together.
I like Jeremy Lin. Nothing to do with being “Asian” (why do we always go there?), Harvard-educated (okay, he can get a job when he retires), third-string sub who makes good, but just because he reminds me of a time in my life when I’d rather shoot hoops in forty degree weather than play guitar—and that was saying something.
There are still plenty of great NBA players and people who are about winning. Shaq, Tim Duncan, last year’s Mavs and the largely unheralded bench guys who lay it on the line. But fame and fortune have crowded “team” into a tie for third at best. Watching an NBA game just ain’t Lakers-Celtics in the 80s. Where are you, Bill Russell, Magic, Larry? And maybe today’s games just reflect us in general.
So I like Jeremy Lin. Nothing to do with Asia, Harvard or world peace. Linsation is just about doing your best. Call it excelLINce—character, quality, and love of the game. He’s an amateur (from the Latin word for “love,” thus one who does something purely for the love of it) in a game long ruined by money. Ultimately, if the human soul is to survive, there has to be something in us that we do for the sheer pleasure and value of doing it and the joy of watching.
Hey, kid, pick yourself up. You’re gonna lose now and then. Get ‘em tomorrow.
How do you measure a life? Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success. But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering. He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career. He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons. He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden. He was national coach of the year that year. In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]
He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough. He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.
So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired. He stayed only two turbulent years. He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those. But it wasn’t good enough. The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team. “He was a
sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything. After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]
As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all. He left the dream job that became a nightmare. He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB. He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances. But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.
But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment. “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said. “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv] It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Times were tense in the entire country. Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.
They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future
NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.
So how do you measure a life? While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things. He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment. He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments. He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.
I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day. I’d say, all in all, he did the right things. The rest is just wins and losses.
It always matters how you play the game. John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it. All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think. Rest in Peace, Coach. You went out on top.
So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State? An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger
every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning. Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.
The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago. I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis. The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days. After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order. “What will that do?” I asked. “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.” So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.
Things have changed for the better. But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought. There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals. In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.
There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here. College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too. When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere. Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.
There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves. It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young? Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently. In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.
Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy. The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs. According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,
Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.
As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners
to be so modest. They nearly always say, “I just did my job.” The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success. Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on. He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle. A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died. The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”
At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers. It is that trust in each other on which lives depend. Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life. Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?
Duty is not always glamorous. It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification. Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world. It’s all about the money, too often, for us. Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside. We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness. We reap bitterly from this harvest.
Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable. Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it. So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile. Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.
Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era. He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.” His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides. He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day, not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us. Without doing our duty, can we long survive?