Very interesting conversation about the Olympics in specific, and athletic pursuits in general. I certainly wasn't suggesting Christians pull out of elite athletics, merely posing the question – if elite athletics vanished overnight, would we really be worse off?
What worries me most about athletics is the obsession it grows into. 20 years ago you could play multiple sports in high school or college and still be involved in other activities. Today if you want to play baseball or volleyball at a high school level, you need to play club virtually year round to stay competitive, take private lessons, go to "high performance" camps, etc. In other words, your entire life must revolve around your chosen sport.
This simply wasn't the case 20 years ago. But then a few parents put their kids in private lessons and year-round play, giving them a leg up on everyone else, and pretty soon everyone realized they had to do the same thing if they wanted their kids to keep up.
For Olympic athletes it's even worse – try three-to-five hour daily practices from age nine on. Yes, occassionally this sort of dedication produces a Mary Lou Retton who then has an amazing platform to use for ministry. But for every Mary Lou Retton, how many others work just as hard and wind up with nothing?
Speaking of platforms for impact, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple Facebook, Myspace, YouTube… these are all extraordinary platforms. Many times more impactful than a gold medal. What's interesting about these platforms? If their founders had committed their lives to the pursuit of athletics in high school and college, none of these companies would exist. All of these companies were launched by people right out of college, or still in college. All of these companies were launched by kids who dedicated their spare time to learning technology or business, not baseball.
Now we connect back to my posts about the lack of innovative companies launched by Christians in the last 30 years. We American Christians tend to live in the suburbs, where park district soccer and club sports are king. We send our kids to great suburban high schools which tend to dominate our states in sports due to a mix of big budgets, ample real estate for facilities, and competitive parents with the disposable income for year-round club sports and private lessons. So a high percentage of our kids become athletically focused.
40 years ago, competitive, team athletics was a great training ground to develop the discipline, leadership and teamwork needed to succeed at big companies like IBM and General Electric. Athletics was good preparation for business. Today, I would boldly suggest, this may no longer be the case.
Today, giant companies like IBM and General Electric just don't have the cultural influence they once had. Today the world is being changed by companies started in garages and dorm rooms – companies conceived, and often launched, by kids not yet out of college. So here's my concern: Devoting your life in high school and college to an athletic pursuit might have been a good preparation to be a "company man" at IBM or General Electric in the 1960s, but it doesn't appear to be such a good preparation to launch the sorts of companies that are actually changing the world today. Because while our kids are sweating through "2 a day" football practices, someone else's kids are sitting in their dorm room at Stanford conceiving the next Google. I'm not saying ALL our kids should be launching companies. But it's hard to argue that a few Googles launched by strong Christians wouldn't be a very, very good thing.
The world has changed – and two trends concern me very much: High School and college sports have become SO competitive that it is virtually impossible to participate without making your chosen sport the sole focus of your High School and college years. At the same time, more than any time in history, the new businesses that are changing the world are being conceived in – and often launched out of – college dorm rooms. Look at pictures of the people launching all these companies – from Apple and Microsoft to Google and Facebook. Just a cursory glance tells you they weren't "star athletes" in High School. Yes, our kids could kick their butts in soccer. I'm just not sure that matters so much in the eternal scheme of things.
I realize this is a somewhat provocative topic, so I apologize in advance if I've offended you. I can't help but feel these are important issues to wrestle through, though. ESPN ran a promo last year that shocked me. It was a father giving his son a blanket with the logo of his favorite college sports team. The son goes to their favorite team's games with the blanket, uses the blanket as a cape, goes off to the favorite college himself with the blanket, and then ultimately gives the blanket to his own infant son to start the cycle again.
At the close of the spot, as the infant snuggles with the blessed sports blanket, a message fades in: "Without sports, what would we have to hold on to?"
My mouth falls open as I realize the commercial isn't a joke. They're serious about this. I get even more depressed as I imagine how many middle-aged guys across America see that commercial, get kind of sentimental about their favorite team, and think to themselves, "It's so true."
I get even more depressed when I ponder how many of those men also attend church on Sundays, and yet somehow walk out of church with no higher source of comfort than their favorite sports team.
Author John Eldridge makes the very simple yet powerful statement – "If the Gospel doesn't capture your heart, something else will." With so many Christian Americans more emotionally engaged in the game on Sunday afternoon than the service on Sunday morning, I think we've lost the power of the Gospel. And one of my biggest goals for JellyTelly is to help get it back.