By Matt Hill ’89, Ed.D.
There once was a little boy who badly wanted to be a professional basketball player. In the extreme heat and humidity of an Iowa summer, he would shoot baskets, practice moves and dream of the game-winning shot, all while roasting on the hot, cracked and uneven blacktop of his driveway. The hoop was not official regulation in its height and the backboard was peeling and worn, but this was his “home court.”
As the seasons changed and winter set in, he would put on a parka and gloves, shovel the driveway, turn on the outdoor floodlight, and shoot baskets until his mom made him come back inside for some hot chocolate. His desire to be in the NBA, along with his enjoyment of the game, drove him to practice, try new moves and learn the meaning of dedication.
Unfortunately, he ended up being “vertically challenged” and his competitive basketball playing days ended upon high school graduation. As you probably guessed, that little boy was me. While my dream of playing in the NBA faded with the realization that the growth chart couldn’t be bribed, what I learned from participation in sports was far more valuable.
I have played, coached and supervised sports teams from Little League to NCAA varsity programs. And while I believe there are aspects of sports in today’s society that are not in line with what we, as Christians, should value and expect, I do believe sports can still be an integral part of the spiritual growth of an athlete.
Sport in itself is neither good nor bad; it doesn’t have the ability to determine an outcome. I believe that the people who participate in the sports determine sports’ usefulness and application. Coaches and players who decide that sport is the medium to learn, teach and practice life lessons are the ones using it for the betterment of the individuals, all the while learning how to function together in a team setting with team goals. On the flip side, selfishness, pride and personal gain can also be the result of participation in sports, all determined by the spirit of the individual(s) involved.
In his blog, Roger Lipe, Southern Illinois Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, parallels the participation in sports with worship. He writes, “We, who identify ourselves as coaches and athletes, have rich opportunities for holy, pleasing and spiritual worship as we train and compete. Our daily activities in sport are perfectly pleasing to our Lord as we dedicate ourselves to Him in loving service.”
Referring to Romans 12:1, Lipe adds that “all of life is our spiritual act of worship, holy and acceptable to God as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices thereby practicing the presence of our Living Lord through our lives in sport.”
All that we do can be a form of worship, sport included. Recently the volleyball team at University of Northwestern decided to practice a virtue that they were studying: integrity as it relates to worship. In all aspects of their lives they wanted to practice integrity, including on the court of competition. The result of this undertaking was to make “honor calls” (see story, page 16). Most of America would say they are crazy—it is the official’s job to make the call. Or some might even tell you to sell it the other way, to try and influence the official into giving you the point, even if you
didn’t earn it. Because of this decision, our women’s volleyball team gave back 30 points that they did not earn. But they earned much more than “points” with the opposing teams, fans and the athletic community. We received many calls about what these Northwestern athletes were doing, saying it was “refreshing” to hear that a team would actually do this.
This one example shows that it is not sport that is an ally or adversary to our faith, but rather it is the people who participate in sport who determine its role. People are the ones who choose to determine the path sport will take, the experience it will be, and how it can be used.
One of the most popular passages in the Bible references an athletic event: a race. Philippians 3:14 (NLT) says, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” Paul references life here as a race, focused on the goal, the heavenly prize.
With the right perspective, the right focus, the right mindset, sports can be an ally— a conduit to growing, practicing and living out your faith, staying focused on the heavenly prize. Along with the presentation of our lives as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1) and committing everything we do for God’s glory (Col. 3:23), sport can be used to grow one’s faith and further God’s Kingdom.
That is what I appreciate about the athletic program mission at University of Northwestern: “to utilize sports as the conduit for spiritual, educational, social and athletic growth of our student-athletes, encouraging them to maximize all their gifts.” Using sport as an “ally” along their faith journey is how our student-athletes, as individuals on a team, grow in all areas of their lives.
Matt Hill ’89, Ed.D., is vice president for student life & athletics at University of Northwestern. He has served at the college for 13 years. He and his wife, Miriam, reside in New Brighton with their three children, Ryan, Aaron and Lauren.