Confession Time: My Guilty Pleasures and Secret Heresy Revealed!

Confession Time: My Guilty Pleasure and Secret Heresy Revealed!

Wednesday evening is my “television night.” It’s time to put aside all the books and writing and laugh. They say that laughter is the best medicine. Well, I should be very healthy at about 8:30 CST every Wednesday night. I don’t laugh out loud very often (I’m Scandinavian), but from 7:00 to 8:30 you could probably hear me a block away.

It beings with the television show “The Middle” which is both hilarious and bittersweet. (And at least on this show she doesn’t slap or kick or punch her husband like she did on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”) Funniest are the kids. Anyone who has raised children has to love it. This is a very ordinary family (rare on television!) with ordinary problems and very funny situations. It continues with “Suburgatory” which isn’t always funny, but occasionally (like tonight) is screaming funny. It’s pure satire on suburban life in America. Cartoonish, yes, but very funny anyway. More about that later. Then comes my wife’s and my favorite situation comedy, “Modern Family.” These people are both real and weird at the same time. It’s a great comedy of errors. Extremely funny without being cartoonish.

If you didn’t see tonight’s (February 15th’s) episode of Suburgatory, I think you can watch it on the internet at ABC TV’s web site. It was about America’s absolutely insane love of sports and the way it overshadows everything else including what education is supposed to be about—education.

Now comes my confession of heresy. (I’m glad I have tenure.)

America’s education culture has gone absolutely off the deep end with sports to the detriment of academics, which is what education was supposed to be about. There. I said it. Now I may go into hiding.

Suburgatory tonight was about a suburban family that worships its high school son for his athletic prowess. They treat their high school daughter like dirt, all the while smiling, because she’s not into sports. That’s just one piece of a very excellent satire about high school sports.

How true is it? Does it deserve such sarcasm and ridicule? Very true and yes. A couple miles from where I sit there’s an enormous  new high school football stadium that must have cost several million dollars. The school district is talking about shutting down schools to save money. The city’s public libraries are tiny. There is no public swimming pool. (My city councilman says the city simply can’t afford it.)

As I drive around town I see billboards featuring the smiling countenance of a university football player who won a major trophy. When have I ever seen a billboard or even a little sign congratulating an academic achiever? Never.

The university where I teach is planning to build a huge football stadium on campus. (The present one, which is pretty big and nice, is off campus.) I hope they do. But why can’t we have a new library? Ours is okay, but it could certainly use some updating. Come to think of it, we could use a whole new one.

About a block from the seminary where I teach stands a sports museum. A sign inside says “This is not just a museum; it is a non-denominational house of worship.” Someone told me it’s a joke. It might be meant as a joke, but I don’t think it really is just a joke.

My wife and I visited a small town church a few miles from here. It was Sunday morning, the day after our university’s football team won a home game. The worship leader had the congregation stand and sing the university’s signature song (with motions!) at the beginning of the service.

Something’s wrong with this picture. University education is supposed to be about learning. Why don’t we highlight the achievements of our outstanding scholar students just as much, if not more, than our outstanding athletes?

Is there any relationship between the absolute mania for high school and college sports and the billboard that stood on a major thoroughfare near our home advertising a local business? It read “Our competitors’ prices are our prices or lower.” Could there be any relationship between the sports mania in schools and the fact that everywhere we look in advertising and signage punctuation is wrong?

Now, if I don’t say this, someone will correct me for it. The university athlete so proudly congratulated on billboards is a really nice guy and a good student, a very good student. I’ve heard that said so many times. But my point is, why then not put his GPA (which is very high) on the billboard next to his smiling handsome face? With his permission, it should be there.

I think this is one of those situations where people have simply gotten so used to things being a certain way that they don’t even bother to ask “Why?” And, of course, there’s a lot of money involved. (What sense does it really make that a football coach makes twice or more than his university president? Oh, right, he brings in a lot of money. But what I’m challenging is the culture that makes that the case.)

As a theologian I have problems with this culture that values sports more than academics. Sure, sports can also bring glory to God (I guess). But academic achievement brings invention, progress, creativity in the arts, the betterment of humanity for the common good. Or have we given up on that idea?

What I’m saying is that our values are skewed. They’re off kilter. And values should matter to us as Christians. Winning a football game or having a winning season is nice, but it doesn’t change the world for the better.

I would like to challenge education administrators to mandate that for every sports hero promoted publicly as evidence of the university’s greatness, a student scholar be equally promoted publicly for the same reason. That would at least be as step in the right direction.

  • http://www.brianroden.com Brian Roden

    As the proud father of a sixth-grader who took first place for her grade in the computation category in a recent Math Olympics competition (with a perfect 42 of 42 problems answered correctly), I can only say a hearty “Amen!” Thankfully, the school e-mail newsletter that week had an article on the competition and listed all the students who placed.

    • rogereolson

      Her countenance should be on a billboard! Congratulations to her.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Many years ago while in Philadelphia, I was learning about Islam and how to share my Christian faith with them. I was surprised and happy to learn that many of the Muslim schools don’t even have sports because the academics take up the bulk of their priority.

    Like you, I believe that emphasis on athletics in Christian schools is too much. I liked what the Denver Quarterback said, “God doesn’t care who wins or loses a football game.” Our primary concern ought to be with what God does care about.

    • rogereolson

      At last (for a while) we agree on something! :) Thinking back to Bethel–I recall an incident during my first year. A football player was a student in one of my classes. He was failing head-over-heels. I registered the required notice with the dean (that the student was failing mid-semester) and received a call from the football coach. He wanted to see me in his office. (At that time I was naive enough to think I had to go!) When I entered his office (I don’t remember who he was) I was surrounded by coaches and assistant coaches and trainers and the student. The coach practically begged me to pass the student regardless of his achievement in the class. Of course, I didn’t. And that was the end of the matter. But I think sometimes coaches are overly concerned about their teams’ success and overlook the main reason the college or university exists.

  • http://www.aureliajoy.com Aurelia

    This is a very basic observation, but it seems like starting from a very young age (in American culture) we are somehow taught that “education” or “school” is boring, a chore, or something we just have to do. Sports become, to so many people, the “fun” part of it all, the thing that makes it all worth it. I think this speaks to your argument of skewed value systems, and I wholeheartedly agree. How do we change this mindset though? How does academics become something that, from the get-go, is not a “have to”, but a “want to”? It seems like there will be very little respect for academia among everyday people until we can get to the bottom of these kind of questions.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know how to change people’s attitudes, but I think as a society and especially as a culture of education we MUST get back to consequences. Kids who simply won’t learn should be held back. Too often they’re not. Parents who refuse to help their kids with homework or be involved in helping them succeed academically should be visited by educators and, if necessary, social services people. Students who find everything about the academic side of their education should be told they will not succeed in life and will have to go through it struggling to live on minimum wage (at best). My daughters’ experiences in public schools were dreadful. My younger daughter’s elementary school teachers (two of them) tried to teach her spelling with what they called “invented spelling.” Thus, she didn’t learn to spell until much later and with great struggle. My older daughter’s home room “teacher” allowed the students (9th grade) to run amok. One male student took over and sat at the teacher’s desk and wouldn’t allow him to sit there. There was apparently nobody he could call on to help. My daughters both spent much of their time at school afraid of some of the other students and bewildered why they were allowed to get by with truly awful behavior that was disruptive. I talked to a public school teacher about it and he told me they (this was Minnesota) were not allowed to touch any student for any reason–even if they were physically bullying other students. When they called the “office,” often nothing happened. The whole culture has to change. When I taught at a Christian liberal arts college I definitely felt that failing any student was my fault, not his or hers. That was a message being sent through the culture of the college. All students are capable and want to succeed, so if they fail that’s the teacher’s fault. That sort of thing has to change before education in America will recover. Students MUST know that bad behavior will have consequences they don’t like (and not just a ticket from the school cop) and they MUST know that if they do not do the work they are assigned they will fail without any apologies. Thankfully I now feel that I am in an educational context where those are the case. But I know they are not the case everywhere.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Sports are fun (for me and many others). But really, it is play. Academics is much more like work. What kid (old or young) would choose work over play? It takes someone who knows or sees the positive differences that work makes to want to do that over play. For many of us, we feel like our culture allows us to play our whole lives.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    I went to a leading Christian university for my undergrad, and I was consistently frustrated by what I perceived to be administrative decisions made without any consideration for the kingdom. There was a great deal of rhetoric about being a Christian university – the late founder used to say, all of the time, “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better” – but it seemed that the grid along which “better” was measured was constructed entirely according to the same sorts of criteria that non-Christian universities use: bigger NCAA programs, bigger and more flashy events, and beautiful people plastered all over their advertising campaigns. I have close relationships with one or two faculty members who have confirmed to me that this continues to be the case.

    There is a great deal of confusion and upheaval right now in the world of higher education generally. It seems to me that this is an issue about which Christian practitioners of higher education ought to have specifically Christian insights to offer, especially concerning what sorts of factors really contribute to human flourishing and transformation and spiritual growth. (Academics tends to accomplish this far better than sports programs.) But many in academia seem more concerned with spectacle and with making decisions motivated by money.

    I think that most administrators at Christian universities do not have any specific training or vision with regards to how the kingdom of God ought to intersect their decision-making in any concrete way. It makes me wonder sometimes whether it will ultimately be possible for an institution of higher education – as that seems to be being reconceived in America – to be genuinely “Christian.”

  • Cameron

    I think it’s important that schools (especially at primary and secondary level) promote active lifestyles. Municipal authorities need to provide facilities for people of all ages to stay active.

    But here’s the thing: we end up emphasising elitism. Instead of building walking tracks for thousands of people to use we build stadiums for thousands to sit in. The fact that there are a dozen or two people being active on the field means nothing.

    I wonder if the same thing can be said of academic institutions? Do we build graduate schools at the expense of local libraries?

    Maybe we need to sell tickets to thesis defences. Hmm… I wonder what Simon Cowell could do with that idea? Academia could become sexy again!

    • rogereolson

      Recently the city I live in leased its one and only public swimming pool to a private company to build a water park that will cost $17 per person per day. In my opinion, this is a travesty and a miscarriage of justice. People don’t want to pay higher taxes to keep up the public pools but they will complain when kids roam the streets with nothing to do (especially during the summer) and getting into trouble.

  • Fred

    This attitude has also permeated our churches. And why shouldn’t it? Entertainment value is all that matters.

    • rogereolson

      Unfortunately all too true. I knew things were bad when an undergraduate student said to me at the beginning of class one day “What are you going to do to entertain us today?” Another one stood up in the middle of class, stretched and laid down on the floor to take a nap. When I asked one wearing a T-shirt that said “Kill a Commie for Mommy” to turn it inside out he balked and said it was none of my business what he wore. Etc., etc., etc. Fifteen years of it. And it wasn’t helped by the provost who called students our “customers.” I must say I had many, many wonderful students and great colleagues, but the culture was too pro-student to the detriment of academic standards. From talking with professors of other, similar colleges, I know for a fact that that culture is common in them.

      • Fred

        You’re a saint, Dr. Olson.

        Here’s an analogy. I teach martial arts (TKD) using a traditional approach. That means you will see a whole lot of bowing and addressing instructors as “Maam” and “Sir” in our school. (The owner of the school is a former Navy Seal if that says anything). If the students don’t like it, they know where the door is. Our school has developed a reputation as one of the toughest in the upper Midwest to attain a BB.

        The amazing thing is is that people respond, even in this culture. They work terribly hard, they develop close, personal relationships and they support each other. We can’t find enough room to fit ‘em all. I have often wondered about using this approach in a church. This is what we are about, this is what we are going to study and this is what you will do to master the subject matter. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. Let them make the decision. Of course, that wouldn’t be “nice” and Jesus was all about being nice.

        Maybe it’s just a pipe-dream. Then again….

        • rogereolson

          I know some churches that act that way and many former members call them “cults” (just because they exercise church discipline).

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    I am in full agreement on this, Roger. If this be heresy, I care not for orthodoxy. As synchronicity would have it, I think David Brooks would agree. Here is a link to his essay today about the conflicting moral universes of sports and religion: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/opinion/brooks-the-jeremy-lin-problem.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

  • Steve Rogers

    You are spot on with this analysis. But, the mental image I get of you tilting this giant windmill gives me a chuckle. I once had a congregation respond to my sermon about devotional and worshipful living with a back and forth shout out between Dale Jr. fans and Jeff Gordon fans as they rushed to the exit to get home to watch the Daytona 500. One wonders if some of them came out to Wednesday night Bible Study and Prayer more often instead of staying home to watch TV, if we could do better. Just kidding. :)

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  • http://langueorparole.blogspot.com/ Jeremy Patterson

    There has to be a manifesto nascent in this wonderful post. I, as one professor-in-training, would sign it.

    As someone who loves Christ above all, but also enjoys academics and to some degree sports, I don’t know how to change this culture. All I try to do is resist it. Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do, not be overly conformed to the current age? I don’t know how to do this well, but for me it means generally ignoring our sports culture. I don’t think I have ever watched the Super Bowl (Churches have Super Bowl parties?? Come on.); I have no interest in high school or college athletics; and I only occasionally check headlines on pro sports. What else can we do?

    • rogereolson

      Once you have tenure, you can say a lot! :)

  • http://barrybiblicalnotes.com Barry Applewhite

    Thanks for telling how things are in Texas (and many other places)! How did our valuation of various activities get so skewed?

    Some years ago I pulled into the filling station in a small East Texas town that was home to a religious school. As I pumped the gas, I asked the attendant about the school. He said, “Those people are really strange. They don’t even go to the football game on Friday nights!” To him that was the last word on the subject.

    Keep speaking your mind, Prof Olson.

    -Barry

  • Andy W.

    Dr. Olsen,

    I agree with you about the insanity of sport. Way too important at increasingly younger and younger ages! However, exercise and fitness is crucial! Have you seen this fascinating book: “Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain”? It’s worth the read. It basically uses the latest neuroscience research to show how exercise (specifically cardiovascular exercise) directly impacts our brains ability to learn and absorb information. How can we change the attitude of sport/exercise to tie it back to educations??? This may be the way.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. At 60 I’m in the best fitness of my life because I decided to start working out a few years ago. I wish more men would do that; maybe we could close the gender gap of life expectancy. Exercise is wonderful. Fanaticism about spectator sports is something else.

  • Peter Stone

    This must be definitely an American thing. Here in the UK sport is important especially football (or should I say Soccer:)) but at Universities sport isn’t taken too seriously. Yes most Universities have football teams but unless you are part of the team most others in the University probably couldn’t tell who they last played and what the score was. University are places where you are meant to go and study if you go for any other reason you are wasting your time and the Universities times. By the way I love football both playing and watching but I also love many other things as well.

    • Lewis

      I’ll second that – I’m currently a postgrad at a university in London and along the outside of the building are descriptions and faces of former students who went on to contribute something to society – there are some athletes and musicians, but you also have a fleet of significant academics from across the disciplines both old and more recent. There seems to be a great sense of pride about being an institution that generates great thinkers as well as creative types, those who go on to influence society in a (hopefully) positive way. People who go to uni for sport are probably perceived as those on a fast track to teaching P.E. (…and those who can’t teach, teach gym). I don’t think less of those who study sports, but it does seem a bit stigmatised. Obviously I can’t speak for every institution and I am very aware of the problems of low expectations in terms of attendance/behaviour/work standard – especially at the 16-18 further education colleges, foundation degrees and the like. Nevertheless, having read this interesting post it makes me glad that England is at least in part holding on to the value of higher education. The downside of course, is that while people are clamouring to get into a good university, an inordinate amount of graduates end up unemployed or working far outside of their learned discipline, and studying has become financially devastating – increasingly like the US (Or so I’m told by a Chicagon friend). Having said all that about pride in academic achievement, this certainly fluctuates with the dominant worldviews. Funding is being cut from the humanities departments, theology and philosophy are taking a hit as they’re not ‘vocationally oriented’. Independent theological colleges are struggling under major financial pressure and students sit and pine for the grand and glorious website images we see of American theological campuses. Ultimately, money is once again the issue. The Brits just haven’t worked out monetising university through football.


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