Athletic Arms Race

I laced up my $100, Allen Iverson inspired basketball shoes and headed out into the bright lights. The huge crowd–it must have been at least twenty fans–sat on metal folding chairs just inches away from the sidelines, which made saving balls from going out-of-bounds quite dangerous. The backboards had no reinforcement, but none of us could dunk anyway. The floor of the court was not wood or composition rubber, but tile–like a bathroom. In fact, our opponents called our gym the “Big Bathroom.” But for all its shortcomings, it was our gym. We were Suburban Christian Middle School and we protected the “Big Bathroom” like it was The Palace of Auburn Hills. Our record in my 8th grade year was 7-5.

My brother never got to defend the “Big Bathroom” because Suburban Christian built a whole new school, and with it, a new gym. The tile was gone, the backboards reinforced, and actual bleachers were built for the fans. Suburban Christian was no longer home of the “Big Bathroom,” but now had a respectable middle school gym. Unfortunately, my brother’s team couldn’t defend the respectable middle school gym like we defended the “Big Bathroom.” Their record his 8th grade year was 0-12.

Although I have a bit of nostalgia for the “Big Bathroom,” I understand that a new school needs a new gym. What I cannot comprehend is why a new school needs two new gyms. Suburban Christian began building a new $6 million gym next to their “old” gym, which was constructed just six years ago. The argument for a new gym was the need for increased physical education classes, to have a built-in stage, and to increase flexibility for events. But imagine if the school invested that $6 million donation into endowed scholarships. Obviously the need for “event flexibility” is more important than getting kids into the school. Suburban Christian’s new gym points toward a bigger problem in Christian educational institutions–the arms race for athletic facilities.

The trickle down to Suburban Christian starts with Division I college sports. Division I colleges are making millions of dollars from their athletes. The University of Michigan made $57,463,603 from their football program during the 2007-2008 season. But instead of investing the majority of their revenue into academics or student life, the college spent their profits on enhancing their athletic facilities. They know the money-making circle: the better your facilities, the better your players, the better your win-percentage, the better your profits, and then the better your facilities again.

The athletics arms race inevitably trickles down to Division III. The college that has the best athletic facility is going to bring in the best athletes; and therefore have the most success. However–and this is a huge however–no matter how nice the facility or how talented the players, Division III sports don’t make money. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Welch Suggs suggests that “very little money comes from ticket sales, and other researchers have found no significant links between winning teams and donations, the number of applications received or the publicity colleges receive.” The real pressure is coming from the athletes themselves who want intense Division I-like sports experiences, but are not talented enough to play there (Suggs).

I once spent an entire summer attempting to bring my limited natural talent to the Division III level. I worked really hard: running, lifting, and training at a speed gym called Acceleration. The gym’s mantra, “Bigger, Faster, Stronger.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t get big enough, fast enough, or strong enough to play soccer at Calvin College. In the same way, Division III athletes desire to be Division I athletes, but they aren’t and never will be.

Most, if not all, Division III college presidents understand this fact. But some donors and alums don’t seem to get it. Most donors want to see bricks and trophies. They want to see a multi-million dollar arena with their name on it. More often than not, the donors get what they want, but it is not always what the school needs.

I can understand how easy it is for secular Division III schools to follow the bigger, faster, stronger model. But aren’t Christians colleges called to a different standard, to question these unneccessary indulgences?

For example, Hope College recently spent $22 million on new athletic facilities. Not to be outdone, Hope’s biggest rival, Calvin College, recently completed a bigger, faster, and stronger athletic complex for $50 million. Meanwhile, both colleges have seen substantial increases in tuition. Imagine what tuition might have been if $50 million had been used to help with tuition. But donors can’t drive past or have their names on reduced tuitions.

Athletics has a worthy function in education. It builds self-confidence, camaraderie, patience, responsibility, better health, and courage. However, obsession with sports also builds something else: a mindset that athletic achievement equals success. I don’t know how, or when, or why, but somehow sports became America’s hidden and subversive idol. Many, if not most, Americans know that Madison Square Garden is in New York, while 63 percent of young people can’t find Iraq on a map. Sports idolatry is America’s secret sin.

Christians have bought into the idolatry of sports. How does this exemplify our commitments? How does it fit into our mission? Yes, it can be argued that Christians are called to excellence in all that they do. But do Christians really believe that Jesus would rather play hoops in a new $6 million arena, than send underprivileged children to school? Again I wonder, why are the values of Division I athletics chosen over the values of Jesus Christ?

Chad Pollard, a recent graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, continues to fuel the athletic arms race by coaching underprivileged youth in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.