A few weeks ago, I attended a high school football game—something I haven’t done since I was in high school, so I was excited to have the opportunity. The teams playing were part of a special league for private schools: mostly religious including some home school families.
I don’t remember parents being a problem when I played sports as a younger man. I recall that my little league games were pleasant; parents and teammates were supportive. I don’t recall high school football games being hot spots of bad parental behavior. I remember baseball games being fun: competitive but fair.
But while I was in college, something happened. I don’t know if it was always going on and I just missed it or if something shifted in the way fans act at sporting events. I read stories in the papers and heard tales from my friends of parents behaving terribly, being thrown out of games, and having tantrums in the stands because little Billy or little Susie was somehow wronged by a blind zebra who was one eye short of being the fabled Cyclops. Or perhaps their child did not play enough. Who knows?
The newspapers would occasionally have a story of someone hauled off to jail because some irate father had punched some other irate father and a brawl had broken out in the stands. Some stories were even worse.
When my nephew started playing little league sports, the “parent contract” had been invented. I don’t know when that started, but in an attempt to cajole parents into acting like, well, adults, they had to sign an agreement stating that they understand they will be thrown out of the game for verbal assault and that they will be arrested for physically assaulting another parent, referee, coach, or another player.
Another player? Are you kidding me? I cannot imagine what would get into a parent such that they assault another player on a team! But, these rules are, sadly, made in reaction to actual events that have transpired.
So I went to the football game expecting to encounter a bunch of parents who thought their boy was going to be the next Peyton Manning and who were prepared to kill anyone who thought otherwise.
But I was wrong. Instead, I saw something that gave me a great deal of hope: two teams from Christian environments playing like Christian gentlemen. It was a great game. The parents were wonderful—even those from the team that was losing. The players were upbeat and supportive of one another. At one point in the game, a young man from the opposing team was badly hurt in a complicated tackle. For a while we did not know what had happened, but it soon became clear that he had some sort of severe fracture of the ankle or leg.
The coach from Dante’s (the young man I was going to watch) team heard the ankle snap when the tackle was made, and before the play was even through, he was on the field next to the boy. When the medical staff came out, he backed away. I then saw this coach lead his players in a series of prayers for the injured boy, who was in a great deal of pain and waiting for an ambulance. There were no parents screaming that their kid had been singled out. No one was threatening lawsuits. Coaches were not yelling and spitting in the refs’ faces. A young man from the opposing team was injured, and the boys were on their knees on the field praying for him.
Needless to say, I was impressed. These were boys from obviously solid backgrounds led by an inspiring coach who was intent on sharing with his team the virtues of sports. Dante was one of the co-captains of the team, and I was extremely proud of him.
Then I heard about the next week. I did not attend this game, but it did not go well. Apparently the belligerent parents showed up. The play from the opposing team was downright dirty, and the inspiring Christian behavior I had seen on both sides of the field was unilateral. The game degenerated in personal fouls, angry fans, racial epithets leveled against members of Dante’s team, and finally, a fight: a member of the opposing team decided to kick one of Dante’s teammates after he had been tackled.
We all like to win. Winning is fun. It makes you feel good. But is winning worth all of the bad play? Have you truly won a game if you have the higher score but your moral integrity is damaged? “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36). I was so proud to hear that Dante had not gotten involved in retaliation. It is so easy to slip into the old “an eye for an eye” mindset when being fouled on a football field. It takes incredible virtue to behave as a Christian gentleman in the face of un-Christian assault.
Jesus said “I come not to bring peace, but the sword” (10:38). It is difficult for us to think that Jesus would have intended violence rather than peace to be the way of the Christian people. Instead, I think of this verse as more prophetic than permissive. To accept Jesus and to live the virtuous Christian life in our world is not the sort of thing that will ensure exterior peace. In fact, the Christian will be forced on principle on occasion to take a stand that will be unpopular and might even result in persecution. The martyrs certainly can attest to that: they experienced the sword profoundly.
Bad calls are a part of sports. Refs can’t see everything. But we should be careful in admitting that bad behavior is an intrinsic part of sports, because it is not. A ref can make a bad call without intending harm. Sometimes the calls go your way; sometimes they don’t. It is a circumstance outside of our control. Bad sportsmanship, un-Christian behavior, verbal haranguing of parents, players, and officials, and intentional violence are not an intrinsic part of sports, and they are not circumstantial. These are intentional actions that reveal the shallowness of moral formation in a person.
But it is possible to stand in the face of this sword of horrible behavior and to follow Christ: to forgive rather than to retaliate, and to be magnanimous in the face of meanness. This is the action of the virtuous Christian. And thanks be to God, Dante’s coach gets it, and he demands nothing less than this from his players. It makes me so proud to see such virtue in young men. It should be instructive to us, and it should give us all great hope.