By John “TC” Megahan
Sports can be fun, create teamwork, and build integrity and character in young people. However, athletic competition has often become a priority over spiritual development for many Christian schools and colleges. Athletics have taken center stage in many school programs, as administrators use it as a preferred method to attract more students to their schools. At what cost are schools paying for this new focus and direction? Are large and increasingly competitive athletic programs healthy for your school’s long-term viability and sustainability or a student’s spiritual growth?
Christian schools value a strong sports program for numerous reasons. Some administrators use athletics to build school spirit or the school’s reputation. Some want to maintain good public relations in their community and use sports to grow future enrollment and admissions. Others want to promote the personal development of fitness and teach important principles for a healthy life.
It seems reasonable. Who can argue with better student health, pride in your school, team spirit, teamwork, and leadership development in students? Shouldn’t schools provide as many activities and athletics as possible to build a good reputation, expand enrollment, and grow overall programs? Not necessarily. An over-commitment and unbalanced approach to activities and athletic programs are hurting schools and making it increasingly difficult for them to achieve long-term sustainability.
I want to take a hard look at the issues in Christian school athletics that make it difficult to achieve primary goals: the actual costs, balance of student and staff priorities, and participant behavior and attitudes.
Many years ago, I worked with a large Christian school with a sterling reputation for its spiritual values, Christian service in the community, and academic rigor. For over thirty years, people sent their children to receive a high-quality Christian education with a solid commitment to a biblical worldview. The school had affordable tuition, students who fit the school’s mission and values, and no debt.
Unfortunately, those values and great reputations were destroyed. A few newly appointed leaders felt that a high-profile athletic program should become the primary focus to compete with other local schools. The winning-at-all-costs attitude adopted by these misguided leaders led to questionable recruiting of students (i.e., players) who were not a good fit for the school’s mission and values. Issues soon arose in student behavior, discipline, and academic expectations. A double standard of discipline developed, and grade-fixing became the norm for the coaches. The school culture turned from focusing on academic and spiritual development to a win-at-all-costs focus on achieving state championships and titles.
Within three years, the school had lost 70 percent of its student body because of the problems created. The school was ultimately crushed by rapidly declining enrollment and an incredible debt load. They defaulted on millions of dollars of loans and lost many of their dedicated faculty and staff. For months they were the laughing stock of their community, with their transgressions played out on ESPN and on the front page of their local newspaper. Not the testimony a Christian school would ever want to have. No one will ever know the financial, moral, and spiritual damage caused by a handful of people who lost perspective and misplaced their priorities.
You would think this was just a rare occurrence, right? Unfortunately, no. While researching solutions to another school’s crisis, I came across no less than twenty Christian schools that had made the same mistakes. I even came across several Christian colleges that, while mired in a downward spiral of enrollment and facing deep financial cuts and staff layoffs, were moving their athletic competition up to NCAA status! They couldn’t pay their bills and had a tough time making payroll each month, but their sports teams pushed toward their misguided goal of division finals and conference championships.
So, this begs the question: Have athletics become a misplaced priority in our schools? Have schools lost the balance between academics, spiritual life, and athletics? Is the tail of sports competition wagging the dog of mission, academic rigor, and career preparation?
There is an appropriate place for sports on the Christian school and college campus, and student participation in competitive sports has many benefits. However, while we can support competitive athletics and the opportunities such programs can provide, we should be very clear on the actual cost of athletics.
Three Critical Factors that Hinder the Proper Goals of Sports
1. Understanding the Full Cost of Athletics
Sports programs require considerable investments in finances, time commitment, and priorities. Christian schools and colleges only have a limited number of hours a week, limited supporters from their donor base, and limited opportunities to create that portrait of academic success they call a graduate.
In addition, building and maintaining athletic fields and facilities, coach’s wages, traveling, transportation, insurance, supplies, and equipment require a lot of funds. Oddly, in my many years of experience, I have found that many schools spend almost three times as much on athletics programs as they do on textbooks and curriculum. They don’t seem to bat an eye at a $20,000 scoreboard but can’t bring themselves to spend that kind of money on classroom technology or academic resources. That is a clear sign of misplaced objectives and priorities.
Often, the highest cost isn’t money; it is the required cost of time and effort that adversely affects participants’ academic, family, career preparation, and ministry responsibilities. Student athletes spend between fifteen to twenty hours a week practicing, traveling, and competing. Overemphasis becomes obvious when practices last two to four hours nearly every day without a game. Sports seasons generally last twelve to fifteen weeks, which overshadows most of the school semester and even part of the summer break. Student athletes come early, leave late, and try their best to juggle a demanding schedule to complete reading assignments, paper writing, and other academic expectations.
Is quality in athletic competition an important consideration for students, parents, and school administrators? Yes—we should always strive to bring excellence to everything we do. But it should not be at the cost of other equally important experiences and activities like career planning, maintaining family and other relationships, and other life lessons.
We may have good intentions, but sometimes we overemphasize success in sports. This overemphasis can spoil the fun of competition and have an even higher cost like poor academic achievement, elevated student and parent stress levels, and participant burnout. I’ve known many Christian athletes that could knock the cover off a baseball but couldn’t do the math required to balance a checkbook.
2. Balance Perspective in Athletics
Balancing the importance of winning can also prove problematic in athletics. I have nine very competitive children, and no one in my family likes to lose. I was a fierce competitor in baseball, hockey, soccer, and wrestling, and I wish I could say that I always maintained proper priorities and balance in my life.
Still, not everyone is a superstar athlete. Most student athletes at Christian schools and colleges will be good at basic skills and play well on a team. It’s critical to recognize noteworthy teamwork progress or accomplishments—not just wins and losses. This will be the hallmark of a healthy athletic program and indicates a good balance of priorities.
We have all known coaches who have had an imbalanced perspective as they overemphasized the role of “star athletes” on a team or on winning a game at almost all costs. Let’s remember that Christian schools have one primary objective: to prepare students academically, spiritually, and socially for their lives and careers. Perhaps it needs to be recognized that few of our athletes will go on to the Olympics or play professional sports as a career. Most will be participating for fun, recreation, and team spirit.
3. Behavior and School Reputation
The final factor hindering proper goals in competitive sports is the behavior of participants, coaches, and parents alike. While players sometimes behave poorly in highly stressful, competitive moments, coaches and parents often encourage improper actions or attitudes by reacting wrongly themselves. The desire for a team or player to excel is no excuse for leaders to lose self-control. Any improper behavior must be dealt with quickly, whether it comes from a player, coach, or parent.
I travel to many schools and colleges each year as an education consultant, and I often hear terrible stories of Christian school athletes who have behaved very un-Christlike. One Christian college has such a poor reputation that other schools (even secular colleges) refuse to play them. This college has numerous championship banners in various sports but little to no respect in their league or conference. How does that speak to the testimony of this school as a light of the gospel to the other schools, especially to the secular colleges they play?
Knowing all the concerns we face, does competitive athletics have a place on our Christian school and college campuses? Absolutely! Competitive athletics has tremendous potential for building character and morale, encouraging fitness, reaching the community, and teaching students the importance of teamwork. In addition, a well-run and effectively managed athletic program builds school spirit, attracts mission-appropriate students, and allows us to build students academically, spiritually, socially, and physically for the future.
However, to achieve these goals, the athletic directors in Christian schools and colleges must maintain a proper focus and address sensitive issues immediately and often. High academic expectations must be set and achieved to represent your school on the athletic field.
High-quality leadership—coaches, athletic directors, and administrators—will help keep the program focused on the proper goal of developing Christlike character in participants. A biblical philosophy of athletic competition must be defined and clearly communicated. With the right priorities, dedicated personnel, balance in all things, and a careful plan, a school can turn potential problems into true success.
John “TC” Megahan is a Christian education professional with more than thirty-five years of success in serving the business, education, and church communities and serves as an Executive Consultant for RenewaNation. He has served as an administrator, school board member, classroom teacher, athletic coach, pastor, sports ministry chaplain, and crisis counselor. TC has worked in the financial services industry for more than twenty-five years and is experienced in strategic financial planning, financial aid awarding, and advancement programs. He and his wife, Joanne, have nine children and four grandchildren and live in Townsend, Delaware.