Category Archives: Sports

Daniel Murphy, Sports and Babies

“J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your

confession on the air, will you stop by to receive

penance instructions about being a better father and husband?”

It’s just too easy to weigh in on the comments of Mike Francesca and Boomer Esiason about Daniel Murphy’s decision to take two days to be present for his baby’s birth.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Of course, we live in a time of sportainment.  More and more, as politics becomes hopelessly unresponsive and global problems impinge on every part fo life, sportainment is the way we escape–from real life.  Except that ultimately isn’t an option.

One day I listened in on sports radio–I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure on the way to the hospital or a meeting, in part because I will always laugh at something pretentious, silly or absurd.  And much of what is discussed is fun to consider.  A husband caller complained to Paul Finebaum about a player’s tweet after Alabama lost its bowl game that “it’s only a game.”  His argument was that it isn’t.  He went on, passionately, to say that though he was a member of a church and loved his family, that during the football season he spends more time and money on the sport than on his wife and kids or his church.

My jaw dropped since I am a minister, but why should it?  I like to imagine that I might follow up crazy calls.  What would I say?  Disguised voice: “This is Dr. Hapner Wogwillow.  I am a marriage therapist.  I treat his wife for depression and recognized him in the call.  He needs to go home.  She just left for good with the kids.  I will tell him their names if he’ll call me.  BR-549.”  My other idea was to, “J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your confession, will you stop by to receive penance instructions about being a better father and husband?” Read the rest of this entry

A Championship for God

I watched all the passion and powerful energy around the football season this year.  I have watched the most 3college football in years.  “What if the church generated such passion?”  I imagined a coach’s assessment at the end of the year.  It went like this:

  1. (At the end of the year banquet)  Great season, people.  We had our MVPs and our Most Improved.  It looks like we have a solid core back this year and that bodes well.
  2. We finished the year with a winning season.  Of course, we had our losses, too. Some major leaders and talent have gone to the next level, which in the kingdom of God is heaven.
  3. We had some transfers to other teams, and more than a few injuries.  In this league, the injuries

    C’mon!

    are harder to see.  Quite a few have torn ACLs, (Attitudinal Christlikeness Lethargy) and more than a few are on suspension for inactivity.

  4. The most exciting news, though, is we had a great recruiting season.  Gifted people everywhere you turn, at every position.  And that’s good.  We have more than a few seniors who are not far from graduation.  They’ve kept the faith and fought the fight for a long time, and our lack of depth has been a real challenge, so they are happy to see these freshmen and sophomores  coming in here to help.  We need them to step up and help right away.
  5. We ought to be motivated to have a championship season.  The big game every week comes when we file into the sanctuary and listen to the Lord’s word, re-tell the story of our team, and get inspired by the great heritage of saints.  That’s our name, you know.  The Saints.  Not the New Orleans’ ones.
  6. And when we all execute our assignment we’ll win every time—blockers removing the obstacles out there and making way for the good news, passers sharing the gospel and kindness, practicing stewardship and pouring out blessings for the world, when our receivers go out and catch the ball and run for daylight, they carry the good news of the gospel to the world, to the lonely, the desperate and the hopeless.
  7. This year, we aren’t settling for a few measly points of improvement.  We are going to the top.  It’s silly for grown men to mope around for months over football games.  We’re about real and eternal things.
  8. 8.      No, the real championship is the Kingdom of God.  Healing diseases, crushing poverty and injustice, helping the illiterate to read, telling the story of Jesus to those who don’t know it.  Loving the unloved, working for reconciliation and forgiveness.  I’m tired of being number one in football, obesity and high blood pressure.  I’m ready to lead the nation in hope and the love of God and blessing little children everywhere.
  9. We have our opponent, of course.  The Bible describes him as a roaring lion, seeking to devour us.  Mostly that happens when we turn in on ourselves, or look at our troubles, or abandon hope and think we’re beaten.  Or responding with hate and fear.  Or worse, start blaming each other and sulking.  Win together, lose together.
  10. If we believe in the One who called us here we can do it!  Just believe in each other, do our assignments, don’t listen to the crowd and the critics, get up when we get knocked down, and always, always play the game with fearless confidence.  Now let’s get out there, and when you walk into this arena of worship on Sunday, come dressed for the fight, come for a victory, come to praise and pray and go forth.  And accept nothing less than the victory of God for everyone.  YEAHHHHH!h

A Week to Remember, A Week to Inspire

2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us.  Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday.  On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String.  Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service.  Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice.  She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance.  She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.

This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.”  Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here.  Bring your heart and hopes with you.HOLY WEEK

Jeremy Lin’s Magic Week and Why I Like Him

Jeremy Lin and the Knicks finally lost a game.  Look for some of the “Linsanity” to fade.  Expect a second wave of rumLination to follow, as the bandwagon backs over the kid from Harvard.  I don’t even watch the NBA anymore, and

Superman downed by New Orleans' Kryptonite unis

basketball was my sport.  I don’t know what it was, but after Jordan, Magic and Larry and their supporting casts went away, it sometimes seemed like the NBA turned into the athletic version of the Kardashians.  LeBron is still hated for leaving Cleveland.  Truth is, if the NBA game has changed a lot in recent years, so have games in general.

We can recite the litany of why’s: 

  • Win no matter what.
  • It’s about the money, the mansions, the bling and the babes, no matter what you say.
  • Agents.
  • Shame has lost its identity in our world—no publicity is the only shameful state.
  • Tradition, love of the game, team: why do they sound “quaint”?
  • If you want an indicator, consider that staying for your junior year in college is considered “noble”.  Since when did education become a liability and being rich a necessity?

Maybe that’s why “March madness,” the NCAA’s annual “survival of the fittest” is so much more attractive to me than the NBA.  I was a high school basketball player.  I wasn’t great, just okay.  Co-captain of my high school team as a senior and all that.  But years after I graduated, I kept playing—intermural in college, even playing with the high school kids as a pastor until my joints wore out.  All because there was something FUN about the physical test of shooting, dribbling, passing, playing.  Most of all, trying to win together.

I like Jeremy Lin.  Nothing to do with being “Asian” (why do we always go there?), Harvard-educated (okay, he can get a job when he retires), third-string sub who makes good, but just because he reminds me of a time in my life when I’d rather shoot hoops in forty degree weather than play guitar—and that was saying something.

There are still plenty of great NBA players and people who are about winning.  Shaq, Tim Duncan, last year’s Mavs and the largely unheralded bench guys who lay it on the line. But fame and fortune have crowded “team” into a tie for third at best.  Watching an NBA game just ain’t Lakers-Celtics in the 80s.  Where are you, Bill Russell, Magic, Larry?  And maybe today’s games just reflect us in general.

So I like Jeremy Lin.  Nothing to do with Asia, Harvard or world peace.  Linsation is just about doing your best.  Call it excelLINce—character, quality, and love of the game.  He’s an amateur (from the Latin word for “love,” thus one who does something purely for the love of it) in a game long ruined by money.   Ultimately, if the human soul is to survive, there has to be something in us that we do for the sheer pleasure and value of doing it and the joy of watching.

Hey, kid, pick yourself up.  You’re gonna lose now and then.  Get ‘em tomorrow.

The author as Northmont Thunderbolt, ca. 1971. At least uniforms HAVE improved

Gene Bartow’s Biggest Win

Gene Bartow doing what he loved--coaching

How do you measure a life?  Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success.  But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering.  He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career.  He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons.  He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden.  He was national coach of the year that year.   In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]

He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough.  He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.

So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired.  He stayed only two turbulent years.  He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those.  But it wasn’t good enough.  The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team.  “He was a

John Wooden and Gene Bartow

sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything.  After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]

As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all.  He left the dream job that became a nightmare.  He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB.  He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances.  But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.

But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment.  “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said.  “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv]  It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Times were tense in the entire country.  Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.

They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future

One game short, 1973

NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes.  So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.

So how do you measure a life?  While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things.  He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment.  He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments.  He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.

I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day.  I’d say, all in all, he did the right things.  The rest is just wins and losses.

It always matters how you play the game.  John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it.  All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think.   Rest in Peace, Coach.  You went out on top.

The Penn State Scandal: Joe Paterno, Duty and Veteran’s Day

So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State?  An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger

every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning.  Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.

The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago.  I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis.  The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days.  After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order.  “What will that do?” I asked.  “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.”  So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.

Things have changed for the better.  But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought.  There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals.  In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.

There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here.  College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too.  When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere.  Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA  This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.

Coach Paterno

There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves.  It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young?  Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently.  In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.

Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy.  The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs.  According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,

Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.

As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners

Medal of Honor winner Jack Jacobs

to be so modest.  They nearly always say, “I just did my job.”  The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success.  Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on.  He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle.  A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died.  The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”

At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers.  It is that trust in each other on which lives depend.  Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life.  Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?

If Not Now, When?

Duty is not always glamorous.  It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification.  Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world.  It’s all about the money, too often, for us.  Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside.  We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness.  We reap bitterly from this harvest.

Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable.  Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it.  So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile.  Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.

Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era.  He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.”  His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides.  He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”  This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day,  not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us.  Without doing our duty, can we long survive?

 

Aggies in the SEC? Crazy? You Bet!

The Texas A&M Aggies are coming into the Southeastern Conference.  Actually, A&M is a terrific school, great pride, wonderful spirit that borders on fanaticism, and their fans are abolute lunatics, which means they’ll barely be noticed in the SEC.  I remember as a Baylor grad student going to the games during the days of Mike Singletary and Walter Abercrombie (I saw Bear Bryant coach live one time, when Alabama creamed the Bears 34-2 at the Cotton Bowl in 1982.  It is the only bowl game I ever attended.  The next closest big game I attended live was Mexico versus South Korea in Olympic Soccer in Birmingham.

Well, about those Aggies, SEC fans.  We have come to be accustomed to high quality football, of course, and big ole’ universities.  I need to prepare my fans for some things about Texas A&M and their fans.  First, if you think Bama and Auburn fans are nuts, wait ’til the Aggies arrive.  They have so many traditions and fanatic fans that you’ll feel right at home.  They don’t have cheerleaders like most schools.  Sorry, but an awful lot of cheerleading today actually looks like a gymnastic meet that didn’t finish before the football games started, so it’s going on over there but no one is watching.   Not so with the Aggies–they have “yell leaders.”  Their fans (the student body, anyway) stand for the entire game.  They follow intricate hand signals by which they know to yell.  Some of their yells are described in the Wikipedia article on the subject:

  • “After the signals are passed through the crowd, the Yell Leaders give the signal to “hump it”, where the crowd leans forward and places their hands on their knees to maximize the noise.”  (This did make me curious.  If you arch your back and lean forward, what sort of noise do you maximize?)
  • “The Yell Leaders have a dozen yells that they can choose from depending on the situation. While some yells are designed to praise and motivate the team, others exist solely to make fun of the opposing side.
  • “Students practice the yells at Midnight Yell Practice. Held at Kyle Field at midnight the night before a football game, Midnight Yell is similar to a pep rally. Over 20,000 Aggies attend each session, practicing the yells that will be used in the following day’s game and generating an excitement for the game.[5][61] At the conclusion of the yell practice, the stadium lights are extinguished and fans kiss their dates. This is also done as practice, because Aggies are expected to “mug down”, or kiss their dates, every time the football team scores on the field.[61][62] Sports Illustrated named Midnight Yell as one of the “100 Things You Gotta Do Before You Graduate.” ”  Gotta admit, this is pretty great.
  • “Aggies practice their yells again after each football game. If the team is victorious, the freshmen in the Corps of Cadets capture the Yell Leaders on Kyle Field and march them across campus to be dunked in Fish Pond. The very wet Yell Leaders then make their way to the YMCA Building, where the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band and members of the crowd join them for a short yell practice in preparation for the next week’s game. ”   Uh, well.
  • Booing is strongly discouraged, and an upset Aggie will instead hiss their opponents or the referees. If a referee call is especially egregious in the minds of the Aggies, the Yell Leaders will call for the “Horse Laugh,” a yell that ends with a stadium wide hissing.
  • “After each yell, students make a noise and a hand motion that is known as a wildcat. Each class has a separate wildcat, and students caught “pulling out,” or using the wildcat of a higher class, are often forced to do pushups as punishment.

So, it’s going to be interesting, welcoming Aggies here. They show up at games in droves, spend a lot of money when they come, and are generally great folks.  But the good part is that you will get to tell “Aggie jokes.”  These were quite popular when I lived in Texas.  Jokes like:

  • Hear about the Aggie farmer who got his tractor hung in reverse and unplowed seven acres?
  • Did you hear about the Aggie terrorist who tried to blow up the Longhorn team bus.He burned his lip on the tailpipe.
  • There was this Texas highway patrolman who saw an Aggie on I-35, hitchhiking with a pig beside him.  He pulled over.  “Son, what on earth are you doing here?”  Hitchhiking to Dallas, he was told.  “Well, it’s illegal to have animals here on the interstate.  There’s a petting zoo at the next exit.  Why don’t you take your pig there?  Otherwise, I’ll run you in.”  “Yes, sir,” he said.  Well, the next day the officer is driving by and there is the man with the pig again.  “You dimwit, didn’t I tell you to take that pig to the petting zoo?”   Oh, yes sir, he was told, I did.  “So what in the Sam Hill are you doing out here again?”  “Well, sir,” he replied, “Me and the little feller had such a good time I’m taking him up to Six Flags.”

Wait until the Aggies start gigging, hissing and dunking each other in an SEC game.  Y’all are going to fit in around here just fine.

Crazy?  Consider that the average NCAA football coach makes $1.3 million annually.  The average in basketball is $1.4 million.  An assistant coach at Tennessee averages $369,000 per year, while universities raise tuitions and cut staff elsewhere during hard times, when the average full professor’s compensation at a doctoral program public university is $115,509.  Meanwhile, UCLA will spend $185 million to renovate Pauley Pavillion, where its basketball team plays.

Nine of the coaches in the SEC make over $2 million per year.  Jeremiads about football and salaries are common, I know.  But think about this:  TEN YEARS ago, illegal betting on college sports was a $100 billion dollar industry.  Gambling addictions are now costing us about $40 billion a year in social costs.  Yet when I typed in “gambling college football” into Google, the first five pages were about HOW to gamble on football.

In my state, Alabama, the average teacher makes about $46,000 a year and we’ve been cutting  funding right and left.  Crazy.  I was sitting on a bike at the gym recently and two very well-educated middle-aged men had an intense, passionate twenty minute conversation about football.  They sounded every bit like high school girls chattering about Justin Bieber.  I doubt anyone can or will change any of this.  Consider this a snapshot, or a mirror.

So why do storied universities with long traditions of being in a conference jump ship?  It’s a rhetorical question.  Same reason Arkansas jumped the same ship that A&M USED to be in.  Look, I love football, baseball, basketball, all sports.  But we’ve lost our minds.  Don’t look, but our tractor is hung in reverse.