The Spirit of Sports

This blog was quiet much of last week because I was busy attending the 2015 Symposium on Faith and Culture at Baylor University, on the theme of The Spirit of Sports.

"Baylor Athletics Welcomes You to Waco" (sign in Waco Airport)

I won’t try to review every session that I attended — and I wasn’t there for the third and final day — but I thought I’d share a few of my many, many tweets and add some take-away commentary.

My own contribution was to a panel of historians looking at different Protestant responses to sport in the 20th century. Either here or in a journal, I’ll say more about my research on Anabaptist resistance to and then embrace of competitive sports, but today I’ll just express my thanks to Baylor grad student Paul Putz for organizing the session (and giving an excellent paper from his dissertation research into the history of Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and to fellow presenters Hunter Hampton (U. Missouri) and Doug Thompson (Mercer) for their enlightening papers on two versions of evangelical engagement with sports: Hunter on Kanakuk Kamps; Doug on NASCAR.

Read more from Paul at Religion in American History, from Hunter at Sport in American History, and from Doug as editor of the Journal of Southern Religion.

For the sake of keeping this a relatively short post, I’ll refer you to Twitter for my coverage of three panel discussions: on gender (Paula McGee and Marcia Mounts Shoop), on media (Chris Broussard and Lisa Fenn), and on the future of football (John Wilson, Matt Millsap, and Matthew Lee Anderson). Instead, I’ll focus on the first night’s plenary address, by philosopher Jamie Smith (Calvin College), and the centerpiece panel on Friday afternoon.

One of the real strengths of these annual symposia is that they draw an unusual mix of people, including undergraduate and graduate students, practitioners from whatever field is being featured (in this case: athletes, coaches, agents, journalists), pastors, and scholars from multiple disciplines who may or (my case) may not really be experts on the topic at hand. It creates a healthy mix of questions, and a valuable challenge for those of us who are accustomed to speaking in impenetrably academic jargon at such events.

To draw such a crowd, organizers tend to invite big-name plenary speakers: either scholars who are not experts on the topic but have an interesting perspective to share, or well-known practitioners from the field who wouldn’t normally be seen at an academic conference.

I was out sick for Randall Balmer’s Friday night address and back in the Twin Cities for the concluding comments by Duke’s L. Gregory Jones. (Baylor grad student Karl Aho was live-tweeting those talks, fortunately.) But Smith was an ideal choice for the keynote, as he drew on his previous work on cultural liturgy and Charles Taylor to flesh out an Augustinian take on sports arenas as secular “temples.”

It was an important critique of Christian participation at the intersection of sports, capitalism, and politics. But Q&A also raised an important question:

Perhaps a more “constructive” approach was evident in Jones’ concluding “vision statement” address, but the other place we heard a largely enthusiastic embrace of sports was in the post-lunch plenary panel on college athletics. Moderated by Jones (far too passively, at it turned out), the panel featured Baylor president Ken Starr, former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff (now executive director of the American Football Coaches Association), and Dutch Baughman, a long-serving athletic director at many schools who just retired as director of the Division 1-A ADs’ association. While they didn’t entirely gloss over the problems of college athletics (e.g., the facilities “arms race”; declining numbers of women in coaching), they celebrated the contributions of sports to higher education.

Unfortunately, Baughman and Teaff were so long-winded that Duke deputy AD Nina King, the only member of the panel who wasn’t an older white guy, barely got a chance to speak.

And Jones left no time for Q&A from the audience. Which meant that, despite King’s last-second efforts, all sorts of gushing claims about the benefits of big-time college sports were left unchallenged or barely addressed:

Most notably, a panel featuring Starr and Teaff at a conference hosted by Baylor said absolutely nothing about the scandal that hit the Baylor football program over the summer, nor what it implied about the challenge of an avowedly Christian university pursuing success in that sport at this level.

As it happened, Inside Higher Ed‘s Jake New wrote on just this topic yesterday, quoting Teaff and Starr:

New’s piece makes frequent references to the symposium, and gives one of the last words to Darin Jones, director of the Baylor institute that hosted the event:

If you have a broader religious perspective, you’re going to try and focus on the things that matter, the goods of human flourishing even while you’re also recognizing that you’re going to have to pay the salaries big-time sports coaches get, which is something that’s out of whack…. But I think those things can be navigated as long as you keep a larger vision in mind. You want to be a leaven in the loaf that’s continually raising that perspective. It’s an ongoing challenge that requires vigilance, and there will be mistakes.

"Wacotown" mural in downtown Waco


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