A Christian View of Sports

July 26, 2016
Darrell L. Bock and Ed Uszynski

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Topic Time Codes

00:56
Uzynski’s background and ministry with Athletes in Action
08:02
The role sports can play in enhancing fellowship
12:11
The role sports can play in character building
19:37
The role sports can play in personal discipline
21:23
The impact a Christian can have on sports culture
22:57
Advice for parents with children in sports
28:55
The mission of Athletes in Action
32:03
How theology relates to key issues in sports
36:39
Assessment of finding identity in sports rather than Christ

Transcript

Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. And our topic today is one we haven't broached before; it's the topic of sports and Christianity. Sports is an important part of our culture.

And our guest today is Ed Uszynski – I don't know if that's Uszynski or Uszynski. How do you say your last name?
Ed Uszynski
That's U.
Darrell Bock
Huh?
Ed Uszynski
Uszynski.
Darrell Bock
Uszynski.
Ed Uszynski
Uszynski is how the grandparents passed it down.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Now, what's the origin of that? It's how – what is it?
Ed Uszynski
That's mostly Polish.
Darrell Bock
Mostly Polish. Oh, now, that's cool. I've been to Poland; it's a neat country. Anyway – and, Ed, tell people what you do for your ministry.
Ed Uszynski
Well, I've worked with Athletes in Action for 24 years now. I was very much a product of that ministry. I came to Christ when I was a freshman at Kent State, and there were a number of people actually that interacted with me during that time. And the one that I ended up latching on with was an Athletes in Action staff member.

And I joined the ministry through their basketball team. Used to have a traveling basketball team that a lot of people know about and have had different roles throughout the years, but most recently I've helped give leadership to the start of a brand new website. You can check out athletesinaction.org, we've basically launched an entirely different kind of ministry online for us.

So, maybe we can talk more about that as we get into it. But that's what I've been giving attention to for the last year.
Darrell Bock
And you guys are headquartered in the wonderful metropolis of Xenia, Ohio. Is that right?
Ed Uszynski
We're in Tornado Alley, Xenia, yes. It's on the map because of a number of tornadoes that have come through here that wreaked destruction on the community. But it's a resilient town and one that keeps bouncing back.

And in fact, our headquarters is at a – really a national landmark. It's an old sailors and soldiers home that Abraham Lincoln had commissioned before he was assassinated, that there would be different spots throughout the Union where orphans would be able to find safe haven after the war. And this property that we're on was actually one of 'em. So, the very building that we're in was an orphanage up until about 20 years ago.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I've been there, of course. Helped do some training with Athletes in Action with some of the teams that have gone out, and it's an interesting site, and it's a well-put-together site in terms of particularly the sports stuff that you all are doing. I think there was some building getting ready to happen when I was there, in terms of, I think, a new basketball court or something.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, the John Wooden Family Field House. Before Coach Wooden died, he actually gave permission to us to use his name on that, which he didn't do very often in the course of his life.

And we're in the process of building a huge indoor arena that, hopefully, is gonna host over 300,000 people, throughout the year, that'll come in and be able to compete in sports. But more importantly, they'll be trained in ministry; they'll be taught how the Gospel intersects their whole athletic life, which is really what we're about doing.

So, we've already got baseball fields out there, like you mentioned, and softball fields, a football field, two big soccer fields, and they're just – they're constantly full when the weather's nice. So, that's the problem with being here in Central Ohio, you only get about six-seven months where you can be outside easy. So, this will allow us to be a year-round facility.
Darrell Bock
And it allows you to be a home team now and again, huh?
Ed Uszynski
Now and again, it does, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. 'Cause I remember I had a friend who, as I mentioned to you before we started recording, that used to play with Athletes in Action and tour the world. And, of course, one of the tough things about being an Athletes in Action athlete is it's always an away game. [Chuckle]
Ed Uszynski
That's right.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, so –
Ed Uszynski
That's right. Yeah, we used to play a fall schedule. Most people don't even know this anymore. Like I said, some of the older folks only knew Athletes in Action from the basketball team, and it hasn't really functioned in the same way since the early 2000s. But we used to play up to a 40-game exhibition schedule against all the Division I schools or 40 of the Division I schools around the country, and we'd share the Gospel at halftime.

So, we – you know, stand there in front of 20,000 people for 7 minutes, getting to share the Gospel at public institutions – I can't even believe that we used to do it, given the current climate. But sometimes it would be after the game. I can still remember standing at half court at Rupp Arena and Rick Pitino keeping his team out on the court to listen, and all the people would stay in the stands, and we'd tell 'em about Jesus.
Darrell Bock
Wow.
Ed Uszynski
So, it was an incredible opportunity to reach into a place that is not easy to reach into, the college basketball scene is actually a very difficult place for ministries to get into for a bunch of different reasons.

So, anyways, it was a great opportunity. And like you said, it was always on the road. So, we'd play sometimes five games in seven nights and just travel to all the different schools, and half the time we wouldn't even know where we were at.
Darrell Bock
And internationally as well. I mean it wasn’t just in the States.
Ed Uszynski
That's right. Yeah, no, I got to play in Tunisia and Australia and France, Italy. We went all through Mexico, all through Canada, all through Eastern Europe. We still send tours in the summertime.

So, that's the other way that people know about Athletes in Action is we have these summer opportunities where currently- competing college athletes will take a one- or two-week tour to go somewhere around the world and be trained in ministry, while at the same time having an opportunity to minister to the people on the ground wherever they go.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And of course the whole thing is an extension of Cru, which sponsored and had the idea originally to do this. And it's been a terrific ministry. You bring in – the group that I met with I think were all the way, freshmen to seniors, who had played baseball around the country. Literally came in from everywhere, had just met one another.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
And we did two – two or three days of just training and Bible study and preparation, before they went out and played, and also reflected on kinda where God has them in life. It's a terrific, terrific ministry.
Ed Uszynski
Yep. Well, there's actually, I think, six summer leagues that college baseball players play in. And the Great Lakes League is obviously in this area, this part of the country. And so, Athletes in Action puts a team in that Great Lakes League.

So, not only are they getting to play high-level baseball throughout the summer, but they're being discipled and poured into in their spiritual life. So, it's a perfect combination of things for a kid who wants to grow and who also wants to become better at his sport or her sport.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And, at least with the group I was working with, you had one in the league locally, and then there was another team that also was sent overseas. I believe they went to the Dominican Republic, if I'm not mistaken, and played in a variety of locations there. And many of the guys who did that, it was their second tour of duty, and they were doing – they were doing something that they had done before but now in an international context.
Ed Uszynski
There's been a real push, the last decade or so, to invite players or people that go to our camp to come back the next year and either serve as an intern, or they just come back, and they've got a very different approach this time. You know, usually the first time you come in, you're just there to play and to be served. But when men and women have a good experience, they want to come back and be the server, which is always exciting. You know, they become – they become laborers.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Well, it's interesting to watch the dynamic those first few days, when the guys arrive, and they're – they literally are meeting one another, most of them, for the first time. And so, they're forming friendships and bonding and figuring out, "Okay, who's like me, and who's not like me," and that kind of thing.

And the staff does a terrific job of helping them bond at the start and get rolling. So, it's – like I say, it's a terrifically fascinating ministry, and I know it's had an impact as people have moved around the country. The fellow who I mentioned, who played for you all, originally was impacted by another athlete who had done a Athletes in Action, played on his basketball team, and really helped or was responsible for helping lead him to the Lord in the context of his team's normal season.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, yeah. You know, there's a word that you don't typically associate with sports that takes place in those settings, and that's intimacy.

You know, when you wind up with a group of guys or gals that – like you say, you don't know, but you're gonna go on a journey together – you find yourself being very vulnerable and talking about things that maybe you have thought about but just haven't shared with anybody, especially when it comes to your spiritual life or emotional life or areas that you need to grow in.

And you start to realize that other people have the same struggles, other people have the same questions. And when those things start to come out on the table, and you start to get a response from Jesus on how to deal with 'em, it's a real bonding affect. And it ends up being, I think, some people's greatest experiences in their whole life.

I don't think that's an overstatement to go on a tour like this. They look back on it and say their life was literally changed because of the relationships they made and because of the way they grew.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, if people haven't played sports at a collegiate level, I think they're perhaps not as aware as they could be about everything that's involved. There's a ton of practice time; there's a ton of travel time. You're hanging out together.

I didn't play college basketball in a U.S. college, but when I went overseas to Scotland – this is kind of a fun thing to say – when I went overseas to Scotland, graduate students could play sports. And so, I was doing my doctorate and played on the Scottish basketball team. What was really exciting about that is I'm all of 5'10", but people in Scotland were so short, I could play forward. And so, we literally traveled all over the U.K.: England, Wales, Scotland. Didn't go to Northern Ireland.

But we were in the car a lot of the time, and you're just talking and hanging out, and there's just a lot of – it's really not downtime, but there's a lot of time together, in travel and context, where you're talking about all kinds of things in life.

You know, you talk about sports teams being a family, there's a sense in which that is actually very, very true. And so, a lot of stuff happens outside game time.
Ed Uszynski
That's right. Yeah, family – I throw another word in there that just in culture in general we sort of lost sight of, and that's community.
Darrell Bock
Yes.
Ed Uszynski
So, it's a microcommunity. It's not gonna last very long, but you can get an awful lot done when you form bonds with other people.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Ed Uszynski
And you have an opportunity to talk about real things and heart-level things that we so desperately want to be able to do, and we just don't really have the setup anymore in our culture to do that very well.

So, athletes have that advantage. And in fact, one of the things that's missed the most, after you graduate or don't compete anymore, is that lack of community.
Darrell Bock
Yes.
Ed Uszynski
You know, you're not on a team where there's seven, eight, nine, ten or more people that you're gonna do life with at a family level like you said. Where do you think that? You should be able to get it from the Church. Right?
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah. We probably need to go there at some point. It's a good – it's a great point. And it's – and I think this has been a good way to open up the conversation about sports and the way to think about sports, because we tend to think about sports as competition. And certainly there is that element to it.

And, of course, there's a difference between individual sports and team sports. And we're talking here primarily team sports. But there is a character development aspect to your involvement in sports and working with a team, working with people who have different gifts, different strengths and weaknesses, in some cases, where you're having to respond to someone's failure to do something as well as their success in doing something that really is character forming in many ways.
Darrell Bock
There is. And I know that's a big discussion today in circles where these things get talked about is whether or not sports really does build character.

And I think – you know, my conclusion is that it does in the same way that any other little sub-cultural setting does. That where you become part of a group of people who are given a task to do, and that task has a bunch of hurdles that are in the way with – that are keeping you from being able to accomplish it, you have an opportunity to find out things about yourself. You have an opportunity to push yourself beyond what your normal limits are.

And those kinds of things are character forming. I think it sort of rises and falls, these days, with who the coach is, though. That's part of what the problem is.

I think when there's a coach who actually has development in mind and points out and is very aware of character-forming opportunities, I think you get a lot more done versus a coach who really is just about trying to figure out how to win games and misses a lot of the opportunities to talk about things. Especially with youth; I guess I'm thinking more with youth.
Darrell Bock
So, if we're talking to parents, and they're thinking about their – this budding sports experiences that their kids are going through, then being aware of the values of the coach and what is being emphasized as they play is actually a pretty important part of determining whether the experience is just gonna be one of learning a particular sport or whether it's going to be – have a broader impact in terms of what's possible.
Ed Uszynski
I think it's huge. And unfortunately – and I say this now from years of both being a youth coach myself; I've got four kids, ages 15 down to 5, and so we're right in that youth sports time period – that unfortunately what's happened is that too often what we're looking for as parents is the best team for the elite status for the team that's going to play in the most tournaments and get the most so-called exposure.

You know, those have sort of become the priorities. And really, I think what we should pay more attention to is who is it that he's going to be influenced by? Who is this person that I'm giving my child over to, not to become an all-star player, but to become an all-star person? That's really ultimately what we want, but we don't think of sports that way anymore.

I think it used to be more part of the framework of sports; the expectation of sports is that whole character development side. But now it's all about trying to climb up the ladder. And it's really an illusion; it just is. If you look at what the numbers are, they haven't changed. I mean it's such a miniscule number of kids that actually wind up playing –
Darrell Bock
I was just gonna ask you if you were aware of what the numbers were, 'cause they are pretty small.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, it's incredibly small. So, the experience of interacting with the coach is way more important. And frankly, that even the team that you wind up on – I think the relationships of the team are way more important than the ability of the players.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
If that makes sense.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, it does. There are lots of aspects to this. I mean you – the relationship of the players, the way in which you can take players of average skill who, if they will work together, can do better than a team of individual talents that never melds, that kind of thing.

You know, I go through – I'm just thinking in the back of my head the list of coaches that I had, which were several in several different sports, 'cause I not only played basketball, but I ran cross country.

But I have one coach who stands among all of them because he cared about me and my development as a person as opposed to my development as a basketball player. And what's interesting is I was not a Christian in high school. I just was playing sports to play sports.

And what I found out, after I graduated and went to seminary and came back to the school was, is that this coach was actually quite a committed Christian. And when he found out I had come to the Lord, and we chatted after reconnecting – this is after almost a decade of having been in high school – there was a whole different level to our interaction than had existed before. But I understood better how and why he had coached me the way he had coached me.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, yeah. And, you know, you certainly don't have to be a Christ follower to value development in young people. And yet, I think as Christians, we have a framework where discipleship and mentorship actually matters and means something to us. Like we understand that idea of pouring what you have to pour into the next person or the next generation.

So, we really should expect to find Christian people who are thinking that way more than they're worried about winning. Again, unfortunately, we often wind up being just as culturally corrupted as the non-Christians do in terms of only being worried about our own identity and trying to get wins and losses in ten-year-old environments.

But for people who have perspective, you can really get a lot done. You really can no matter what age, whether it's with the college athletes like you talked about, or it's with ten-year-olds or eight-year-olds or six-year-olds, if you love 'em and you see beyond what they are right now, and beyond what they are right now and beyond the sport that they're playing and think of them as young men and young women who are going to go out into the world and hopefully make an impact. You can be a huge influence in a short period of time.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and develop character in ways that I think is – it's hard to emulate in other – there aren't too many environments where you are bringing people together with different gifts, and you're asking them to approach a task together and have them go through all the gyrations one has to go through to make it work and all the adjustments and etcetera that come with it.

I'm – in case you can't tell, I'm a pretty deep believer in the value of sports, when it's applied properly, because I do think it's one of the few community operations where you learn team in a very real kind of way, and I think it prepares people wonderfully for life.
Ed Uszynski
There's a built-in discipline to sports as well. So, just the ability to say no to yourself, which is so important in spiritual formation. The ability, like we said, to move beyond where you are right now and actually get to deeper places and better places. The ability to work well with other people. I mean those are all – again, to mention the whole Church environment, those are all things that we need to be able to do to be good Church member, quite frankly
Darrell Bock
Not mention to function in business.
Ed Uszynski
Business, yeah. The ability to forgive one another. The ability to get beyond differences and pettinesses and still continue to do life well with each other, to compromise. It's all there. It's all there in the dugout. [Language covers speaker] You know, every bit of that is there.
Darrell Bock
Yep, yep. You know, I have – I'm curious, when you were playing, what position did you play?
Ed Uszynski
I was a guard.
Darrell Bock
You were –
Ed Uszynski
I was a shooting guard.
Darrell Bock
You were a shooting guard. Yeah, I played point guard, which means the responsibility for making sure we got into the offense and got set up was really on my shoulders. And, you know, the point guard's usually the little runt in the group. You know? He is isn't this – I – my close friend who played for Athletes in Action was 6'7" and played in the post. Now, he deserved to be on a basketball court.

But it was my responsibility to make sure the team was set in the right way and that we were approaching the play from the right angle, those kinds of things. And so, I learned a ton, all of which I have ended up applying in my lifetime and in my ministry as a result in terms of working with people.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah. So, you know, it's just – it's all about perspective and how we think about it. And I almost hate talking about – well, I actually love talking about sport culture in general, but maybe even more what I like talking about is what can I do differently. 'Cause I don't know that I can fix all of sport culture. And in fact, I know I can't. But I can certainly change what I have influence over, right around me right now.

I was at a soccer game the other day with my 12-year-old daughter, and the refs were struggling, and the parents were just going berserk and calling him an idiot, and they were yelling back and forth at each other on the sideline. And the girls on our team ended up losing the game. And as they ran over to us at the end to slap hands, they all had smiles on their faces. And I heard a couple of the parents comment, "Oh, they don't seem like they're bothered at all."

And I thought, "That's because they're just playing a game. And again, what we're doing over here, battling with each other and screaming at the refs and getting all worked up because they're losing four to one completely misses the opportunity that we have to teach them to overcome bad calls, to teach them how to help one another up when they're getting knocked down.

There were so many things that happened where we as parents and adults could have actually gotten something positive out of it, but it was just too easy to get sucked into the, "We're losing, and we're being mistreated, and the refs are terrible." And I gotta grow up as a parent. We gotta grow up in those environments if we want to get something out of 'em.
Darrell Bock
What advice would you give to parents as they think about the whole sports experience with their kids?
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, but you know, like I said, I've thought a lot about this, because I'm in the midst of living it myself. And I find myself wanting to do the very things that I rail against. I want to pressure my kid to perform. I want to push him to play with the best athletes. I mean all these different things, I feel that tension.

So, I am – I'm constantly asking for help. I'm constantly reading. I'm talking to my friends who are further down the road. I'm talking to other athletes to hear what they wish they their parents would have done differently.

And, you know, some of the best advice that I've heard is it really has to do with how to help process things with our kids. So, you know, to ask 'em after a practice or after a game did they have fun? And I ask my kids that all the time, "Did you have fun today?" And let's just talk about fun and why it was or wasn’t fun, as radical of an idea as that is now that a game and a sport would actually be fun anymore.

"Did you learn? What did you learn? What did you learn today? What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about competing? What did you learn about the sport?" That always ends up producing interesting conversation.

What was going on – a third question that I like to ask a lot is, "What was going on with you and your teammates? Were you a good teammate today?"

"Well, what do you mean by that, Dad?"

"Well, did you encourage anybody? Did anybody encourage you? Was there any conflict behind the scenes that maybe nobody saw?"

And it's interesting how often they'll say, "Actually, yes."

"So, let's talk about it. What happened?"

And so, we wind up talking more about what's going on around the game than just performance aspects of their own improvement in the batter's box or kicking the ball or dribbling the ball or whatever.

And I'm not saying that there's not still a place, obviously, to talk about those things, but when we focus more on the soft stuff that's around it, the relational stuff, the development stuff, it's amazing that our kids, they actually really do want to talk about those things.

And, you know, the other thing is, so, sometimes the answer is nothing. There's nothing to talk about. Okay, then the next day I need to come back and ask the same questions and not get dissuade from that because my surly teenager doesn't want to talk today. You know?

So, it's a discipline. I know I need other guys around me that are thinking the same way, too. It's really hard. Again, just any aspect of discipleship I think is difficult to try to do on your own. It's good to have a community of people that are saying, "Let's try to do this differently. Let's try to create a different experience for our kids." And they're out there; they really are.
Darrell Bock
And your questions tell you where – tell the kid where focus is.
Ed Uszynski
They sure do.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Ed Uszynski
They do. And you know, I know I don't always do that well. I still get frustrated when I don't see hustle, or I don't see things that are important to me as a dad when it comes to the competitive arena. And I just need to be careful that – you know, you don't want your kids to associate your love for them as being attached to their performance.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
And that extends way beyond sports. The whole idea of being able to receive God's grace, the tone for that is actually often set in the conversation that we have on the way home from a baseball field.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, absolutely.
Ed Uszynski
Isn't it?
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Ed Uszynski
The foundations for that – and so, sports, by nature, are performance driven. It's already so built into the system. So, I have to work that much harder to make sure that I'm separating – I want to make sure that you understand that our relationship and my love for you is separate from whatever happens out on this field. This is play. That's all it is. But I actually have to work at that –
Darrell Bock
Yeah. It –
Ed Uszynski
– and be intentional.
Darrell Bock
It's play, and also, at the same time, in a subtle way, it's learning. It's learning about relationships.
Ed Uszynski
That's right.
Darrell Bock
It's about the way you go about competing as opposed to the numbers on a scoreboard.
Ed Uszynski
That's right.
Darrell Bock
All those kinds of things. And when that emphasis is put in the right place, sports can be a really almost unique opportunity for personal development that doesn't appear in too many other places.
Ed Uszynski
That's right. So, I think it's important as a parent or a coach to even – to intentionally, whether mentally or literally to write down, "What are the things that are going to be important to me as I watch you compete."

And some of those will be actual game performance, but hopefully there's a much longer list of how you carry yourself, how you approach the game. How you approach and handle your teammates and whether or not you're a good teammate, whether you're respectful to coaches and to umpires and to referees. It almost – it sounds – it sounds almost too simple, but it really is lost today that we would focus on those things and pay attention to 'em and capitalize on the opportunities we have.

We just don't see very many people doing it, because their list – the longer list for them is, "Are you on the most elite team? Are you getting enough playing time? Are you getting treated properly by the coach, which means that you never sit down; it means that you –" You know?
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Ed Uszynski
I listen to that constantly as a coach and now as a parent who sits on the sideline. So, maybe it's not a – it needs to keep being repeated and emphasized what's important.
Darrell Bock
Well, all this discussion raises the whole issue of kind of sports culture and that kind of thing. And we were discussing, during the break, kind of the way in which athletes and action and the way it engages with sport is evolving.

So, why don't you share a little bit about that journey that you've been on with them in your more than two decades with the ministry and kinda where things are headed and how you've worked hard to kind of broaden the palette that Athletes in Action is painting on?
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, it's a great – great questions, because Athletes in Action and groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes and other major sport ministry organizations have done a great job for decades now. I mean we're celebrating our 50th anniversary, actually, this next week with all of our staff.

And we started in '66. And what the emphasis was back in 1966, and has been up till now, is that we would like to see athletes come to Christ, and we'd like to see those athletes who come to Christ grow in their relationship with God and then turn around and use the platform that they have as athletes to reach other people.

It's a multiplication model. It's the Great Commission. It's Jesus stuff that's built into that model; that's not something that Bill Bright came up with or anybody in Athletes in Action; it's a discipleship model.

And I love that; I really do, but what I've become more and more aware of, and many of my colleagues have, is just the overwhelming status, the idolatrous status that sports has in our culture makes it such that sports is being talked about constantly and continually.

And so many of the issues that are being talked about in sports are moral issues; they're philosophical issues; they're social issues. And frankly, an ESPN commentator doesn't usually have the freedom and maybe doesn't even have access to the right vocabulary to be able to talk about those issues –
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
– beyond the surface.

And so, for years now, we've talked about the need to ask, "How does the Gospel intersect these questions? How does the Gospel intersect these issues? And maybe more importantly, where would somebody go – where would somebody who identifies as both a Christ follower and a sport lover, where would they go to get Gospel answers to the different issues that are being talked about every day in sports?"

And frankly, there really aren't many places to go. And so, one of the redirects that we've tried to make here in Athletes in Action is to start to ask, "How can we produce content and make it available for people who actually want to be trained to think theologically about sports?"

And that's partially what the website exists to do now. Like I said, athletesinaction.org, you might want to check it out, and you'll see that we're just in the beginning stages of this, but we want to write and post content that will help you think Christianly about sports.
Darrell Bock
So, you're dealing with issues, I take it, like an athlete's sense of entitlement, those kinds of things, the privilege that they sometimes have because they are special in any given community on a campus or something like that? The issue of male and female relationships that happen within the sports context? I imagine there's quite a range of things to discuss.
Ed Uszynski
Absolutely. There's moral issues in it. And, you know, we think about this both for – so, the athlete has their own set of questions. A coach would have his or her different set of questions. And then the parents. We just spent a chunk of time talking about things from the parents' perspective.

So, how do you – how do you interpret the things that are going on? How do you interpret or view somebody like a Kobe Bryant who's been in the news, or any other Kobe Bryant whose narrative has been both very dark and ugly over the course of his career –
Darrell Bock
Right.
Ed Uszynski
– and some of the choices he's made that have been very public and, frankly, just outright sinful. And yet, being a model of excellent when it comes to competition.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
So, how do you think about a person like that? We were just having this conversation yesterday, "Is it okay, as a Christian, to have Kobe Bryant as a hero?" And as almost silly as that question sounds, I think there's a bunch of layers that are worth thinking about in there.
Darrell Bock
Right, yeah. And the other issue that at least is floating around right now in sports is the whole issue of equal play and equal pay in soccer. And what that means in the way in which different genders have been handled in relationship to sport and what that means in our cultural context. Very complex narrative in many ways.
Ed Uszynski
It is. Race continues to be – I mean it's almost like we haven't made any progress at all for as frequently as racial issues still come up in the sports world. Issues of gender continue to be a problem. Even the complications now of transgender. Right? It's like we've layered it with even more complications.

So, how do you think about that? How do we think about homosexuals in the locker room? What is a Christian response to somebody who comes out as gay? You know, every week there's a new list or current list –
Darrell Bock
'Cause it's a microcosm of life.
Ed Uszynski
It is.
Darrell Bock
Sports is a microcosm of life and operating, in some ways, under a kind of intensity of pressure that is both like and unlike other scenes in life and where the issue of assessment, if I can use educational language for a second, is transparent because it's on a scoreboard.
Ed Uszynski
That's right.
Darrell Bock
And so, you've got all those factors in play, and it's oftentimes quite obvious who is and is not contributing to the success – put it in quotes – of what's happening. And then the owning up of the responsibility of that, which is certainly a very important part of character development. All those things are constantly in play in what we see in sports.
Ed Uszynski
They are. So, I need to be provoked to think differently. I think the way sports come to us, it comes to us naturally as an idol. It just does. And I'm saying that, even for a Christian person, that it's too easy by default to have sport become an idol in our lives, where our minds and our thoughts and our heart get wrapped up either in a professional or a collegiate sports team, or as a competing athlete, were sport becomes the centerpiece of what my life revolves around. It's idolatry.

So, how do you strip – how do you strip away your idolatrous leanings? How do you cleanse yourself of thinking about sport I the wrong way and replace it, then, with a kingdom-centered view of sport? Is that even possible to do? Some would say that it's not, that sport is inherently evil because it's part of this system that is inherently evil.

And I don't believe that. I just – I believe that every aspect of life is redeemable as do many, many other people. And so, what does that look like?
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I think it's a profound question in an area that most people view as entertainment in kind of a side show, but if you actually look how much people invest in the pursuit of sport, whether it be with their own children or the way they support a particular professional teams or college teams etcetera, we invest a lot in that.

And I think it's because – you know, I think it's power to become an idol is directly related, if I can say it this way, to the potential that it has and what it demonstrates about life that draws you in. It's part of the drama of the ups and downs of life, in many ways, and the ups and downs of proper kinds of cooperation versus, you know, destructive kinds of cooperation, that kind of – all that's in play.

You've got the – you've got the full drama of life being played out for you in a way, again, with a scoreboard sitting o the side, you know, telling you sort of where you stand, at least in one – from one angle.
Ed Uszynski
Right. Yeah. And you know what else is interesting is that as the – well, there's so much in here to talk about – as people have, in the last several decades, turned to the Church less and less to derive identity – okay? – the Church and formal religion. They identify as none – right?
Darrell Bock
Right.
Ed Uszynski
They have no religious attachment. Well, they still need to get identity from someplace. They still are going to turn to something from which to measure themselves.
Darrell Bock
There's going to be a community they connect to.
Ed Uszynski
Somewhere.
Darrell Bock
Yep.
Ed Uszynski
Right? And they are going to derive a sense of self from that community; it's what we do. We are putting pieces of our identity together based on other things that we associate with outside of ourselves.

And so, sport has become a huge place to derive identity –
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
– both as a competing athlete; as a coach; as a parent, like we talked about and certainly –
Darrell Bock
As a fan.
Ed Uszynski
– well, yeah, that's right; that's right.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Ed Uszynski
And so, it's no wonder it has such power over us once we find our – a huge portion of our identity coming from sport. It's why we go so crazy as a fan when our teams lose. It's life and death for us, and we sort of mock that from the outside, and yet it makes sense that when your identity gets attached to it, at a deep level, it really does feel like life and death; it isn't just entertainment; it's not just a sport anymore.

When an entire city surrounds – you know, I'm from Cleveland, originally, and it's old new now, but when LeBron James left Cleveland, and there was such an uproar, and people were, in a sense, mocking the reaction –
Darrell Bock
The defection. It was a betrayal.
Ed Uszynski
IT was a betrayal. And so, to use that kind of language is to say that there's a relationship there; there is an identification with this person or with this team. And so, there really is a rupture that happens in your soul.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Ed Uszynski
It's fascinating. It's way deeper, I think, than most people realize or care to think about. And so, that much more reason we need to figure how the Gospel can go in and rescue that misplaced sense of identity, how the Gospel and identifying with Christ isn't just a Sunday thing, or something that you do on the side when you're working on your spiritual life, but it happens right here on the gridiron.

It happens right on the field of play, that this actually becomes an act of worship back to God rather than a way to separate yourself further from God, which is how most people do sports. It's an idol that separates you from God. Well, what would it look like if you could flip that around and use sports to worship God?
Darrell Bock
That's a great question. You know? And what's going through my head now, we do a lot of faith and work stuff here at The Table and at the Hendricks Center at Dallas. And the point that we try and make, as we're even – we're preparing pastors is what you do and preach on Sunday is aimed at a person who spends the bulk of his life, from Monday to Friday, at this work. So, how does what you do and preach impact the way the person in the pew lives their life, the bulk of their life, most of the time.

And sports is another dimension of that. The amount of investment that comes, the way in which weekend time and entertainment, what we call leisure time, is actually spent is actually life investment time in many ways.
Ed Uszynski
It absolutely is. And so, that's why I say it's been underserved. That's a category of life that's been underserved, much in the same way that most entertainment would have historically been considered entertainment avenues of life, whether it's the Hollywood world or the music world.

There's sort of these one-off existences for us. And I mean we need people that are gonna say, "No, that's actually part of God's kingdom; it's part of God's creation. And so, what does redemption for that look like?"
Darrell Bock
And it's hard because it's actually culture forming in many ways, and yet we don't think about it. If we don't think about it and view it that way, it swaths over us and shapes us rather than us participating to the way in which its shaped.
Ed Uszynski
That's right, and that's largely where we're at today, and it's done in a – it's just done in an unthinking way. We've just been swept along by this culture shape or without stopping to say, "How do we get – how do we get off of this bus?"

And we do this with college athletes at our camps in the summer. And we have these ultimate training camps that are going on in five or six places around the country now. And it's a four- or five-day camp where we basically are taking athletes and trying to deconstruct their thinking.
Darrell Bock
Detox 'em.
Ed Uszynski
It is; it's a detox program for – and a four-day intensive, where we're helping them to see sport as an idol and the different ways that it's an idol. And trying to reprogram to see it as an opportunity. Well, first to confess that idolatry, as we need to do in so many different areas of our life, but then to turn it back around and say, "Give this gift back to God." What would it look like for – instead of you worshipping your sport, for you to use that sport as an opportunity to worship God?

And so, what does that look like? It's a different mindset where it's not about me all the time. It's really not. It's not about trying to position myself above or beyond everybody else, which is typically how people think about it. It's to give the best that I have every day, but to turn my eyes out to other and start to look for ways to minister to other people.

And it's amazing how that – when you take on that perspective, honestly I really feel you end up performing better.
Darrell Bock
You take some of the pressure off.
Ed Uszynski
Yeah, it relieves you of the pressure; that's exactly right. So, to compete in the context of grace and love instead of pressure and performance is very freeing. Like you said, in every aspect of life, that's the case.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And to me, one of the great values of sports, because of the team dimensions of – at least in team sports – it is – is it teaches you so much about relating to people who are different than you who have different gifts and different abilities, etcetera. It's just – I think it's a terrific – approached properly, I don't know if there's a better laboratory for life in many ways.
Ed Uszynski
What does it look like for me to play my role within this team? How does that translate into the rest of your life? Well, if you understand the spiritual gifts and how they're distributed amongst a local body of people within the local church, it's that same mindset.

How do I play my role without comparing myself to everyone else? And if I really want to take a leadership step, not only do I need to ask how to play my role to its fullest, but how do I also help other people to play their roles to the fullest?
Darrell Bock
That's right. The great player is the player who makes other players greater.
Ed Uszynski
That's right. So, it is. It's a microcosm of the Church. It's a microcosm of our journey through life in general.
Darrell Bock
Yep. Well, Ed, we've come to the end of our time. I really do appreciate you helping us – I don't know what the metaphor is – get on the playing field, tip the ball off, dip our toe in the water – pick your sport. It's been great to interact with you about – thinking about sports from a redemption kind of point of view and from a sanctification angle. And we really do thank you for visiting with us on The Table about the role of sports.
Ed Uszynski
Well, I appreciate the time. I love talking about this. And, people, check out athletesinaction.org where we're trying to have this conversation. Like us on Facebook and do all those social media things, because the more people that are looking at those things and sharing them with other people, the wider the ministry impact will go. So, help us out with that.
Darrell Bock
Well, we thank you again, Ed.

And we thank you for joining us on The Table, and we look forward to having you back again with us soon.

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