When considering a classical Christian education, many people would see that it would be excellent preparation for being a pediatrician or engineer. Still, most schools have experienced families that have walked away from a classical Christian education because their child had athletic talent and chased a dream of professional athletics. In today’s post, I want to explain why a classical Christian education benefits someone with the talent to be a professional or Division 1 college athlete.
This post hits closer to home than most. As we have sent our daughters off to the next steps in their calling, the first three have gone to college. Our last daughter has interests and talents that would not require a college degree, but she also has the athletic ability that could earn her an athletic scholarship. She plays on a club volleyball team. She is 17. All of last year’s eighteen-year-old players received scholarship offers. This potential for a scholarship means that volleyball is a profitable topic for discussion in our home. It has caused me to wrestle with questions I never thought I would ask: “Is classical Christian education best for this daughter with her particular giftings and interests?” If you are in the same position as my family, I hope this post gives you some good things to discuss.
First, let me get one “given” on the table. My argument below assumes that God provides giftings and callings and that we should use what He has given for His glory. I believe in the priesthood of all believers and the sacredness of every lawful calling. That means that the pastor is working for Jesus; the pediatrician is working for Jesus; the garbage collector is working for Jesus; and pro athletes are working for Jesus.
With this assumption on the table, here are three reasons pro athletes would benefit from a classical Christian education.
Athletes profit from the examples and inspiration from Scripture and the Great Books.
Athletics is about having “heart.” Professional or collegiate athletes are also about having the drive and genetics to make success possible. Still, many have the right genetics but don’t have the heart. We develop resiliency, poise, discipline, courage, and strength by seeing and emulating examples of these martial virtues. There is no better training environment for growing your heart than reading the Scriptures and the Great Books. David demonstrates courage as he prepares to fight Goliath. As an old man, Caleb asks for property in Caanan, inhabited by the most challenging enemies. Christian courage is rooted in faith in God, but that should not imply that David and Joshua did not need to practice slinging stones or develop the kind of leadership that beckoned brave warriors to follow them. Homer shows us the limits of glory. Achilles’s rage almost destroys the Greek effort, kills the greatest Trojan warrior, and finally comes to grips with the pointlessness of glory outside of Christ as Odysseus talks with the fallen Achilles in Hades.
The best example of this inspiration from the Great Books is the Aeneid. Aeneas begins the book as a loser. He and his people fell from a burning city and a collapsing culture. He founds a new empire—a massive calling requiring self-denial, wisdom, strength, and persistence. Many have found inspiration in his example. One example of the Aeneid's impact on one of my favorite college football coaches is what Virgil Taught Me About Football.
Athletics is an area of cultural investment and worship that can be extremely dangerous to those who need a well-rounded education.
The parable repeats itself constantly. Athletes are given immense talent. They could make an incredible impact for good. They could use their wealth to bless Christ’s Kingdom in massive ways, but far too often, the money vanishes, or the athletes are taken advantage of by crafty people with deceitful intent. Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us, but I am guessing that we will always have crooked people leeching off of talented people as well. Sychophants are attracted to those who create wealth in every field, but it often happens in big-time athletics. Why? My answer is that many athletes never receive the education that helps them be suspicious of untrustworthy or mathematically impossible deals. What could bless them during those moments of vulnerability: having a classical Christian education and being surrounded by people with a classical Christian education.
In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers argues that this ignorance does not protect those who don’t know logic and rhetoric. Instead, they end up being at the mercy of those who can use those tools to convince them. In some ages, logic is important; in our time, with its ceaseless siren song of propaganda, walking around without your reason is like having a bulging pocket full of cash in the land of pickpockets. Big-time athletes are surrounded by the most seductive type of lies—positive and uncritical assessments of their abilities. Reason can connect them to wisdom and help them be skeptical of the heaps of praise.
Because of the cultural attention paid to athletics, athletes must understand the gravity of their calling and how they must fulfill their calling for Christ.
Finally, athletes must prepare to use their cultural influence, even amid some ungodly attention that athletics receives. Our culture worships sports and great athletes. While this is wrong, it does not make athletics an ungodly calling, but it does make it a dangerous one where someone’s impact for or against Christ can be amplified.
Athletes become heroes for many people. One can think of athletes like Eric Liddel, the missionary and sprinter, whose refusal to race on Sunday inspired the movie “Chariots of Fire.” I grew up watching Roger Staubach and learned so much about virtue from watching him win and lose, finding out how he both won the Heisman Trophy and then did not try to avoid keeping his promise to fulfill his commitment to serve in the Navy, then founded a company (The Staubach Company) which has done hundreds of billions of business. By all accounts, Staubach is a faithful Catholic Christian whose witness and good name were critical elements in the success of his business.
If you are a believer and have influence, you are responsible for using that influence for Christ. What do you need to maximize your impact? First, you need a deep, authentic love for and connection to Christ and the Church. If you have this connection to Jesus, what is the next thing you need to be an apt tool in His hand? You need to be wise with words and numbers. You need to know the truth, understand the proper reasoning, and communicate the truth effectively. We call this a classical Christian education.
But there are a few objections:
Some might wonder if a career in professional athletics causes a person to compromise their faith. For many, it might. The temptation to compromise might be a reason for some people to avoid professional athletics. That said, people like Daniel and his three friends were in situations where compromise seemed inevitable, but instead, they triumphed.
Another problem with current athletics is that so much happens on Sunday. I know that different traditions handle Sabbath practices differently. My wife and I grew up in families whose churches did not require a lot of Sunday rules but where family traditions of worship, fellowship, large meals, conversation, and rest predominated. We have continued that practice but, at times, have recognized that worship and rest are non-compromisable necessities, but sometimes this can be challenging.
So, all lawful callings are sacred. The pitcher and pastor are called to be holy. Athletics are full of temptations and challenges in our time (as are many areas), but this is not a reason for retreat. Instead, it is why athletes given the gifts and calling to be professionals need a classical Christian education.
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