Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

Making a Place for Second Place (Jul – Dec 1995)

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by Russ Gough
July – December, 1995

21The applause. The redeeming, thunderous applause.

Somewhat surprisingly, my most enduring memories of last February’s Lillehamer Olympics have nothing to do with the Harding-Kerrigan skategate scandal. Nor do they primarily concern America’s medal winners, as dramatic and memorable as those athletes’ accomplishments were.

No, my most enduring memories are of countless Norwegian fans applauding every Norwegian athlete as though he or she had won first place. Second place, third place, last place—it didn’t matter. Thunderous applause ensued every time. All places were first places. Every Norwegian competitor was a Winner.

It was as if each and every round of applause generated a resounding blast of redeeming moral perspective. Losing did not make one a loser. Winning was emphatically not everything.

How refreshingly exemplary — how Christlike — the applause was! The redeeming message was always loud and clear: No matter how you performed, you were accepted, valued, legitimized.

There was a Place for second place. Even for last place.

With these Olympic impressions indelibly etched in my memory, I couldn’t help but think about how our own culture’s conventional sports wisdom has il-legitimized second place—how it so often contradicts Christ’s own enduring wisdom.

If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last (Mark 9:35)

Striking, isn’t it, how Jesus’ words fly in the face of our sports culture’s no-place-for-second-place attitude? In his unconventional way of thinking, we must willingly assume last place in order to “win” first place.

After making this point during a commercial break of a televised college basketball game, a friend-of-a-friend looked my way and retorted incredulously, “But Jesus couldn’t have had in mind sports, could he?” An honest question from an avid sports fan and a sincere follower of Christ. But, of course, if Christ’s words don’t apply to our sporting lives, what aspects of our lives do they apply to? His words are not empty abstractions: He had in mind sports and a whole lot more: Business. Politics. Love. Church. the Arts. Family Life. What aspects of our lives do not fall under the redeeming force of “to be first you must be last?”

To my mind, that honest—though misguided—question reveals the degree to which even Christian sports fans and Christian athletes are vulnerable to the no-place-for-second-place mentality. Whether as fans in the stands or as players on the field, we always need to make sure our sports thinking is in sync with our Christian thinking, our sports lives with our spiritual lives, our games with our God.

To be sure, American sports culture generally—from Little Leagues to Big Leagues—has increasingly devalued and dehumanized second place, not to mention last place. Second place is no place. A valueless wasteland for losers. If you aren’t #1, you aren’t worth much.

Examples of this lamentable attitude in our culture abound:

    • “Are you happy with just a silver medal?”—as many American Olympians have been asked by the media—seems to be one of our sports culture’s no-place-for-second-place questions


  • As the Harding-Kerrigan scandal demonstrated, competing for the Gold has evolved into a literal, at times violent, gold rush.



  • In a somewhat mundane, albeit telling, example, a Los Angeles newspaper’s daily crossword puzzle recently asked for a five-letter word for “places second.” The answer? “Loses.”



  • Professional and college coaches, despite having winning percentages among the best in the record books, cannot escape the stigma of being a “loser” coach because of their “failures” to win the Big One.



  • The “BufaLLLLo BiLLLLLs,” as one sports writer wrote last January, are four-time Super Bowl “LLLLosers.”



  • Little League coaches are increasingly being threatened by overbearing parents, many of whom live their winning-is-everything dreams vicariously through their children at their children’s expense.


I have continued to think about how important it is for Christians — especially Christians who are also avid sports fans or athletes—to do all that we can to counteract this no-place-for-second-place moral disease that afflicts our fields, courts, and professional athletes who fail to see themselves as role models to the young and impressionable autograph seekers who are so desperately in need of role models. It increasingly plagues even our once-pristine neighborhood playgrounds. We can no longer merely point a finger at the high-stakes, eroticized contests on our TVs. We need look only as far as our high school gyms—or our own backyards, for that matter.

One of the latest and most disquieting examples of our topsy-turvy sports values comes from my own “backyard” in Southern California. In a precedent-setting move aimed at stopping post-game scuffles, eight high school principals voted unanimously to outlaw time-honored handshakes following their league’s athletic contests. Yes, you read it right. They abolished the very symbol of sportsmanship in the name of their student-athletes’ best interests.

The principal who proposed the ban was quoted by The Los Angeles Times as saying, “I don’t want to play someone and have them beat me up for 40 or 50 minutes, then have to [shake their hand and] tell them they played a good game.” Or, as one of the league’s baseball coaches remarked, “I’m not so sure if someone is beating you pretty good that you want to go shake their hands…” Alarming sentiments, especially coming from professional educators who really should know better.

The no-place-for-second-place disease has obviously made inroads deep into our culture’s moral fiber. In the fight to counteract this ailment, Christians should be among the first to ask serious questions, publicly and privately.

Since when does what I want or don’t want, how I feel or don’t feel, set the standard for sportsmanship? For fair play? For ethics and morality? Doesn’t integrity and character involve doing the right thing despite what I want or how I feel? Isn’t that one of the most powerful lessons learned from post-game handshakes, that despite how I may have looked at and felt about my opponents during the heat of the battle, the game is now over? Shouldn’t we be teaching our youth that, even if they don’t want to make peace with their opponents—their “enemies” — they should do so? Isn’t that the right thing to do?

Love your enemies – (Matthew 5:44)

Striking, isn’t it, how Jesus’ words fly in the face of conventional sports wisdom? In his unconventional way of thinking, we really should care about our opponents—no matter how they may look at us or treat us before, during, or after the game.

More than anything else, that ban on handshakes represents a failure of school leaders—to whom we have entrusted our children’s educational development—to stem the tidal-wave forces of our culture’s no-place-for-second-place attitude. Instead of “love your enemies,” children are being taught “avoid your enemies.” How frighteningly and dangerously myopic.

Those handshakes — those time-honored meetings of human hands—help give force and point to the wisdom of Jesus’ words. Those handshakes are what the game is supposed to be all about. They’re about perspective. What’s of lasting value and what’s not. They provide redeeming closure to intense competitive passions. They help teach young athletes how, in Dante’s words, “to curb their competitive spirit lest it speed where virtue does not guide.” I also like to think of them as rites of passage, moving student-athletes from the shortsighted “Winning is everything” to the more enduringly circumspect “It’s just a game.”

That’s why pre-game handshakes — the Southern California league’s substitute ritual of sportsmanship — cannot begin to approach the educational power of post-game handshakes. The former, while laudable, are all too easy. In comparison to the latter, they are ethically unrewarding. Jesus never said that loving our enemies would be easy; on the contrary, it can be very difficult. But, as with strength of body, so also with strength of character: No pain, no gain. In our contemporary, win-at-all-costs society, post-game handshakes speak volumes about testing and building character that pre-game handshakes can’t even begin to match.

Post-game passions—welling from the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat—very often provide a powerful context for shaping character that even the game itself cannot. In this regard, we cannot fail to appreciate how amateur arenas of play continue to offer powerful contexts for teaching about right and wrong, respect, the importance of rules, the need for civility, and the blessings of struggle.

And the story of Jesus.

I have come to see how that, for many inner-city youth especially, those Fields of Dreams have come to represent one of the last, remaining places where rules of right and wrong have meaning and purpose. Athletic fields are very often viewed, by many young men in particular, as their only hope for success. I have also come to see how many inner-city churches wisely view their neighborhoods’ athletic playgrounds as “fields white unto harvest.” The potential for moral and spiritual good, both in and out of the city, can be found richly at the ballpark.

Tragically, “solutions” like banning post-game handshakes are precluding far more opportunities for good—for character development—than random violence.

That’s what happens when symptoms are treated rather than underlying problems. That’s what happens when measures are enacted that are much more cop-out than solution. And, above all, that’s what happens when the No-Place-for-Second-Place mentality displaces enduring traditional values.

Like loving your enemies.

Like the Golden Rule.

And like responsibility and discipline, values which certainly need to be re-infused into our culture’s sports consciousness. The tens of thousands of us Christians who enjoy both amateur and professional sports need to be asking even more serious questions.

Who is responsible for young student-athletes when their competitive emotions run amok, anyway? Who is responsible for coaches who fail to teach discipline and fail to exercise self-discipline? Whatever happened to benching players or kicking players off teams for unsportsmanlike conduct? Whatever happened to suspending coaches or firing coaches for their own lack of integrity and ethical leadership?

What is increasingly touted around the country as a problem of “sports violence” in amateur sports is much more a problem of irresponsible, shortsighted leadership than violence. Instead of prohibiting handshakes, we ought to be prohibiting violence.

Whoever wants to be greatest among you must be your servant…. (Mark 10:43)

Striking, isn’t it, how Jesus’ words fly in the face of conventional sports wisdom? In his unconventional way of thinking, if we really want to be MVP, we’ve got to put our teammates’—and our opponents’—needs first. Think about it. What other spirit than this one will help us re-legitimize second place and thereby defeat the No-Place-for-Second-Place attitude?

One of the reasons I have couched my thoughts more in terms of “No Place for Second Place” rather than the more commonly criticized “Winning is Everything” is because the former is more destructive in our moral fiber. In terms of eternity and—with the right qualification—in terms of this world, winning can indeed be everything. But there is never a true sense, for the Christian, in which there is no place for second place. There is always a place for second place, third place—last place—if for no other reason than Christ has called us to take those places.

If we really want to help relegitimize second place, particularly in amateur athletics, we will have to show our school leaders, our coaches, and our children how to take second place. That’s Christ’s unconventional way of thinking: We make a place for second place only by taking second place.

The ball’s in our court.

After more than a month of wide-spread public criticism and intense media scrutiny, the league voted to temporarily rescind the ban on handshakes while a league subcommittee studied the matter. Because of his expertise in sports ethics, Dr. Gough was asked to serve on the subcommittee. The no-handshake policy was officially and permanently rescinded more than a year after it had been implemented.Wineskins Magazine

Russ Gough

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