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Again, are sports dumb?

On Mark Campbell’s 700th win, discipleship, and the value of winning and losing

Coach Mark Campbell of Union University Union University

Again, are sports dumb?

One of my favorite things about teaching at a small, Christian college where we play NCAA DII sports is going to basketball games. These trips to the gym usually involve chatting with a bunch of people I like, and I especially love it when I have a student or two playing on the men’s or women’s team. I was at a game recently when a former player shared the following statement, which was remarkably insightful:

“I think basketball is the most inherently sinful sport.” He shared this during a moment when we were picking out our Basketball Villain on the opposing team. Usually Basketball Villain is a guy whose uniform accessorizing outstrips his actual talent, and he is usually the kind of guy who puts his arm around the referee to discuss foul calls in a smarmy, Duke-esque sort of way. But maybe being a middle-aged man picking a random college kid to dislike for two hours makes me the villain?

A year or so ago, I tried my hand at writing a column called, “Are Sports Dumb?” which was too-glum-by-half (with a large dose of self-indictment) and but still got published. Some background caveating: I love sports. I’ve been a football player (suited up this year at age 46) and coach (lots of contexts) all my life. I love it.

The point was that like many other things in our culture, competition has grown increasingly acrimonious and joyless and broken over the last couple of decades. Blame social media or trash talking or legalized gambling or the lack of scarcity or youth sports insanity or the politicization of sports—all of which are real and bad—but sports are just less fun and more regularly blown out of proportion than they used to be. As a player, coach, and dad, I’ve (to my shame) sometimes played a large role in blowing it out of proportion.

But I keep going back for the promise of a magical moment. One such moment happened recently at Union University (full disclosure: I’m employed there), where women’s basketball coach Mark Campbell recorded his 700th victory as a head coach and became the fastest to the 700-win mark in college basketball history which includes men’s or women’s basketball, NCAA at all divisions, and NAIA at all divisions. He passed the record set by Geno Auriemma of UConn with 700 in 822 total games. Adolph Rupp is first on the list for men’s basketball’s fastest to 700 in 836 total games.

Mark hasn’t lost all that much, but I’m especially proud of how he loses.

This is, of course, rarified territory for a coach, made more rarified by the fact that it’s really hard to win at the DII level at a school where academics and Christianity are heavily emphasized (and are, in our case, foundational). Incidentally, it’s hard to win anywhere, which is why I’m slow to criticize any coach.

Now the temptation would be to paint Campbell as a basketball saint, in which every moment of his life is ministry and in which he’s a Good Guy in a world inhabited by mostly Bad Guys (of which there are, admittedly, many). I don’t know Mark super well, but I know him well enough to know that he actually loves Christ (not a given in the performative, culturally Christian south) and he truly sees coaching as a ministry in addition to being an exercise in winning. This is also not a given.

I’m proud of Mark for his achievement, and I enjoy watching his teams win … but I’m more proud of how he has invested so heavily in our community (both Union and Jackson) and how he looks for opportunities to make much of Christ to his players. None of us do this perfectly, but his effort is noticeable.

Mark hasn’t lost all that much, but I’m especially proud of how he loses. In the process of checking my own heart vis-à-vis winning and losing, I always take note of how, win or lose, Mark is quick to engage genuinely with the opposing coach, and how win or lose, he always stays in the gym to support the men’s team when he would probably rather be home relaxing. The word “character” gets thrown around a lot in sports but this, to me, is real self-sacrificial character, which will probably mean way more to his players than winning and losing.

As an occasional ghostwriter for famous people, I’ve unfortunately seen the gross world of the Christian Athlete Business up close and personal. It’s a world where the humility is almost always false, and the journey from kneeling-in-the-end-zone to book-deal is achingly short. That said, I’m always drawn to a genuine person, rooted in a place, plodding faithfully in the same direction.

Mark is that kind of person, and we need more of them in sports.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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