Is There a Limit to Our Sports Obsession

Former Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis coined a phrase that has become familiar to all, regardless if you spend your evenings watching whatever game is on ESPN.

He said, “Just win, baby!”

Just win.

Many of us have ascribed to this philosophy when it comes to our favorite teams, whether it be the professional or collegiate ranks. (For the purposes of this column we will focus primarily on college athletics.) We want the thrill of victory and will accept almost anything to be victorious when the game is over.

Sports is about winning and there is nothing wrong with wanting our teams to win. It is part of what makes sports fun and enjoyable. I have often told my wife that if West Virginia University ever wins a national championship in anything besides rifle that it would be one of the happiest days of my life. She got a brief taste of this excitement in 2010 when West Virginia advanced to the Final Four and I immediately ran out of the house screaming for joy.

Watching and enjoying sports is a hobby and recreational obsession for many of us. My concern is, though, if we can take this obsession too far? Is there a limit to how far our “just win” attitude should take us?

My thinking, here, goes beyond living vicariously through our favorite sports team. Much has already been written about how we allow ourselves to become too emotionally attached to our favorite teams. I believe there is another component to our obsession with sports. That is about what we are willing to accept from a player’s personal life.

Are we more willing to turn a blind eye to situations that, in normal circumstances, we would not be comfortable with if it means a player is able to keep playing for our team? Does our obsession with winning create an issue of morality, especially for those who follow Christ, where we become more tolerant of things and circumstances that we should not be (such as abuse, drinking and driving, and sexual misconduct)?

The question is a valid one following the two-year run of Jameis Winston at Florida State University, where Winston was as known for his off-the-field issues (accused of rape and shoplifting) as he was his on-the-field successes (Heisman trophy winner and national champion). Did our love of victories and success create a culture where Winston was allowed to continue to play, even in the face of allegations that should have trumped any concerns about an upcoming game?

From an outside perspective, it is arguable that the need to win created a situation where Florida State officials allowed Winston to play while being investigated. The demand to recreate the successes of the 1990s outweighed the moral obligation to create a culture that promoted an ethical concern for others and an obligation to seek the truth. Florida State, instead, became the current image of a school that, apparently, became more concerned about championships than doing the right thing.

Yet, Florida State is not alone in creating a situation where it appears that wins and championships are what is most important. Almost every major college program has dealt with off-the-field issues and the question of whether an athlete should play. In many situations, when a player is highly talented and is a key component to a program’s success the chorus of “let them play” from alums, fans, and interested partners (boosters and media) is often louder than the chants of “do the right thing.”

As long as our favorite team is victorious in the upcoming game or wins the well-desired championship, we are willing to justify playing players who have had serious allegations raised against them. Instead of encouraging a player and school to invest in the player’s long-term future beyond the playing field (of going through the legal process or to seek help), we are more interested in the short-term gains of wins and championships. We want championships more than we want honor.

Because of this, we have to see ourselves as part of the problem that is within college athletics. We encourage the win-at-any cost culture that permeates athletics, especially in the college ranks. If we continue to believe that wins and championships are what is most important then we will only enhance a culture that turns a blind eye upon indiscretions in favor of wins and championships.

At the same time, though, we are part of the solution to this current problem. That is because it will require the voice of the community, those who enjoy watching sports and have a concern for the future of all college students, to demand that off-the-field issues be treated as more important than who wins or loses. The community has to encourage college administrators to value the long-term contributions of an athlete to society more than the short-term ability to win a title. Doing the right thing when it comes to off-the-field issues have to be seen as more important than any championship victory.

That is the only thing that will change the current situation. Until it happens and the community says enough the situation will remain as it is. The demand to “just win” will continue to overwhelm than the demand to “do the right thing.”

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