Thursday, November 17, 2011

Treasure and Heart: Why the events at Penn State University were bound to happen, and why I share a piece of the blame (Brian E. Konkol)

I love sports. During my childhood I spent countless hours with my older brother and cousins on our driveway basketball court. In High School I participated in Cross-Country, Basketball, and Baseball, and in college I was fortunate to enjoy four years of basketball with some great teammates and a fantastic coaching staff. My first memories of meeting my wife were during a summer basketball pick-up game while we were teenagers (…she was a much better player than I, and would later earn a Division I scholarship). During my first month as a parish pastor I helped build a basketball court next to the church building, and we started a league for area youth (…volleyball and tennis would come later!). In many ways, sports have been – and continue to be – a significant influence in my life, and I figure this trend will persist as long as my body and mind will allow.

While I strongly believe that physical activity and participation within sports can offer excellent avenues for education and wellness on an individual and community level, my role as a fan of sports has been significantly challenged over recent weeks. In other words, I have come to wonder whether or not something inherently good, such as sports, has reached excessive levels to the point of having a negative role in society. For example, in North America we experience massive inequality and outcry surrounding government budget shortfalls, yet we seem to have more than enough funds for stadiums, tickets, TV packages, and team-related memorabilia. In addition, with each passing year our public servants receive salary cuts and loss of jobs, yet millionaire professional athletes argue with billionaire owners over income distribution and so-called “fair deals”. And of course, while I hear countless people complain about how busy they are (…as an excuse not to get involved in charitable events) and how financial times are tough (…as an excuse not to donate toward charitable causes), those same individuals seem to have plenty of time to watch a few hours of sports on TV each night, and more than enough resources to support their favorite teams. With all of this in mind (…and one could list countless more examples), we have to wonder whether or not our priorities have been seriously distorted, as our love for sports seems to have crossed the line from entertainment to idolatry, or in other words, from being spectators to worshippers.

The recent events at Penn State University surrounding the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse by a renowned assistant football coach, has shown – among other things – how the widespread worship of sport within the North American mindset has become so powerful that some would risk the health of young children in order to preserve the legacy of an athletic program. As stated by Jim Wallis (, the amount of finances being poured into athletics is astounding, and a consequence is that the most vulnerable members of society can be pushed aside in order to preserve and sustain the steady flow of resources. However, while it is proper to seek a suitable punishment for those directly responsible for the various abuses at Penn State University, the fact of the matter is that many throughout North American – including myself – are also deserving of some blame for these shameful events.

Our worship of sport has become so intense that the firing of a head football coach – who rightly admitted that he should have done more to prevent the abuses by his assistant – has received far more public outrage than the thought of small boys being raped in a locker-room shower by a grown man. How can any of this possibly seem acceptable? Is our worship of sport so intense and imbedded into the fabric of society that we are no longer able to recognize when we have crossed the line of human decency? With the alleged victims of sexual abuse at Penn State University in mind, the time has come for us all to recognize our personal responsibility in creating an environment where such a cover-up and justification could take place. When our love for sports crosses the line into a worship of sports, the result is a society that allows sport to be a central piece of its identity, and it is within our human nature to guard our identity when it is placed under attack. As Matthew 6:21 reminds us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

In addition to that which took place at Penn State University, we can no longer ignore the various other consequences of a society that worships sport. For example, we can no longer deny the sociological fact that domestic abuse increases on the days after team losses. We can no longer compromise our values by rushing through worship services in order to ensure people are home for game time. We can no longer deny that people spend far too little time participating in sports and far too much time watching it from the couch. We can no longer accept the onslaught of verbal and physical violence that is often directed toward referees and opposing fans. We can no longer remain neutral when parents scream at their children and coaches from the sidelines. We can no longer accept spoiled athletes and owners who fight why unemployment remains steady. We can no longer accept universities that profit off their student-athletes without seeking to educate them for the future. We can no longer accept the construction of new stadiums with public funds when public servants have their salaries reduced or jobs cut. We can no longer accept a society that places a higher value on sports than those aspects of life that makes us fully human.

In no way does this all mean that sports are evil and should be avoided at all costs, for the lessons of teamwork and dedication are just a few of the countless positive messages that can be received as a result of faithful participation and appreciation of sports. As stated from the onset, I credit a great deal of my personal development (…and marriage!) to those who provided me with various opportunities through sport. In addition, one can name a variety of ways that sports serve as a tool for community reconciliation and unity, as well as an instrument for crossing boundaries and building societal bridges. With these thoughts in mind, I hope that we will continue to strongly affirm the various athletic ventures throughout the world – such as the collegiate program that my older brother now coaches within – that recognize the “big picture” and provide empowerment and long-term wellness for athletes and supporters. However, regardless of the various positive individual and societal consequences of sports, we must recognize that various aspects of life that are intended for good – such as participation and appreciation of sports – can become negative when taken to the obsessive extreme. In other words, an excess amount of anything has the potential to ruin everything. As a result, the time has come for us to take a step back, reflect, re-evaluate, and consider whether or not our priorities have been misplaced.

With all of the above in mind, I pray that God will provide peace and healing to the various victims of abuse at Penn State University, as such acts are despicable in countless ways, and the scars will remain for many years to come. However, I also pray that we refuse to over-simplify the issue and deny our personal responsibility for the extreme sport-worshipping environment that made the abuse and cover-up more likely to happen. While we can – and should – participate within and appreciate various forms of sport, we must ensure that our passions do not turn into obsession, or else the shameful acts that took place at Penn State University will likely happen again, and we all will need to share a piece of the blame. As Jesus reminds us, “For where our treasure is our hearts will be also”, so may we ensure that our hearts are directed toward those treasures in life that matter most, so that such despicable acts of abuse and cover-up may never take place again.