The Bobby Petrino Dilemma and our Idolatry of College Football

The demise of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino that began in the beginning of April has unfortunately become emblematic of BCS college football in the 21st century.  For those who don’t click through, Petrino lied to police and university officials about a motorcycle accident involving himself and a woman with whom he was having affair.

There’s no question that Division I football is about money. Lots and lots of money. And power. And TV contracts. Hundreds of NAIA, DIII, DII, and FCS football programs may play mostly for the fun of the game.  But at the highest level of the college game, money and politics have become an intrinsic part of the competition. The pressure to win has created almost impossible conditions for many coaches, players, and administrators who presumably have at least some desire to act virtuously.

The situation with Petrino crystallized this dilemma, especially for fans. Arkansas AD Jeff Long was put in the nigh impossible position of either firing Petrino and incurring the wrath of the entire Natural State for firing the first coach to place the Razorbacks firmly on the national stage for the first time in 40-odd years, or else leaving him in place. Letting him continue would essentially communicate that the University is comfortable with a philandering coach who lies to police and his boss and by all appearances gave a job to his paramour precisely because of their relationship.

The dilemma made a particular impression on me because I grew up in Southeastern Conference (SEC) football country and have many friends who have attended various SEC schools, as well other well-known and successful schools/programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas, etc. I cannot list the number of instances in which the psychological well-being of a friend (or myself!) was shattered over our team losing. My team might lose on a Saturday afternoon and I would be gutted until Monday morning when I achieved emotional equilibrium again. In the words of James, “My brothers, these things ought not be so!” (James 3:10).

Humans are lovers. We teach each other the things that are important to love and not to love. Many of us communicate love that is demonstrably stronger for a college football team of choice than for, well, you name it.  Our love for college football has transformed into idolatry, and it is rampant among college football fans (uh-oh, it’s only April). There are six or seven high holy days every fall wherein worshippers ascend to worship and give homage at the temple of Bryant-Denny (Alabama), Neyland (Tennessee), or the Big House (Michigan). College football fans who are also Christians have yet to remove the high places where our forefathers falsely worship. Our loves have become grossly misaligned; they are not rightly ordered. In the Southeast especially, football pride, state pride, and school pride combine to form a powerful loyalty that often transcends rational thought. It is essentially pre-cognitive. To say it another way, one is a Georgia Bulldog fan the way that one is Caucasian or left-handed.

As it turned out, the decision for AD Jeff Long became quite easy after the details came out. I sympathized with the plight of my Hog-fan friends down in Fayetteville and what they were thinking about the Petrino situation, but it became apparent that if the university were to save face at all, Petrino would have to go. After all, if one argued that he ought not be fired, then one certainly must concede that Arkansas is prepared to do anything to win, participating fully in the zeitgeist of the BCS era. One could certainly not pretend that future wins for the Hogs would be part of the ‘storied tradition of the university,’ connection with Hog teams from yesteryear, about character, grit, will to win, and all that. Those elements might be present, but they would be vastly subordinated to the priorities of cold, hard cash, the virtue of celebrity, and the interests of a powerful few.

If you pushed for the firing of Petrino, you were voting to rob your fellow fans of the ecstasy of potential wins that Arkansas fans have not experienced since the Nixon presidency, but you attempted to hold the single most visible man in the state responsible for his actions and declared that character still matters in an admittedly broken system. You cast a vote for loving honesty and a very basic level of trust over loving to win.

Petrino was fired April 10 and left to pick up the pieces of his career and life and I hope that he can be restored to his family. As for the University of Arkansas, they will mourn the loss of a good football coach and–hopefully–be happy about the character shown by their administration.

This is a guest post by John Patton, Associate Director of Admissions at Covenant Theological Seminary.  

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World Series Champs: Boston Red Sox

mlb_ap_lowell_412.jpgThe Red Sox have won the World Series.

That’s not the real story, though.  The real story is that I was 4-7 in my playoff predictions this year (I actually got caught up in politics and missed making a prediction for the World Series, for which I am taking a loss).

That’s a 400% improvement over last year. If I dare say myself, that’s an impressive figure.
But it’s also unsustainable growth, so make sure you keep expectations low next year.  Until then, congrats BoSox and their all-too-irritating fans.

Playoff Picks: Reveling in Mediocrity

Thankfully, I have already bested last year’s dismal record at picking playoff games.  Whereas my only correct selection came in the first round last year, this year I chose two teams correctly!

That said, to the picks for round two:

Red Sox-Indians:  The Tribe’s fans think their time has finally come.  They defeated the mighty Yankees in four games, and did so in convincing fashion.  They’re a young, have solid starting pitching and apparently have a great middle relief core.  But the thought that C.C. Sabathia is going to best Josh Beckett on this sort of stage is, well, overly optimistic.  Beckett has emerged as one of the dominant playoff pitchers of our time.  As has Curt Schilling, who the Tribe will see in Game three.  What’s more, the BoSox offense has started to wake up, especially Manny Ramirez.

Prediction:  Red Sox in 5.

Diamondbacks-Rockies:  These were, needless to say, not the two teams I expected to see fighting for the NL crown a few weeks ago.  I was hoping the Cubs or the Cardinals or even the Mets would be here to make things interesting.  That said, like the rest of the country, I know next to nothing about the Diamondbacks–I don’t think I could name three players beyond Brandon Webb on their roster if I had to.  But I do know that the Rockies have won a whole lot recently, and showed no signs of slowing down in the playoffs.  Webb probably won’t be enough to stop the Rockie juggernaut (did I ever think I would put those two words together?  No.).

Prediction:  Rockies in 6.

Check in again when this round is over for World Series picks.

The Playoff Picks: Continuing my String of Stupendous Failure?

Last year, I experienced a level of playoff prediction failure previously unprecedented in my life. Of the seven series in the baseball playoffs, I predicted exactly one correctly.

Curious to see whether I can repeat that level of incompetence, I thought I would try again this year. Without further ado, then, here are my predictions for the first round of the playoffs.

Angels-Red Sox: The Red Sox faded a little down the stretch. Their bullpen showed signs of cracking (including Palpabon, their closer). And their offense suffered from injuries, namely to David Ortiz. The Angels, on the other hand, finished the season virtually unchallenged in the West. That said, I’ll take the Red Sox for two reasons: Josh Beckett over John Lackey, and David Ortiz over Vlad Guerrero. With the Red Sox’s biggest stars outplaying the Angel’s titans, the Red Sox will prevail in 4.

Yankees-Indians: This one is a no-brainer. Yankees have been playing exceptionally well of late, and it’s a contract year for Alex Rodriguez. That should push even him past the difficulties he’s had in past Octobers. Yankees in 4.

Cubs-Diamondbacks: I confess. I didn’t really pay much attention to the NL this year. That will change in future years, as I’m in the middle of Cardinals country. That said, I’ll take the Cubs in 4 as they have Piniella at the helm and Soriano is on a tear. Cubs in 4.

Rockies-Phillies: Talk about peaking at the right time. The Rockies won 13 of their final 14 to force a playoff, then won that in 13 innings. I watched the Phillies play the Cards two weeks ago (sans Ryan Howard) and wasn’t all that impressed by their baserunning and defense. I’ll go out on a whim and take the Rockies in 5.

That’s it. Check back when the first round is over for an update and more prognostications.

Brilliant Play, Brilliant Faith

KakaOne of the world’s best footballers–the deadly Brazilian striker, Kaka–will attempt to lead AC Milan to victory today over a tough Liverpool squadfor the UEFA Champions League title. (You can see highlights of his role in dismantling Manchester United during the semifinal match here and a personal highlight clip here.)

What few might know about Kaka, myself included until today, is that this budding superstar is also a committed Evangelical Christian. This afternoon, as part of the build up to the final, ESPN.com is running an article that focuses in on how Kaka’s character and faith have helped mold him into the internationally respected man that he is–both on and off the pitch.

Interceeding for the Irrelevant: Sports and Prayer

Watching tonight’s Suns/Spurs contest brought up all kinds of interesting questions in my mind about the efficacy of prayer. The Spurs went up by 20 with about 10 minutes left–I wanted a close game, and the Suns furious rally brought them within five before the Spurs closed it out.

As I watched, I wondered whether it is okay to pray for one team against the other. Like good versus evil. Except not.

And then, at the bottom of this ESPN.com story about the game, I found this gem:

A group of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, planned to pray for the Spurs in San Antonio ahead of Friday’s game. “Does God love the Spurs more than the Suns? No, but we love them more than the Suns,” Sister Geri Eveler said in a statement. “The Spurs are our boys!” …

That’s the sort of undying patriotism that I’ve always imagined God can’t help but admire.  And coming from nuns, no less!  I think in a praying contest, they would win.  Oh, and so did the Spurs.
*Addendum: Steve Nash, who keyed the Suns rally, is a man’s man. Nothing but pure intensity and drive on the court, and graciousness off of it. Watching him bring the Suns back into the game by the sheer force of his will gave me an immense amount of admiration for him. Watching him say “Congratulations” to the Spurs after the game was over only deepened it.

Moral Victories amidst Major Defeats

Jim was right. That makes twice this new year that I have boldly predicted games in opposition to my brother, and twice I have been soundly defeated (carrying on my fine tradition of picking sports from last year). The only consolation I can find in Florida’s decimation of OSU–it really happened, despite the fact that the right up is all about a senior walk-on for Florida–is that even Jim didn’t think Florida would win that handily. Florida was so overwhelming that it made me think they may even have been able to beat Boise State.

Now (contra Jim), if only we had a playoff to see it.

Ducks Fly Together: Corporate Sponsorship and a Night with the NHL

Continuing the sports theme of this weekend, the wife treated me to my first ever NHL game tonight. And by fluke, it just happened to be a clash between two of the better teams in the NHL, the Ducks and Red Wings.

I won’t labor you with the details (Dominic Hasek was surprisingly mediocre, etc.). Hockey is an extraordinarily fun sport to watch in person. NHL players are fast–really fast–and it seems they can do anything with a stick and puck. The game had numerous “wow” moments, and even kept my non-sports inclined wife in rapt attention (and the Ducks won, which was tons of fun for everyone except the poor, drunk Detroit fans seated next to me).

All the same, it was the first time at a professional sporting event that it seemed slavish adherence to corporate sponsors and entertainment actually disrupted the flow and performance of the game. It killed the energy in the building every time they stopped the action to take a “tv timeout.” Absolutely destroyed it. The players stood by the bench chatting, while rather lame attempts to keep the crowd engaged ensued.

Baseball and football, of course, have no need to stop play in such a fashion to feed the advertising gods. Hockey, which has struggled since the 2004 lockout, has adopted the NBA’s strategy of stopping play for TV dollars. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether the strategy is wrongheaded in their situation. Hockey is not going to ever have the draw in the United States of the other major sports. It currently has no Gretzky’s, no Lemiuex’s, no Bobby Orr’s to carry it forward. So why not take an unconventional strategy rather than following corporate sport status quo and make the in-game experience as pure as possible, as free from corporate presence as possible? After all, they apparently have more ticket buying fans than the other three leagues.

It’s radical, yes. But there are other ways of making money on tv besides commericals, I think, and no doubt the brilliant people at the NHL could find them. And presenting the sport in its purest form would increase its draw to all those ticketholders. Why not try? They may earn more impressed customers like this one!

Good Enough to Win

With a cornerback that was sitting at home on the couch last week, a depleted receiving corps, and an offensive line that has had eight different combinations this season, the Seahawks somehow managed to squeak by an equally reeling Dallas team.

In an improbable turn of events, Tony Romo botched the snap for a field goal that would have won the game for Dallas. And then almost ran it in for a touchdown.

He was tackled at the two, just a few feet short of a first down and two yards shy of a touchdown. Seattle killed the clock enough for one last heart-stopping heave by Romo, and then it was over.

Gritty. Tough. Resilient. If this Seahawk team goes any further in the playoffs, it will be as a result of their gutsy playing and good coaching that managed to keep a (slightly) better Dallas team off balance offensively, despite not having a secondary. Next week: Chicago or New Orleans, and a chance to redeem an otherwise forgettable season and shaky opening to this postseason.

Update:  In other Northwest sports news, the Pac-10 men’s basketball league could get seven spots in the NCAA conference this year.  It is downright tough.  On the same day, Oregon upsets unbeaten UCLA at home and Washington State beats #7 Arizona.