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Historical Reflections on Brian Smith's "The Assist"

Last weekend while visiting my home state of Nebraska, I ran into my old high school basketball coach. He was the leader of my school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle group, and is still involved in FCA. Although it's been fifteen years since I played for him, we still keep in touch. In fact, I have it on good authority that he reads this website from time to time (what's up, coach?).

I bring up my former coach because when I read books geared towards sports and Christian living, I often think of him. These books are not written primarily for me, a historian who is not actively engaged in organized athletic competition or sports ministry. They are written for my high school basketball coach and the Christian athletes who play for him.

But even if I am not necessarily the primary intended audience for books in the sports-and-Christian-living genre, I like to read them and consider how they fit within the broad historical context of American Christian engagement with sports. Today I'd like to do that with Brian Smith's new book, The Assist: A Gospel-Centered Guide to Glorifying God Through Sports (Lucid, 2017).

Smith, an Athlete in Action (AIA) staff member based in Wisconsin, explains that he wrote The Assist in part because he noticed "a frequent and disturbing disconnect between the words that come out of our mouths as Christian athletes and the actual approach we take to our sports." For Smith, too many Christian athletes passively accept "clich├ęd thinking" and lack theological maturity in their approach to competitive athletics.

Smith's concerns were inspired by his personal observations over the course of his sports ministry career. But they also reflect a longer historical trend present in the very founding of AIA. The pioneering sports ministry organization, the FCA (founded in 1954), tended to take a broad-minded, theologically open approach that focused on unifying Christian athletes around a shared sense of religious nationalism and patriotic duty rather than a theological program. In the 1950s and 1960s, the FCA allowed anyone who claimed to be a Christian to participateMormons, Catholics, liberal Protestants, conservative Protestants, all were welcome. When AIA was formed in 1966 as a subsidiary of evangelical parachurch organization Campus Crusade for Christ, it sought to present an alternative to the FCA. As one observer around that time put it, AIA viewed the FCA as "too 'wishy-washy' in presenting the life-changing claims of Jesus Christ and too inclusive in its purpose and whom it embraces." Thus, the AIA attempted to offer a sports ministry program that was both narrower and deeper than the FCA, placing a greater priority on evangelism and discipleship training.

These days there is far less animosity between the FCA and AIA, and greater overlap in the aims and methods of the organizations. Even so, AIA generally remains more likely to push for deeper theological commitments among its members. In that sense, The Assist fits within a pattern long present in the sports ministry landscape.

Smith takes up all sorts of topics in The Assist, with individual chapters devoted to motivation, injuries, practice, teammates, retirement, and more. But I was most interested in his chapters on winning and losing. Few subjects have caused more angst for self-proclaimed Christian athletes and coaches over the years. Some adopt the approach immortalized by Grantland Rice ("For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name / He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game"). Others embrace the "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" mantra most closely associated with Vince Lombardi (although he did not coin the phrase). Many others fall somewhere in between. And then there are those who decide to embrace the contradiction and accept both Rice and Lombardi. A 1975 book by a leader in the Christian athlete movement included one chapter titled "Winning Isn't Everything." Immediately preceding that chapter was one titled "Why Christians Are Winners" in which the author argued that Christian players generally won more games than non-Christians.

Smith takes a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to the subject, falling somewhere in between Rice and Lombardi. He advises Christian athletes to prioritize winning, since that is the main goal of athletic competition. But he cautions against finding ultimate satisfaction in athletic success and he encourages Christian athletes to see losing—as much as winning—as an opportunity for Christian witness. Perhaps Smith's most unique contribution is his argument that Christian athletes should feel free to pray for victory. Until the 1970s, outspoken Christian athletes usually made it a point to say that they did not pray to win, only to do their best. As the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel surged in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became more common for Christian athletes to speak openly about praying to win. This, in turn, led to a backlash among Christians who opposed prosperity gospel teachings, perhaps never more so than in the run-up to the 2013 Super Bowl.

Smith's advice is different from the transactional nature of the prosperity gospel. His view is grounded in the notion that prayer should involve honest communication with God. Thus, if an athlete truly wants to win, it is perfectly fine to pray for victory. Smith sees it more as an expression of one's honest desires than an attempt to harness the supernatural power of prayer to claim victory.

Throughout The Assist Smith generally handles difficult subjects with careful attention to nuance and complexity. But if I could change one thing about the book, I would add a section on social activism. Many of the recent athlete-activists are Christians who either have been or are currently connected to sports ministry organizations. Because of this, it would make sense for Smith to consider how Christian athletes should approach and relate to social justice causes. Can or should Christian athletes kneel during the national anthem? What types of activism are acceptable for them to embrace? Anti-abortion? Anti-racism? Criminal justice reform? I wouldn't expect Smith to provide definitive answers to those controversial questions, but I think it would be useful to engage in that conversation. 

There are two chapters in Smith's book where a discussion of social activism would be a natural addition. The obvious place is his chapter "On Platform." But his chapter "On Coaches" would also be a good fit. There Smith discusses how Christian athletes should handle a difficult coach. He concludes that Christian athletes should "faithfully submit to your coach, even if his or her methods are less than ideal" and that athletes "honor the Lord by honoring your coach, even if the coach is undeserving—especially if the coach is undeserving."

As I read that section, I could not help but think of the era in the late 1960s and early 1970s when black athletes began to speak out more forcefully against racism in sports. The iconic image of this era is the black power salute from Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, in playing fields and locker rooms across the United States, especially in football, many other black athletes spoke out against the racism they faced from their coaches. In my research I've come across a couple black athletes from that era who were outspoken Christians and who also called out their coaches for racism. Should those athletes have submitted to the authority of their coach, even if they felt their coach was exhibiting racist behavior?

Here, I think, a broader understanding of the world of sports and its connection to society is useful for Christians to consider. If an athlete merely has a personal grievance about playing time or a personality clash with a coach, then I think Smith is right to suggest that athletes should focus on their own attitudes and problems rather than blaming their coach. But to the extent that the actions of coaches foster and encourage sinful or harmful societal tendencies—racism or extreme authoritarianism, for example—then I think Christian athletes could be justified in first confronting and then (if needed) speaking out against their coaches.

Although I wish The Assist would have engaged in more conversation about Christian athletes and social activism, I think Smith writes with a keen eye for the unique circumstances, anxieties, and pressures that athletes face. His book serves as an excellent starting point for deeper conversations and reflections about how one's Christian faith should inform one's identity and participation as an athlete. And if you don't want to take my word for it, perhaps you can take the word of my high school coach. During our conversation last weekend he told me about a great new book that he had been reading, and said that he planned to use it in his FCA huddle group next year. The title of that book? The Assist. 


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