I didn’t play t-ball as a kid (I was always more interested in basketball than baseball). So when I attended my cousin’s t-ball game, I was surprised to find that no official score was kept. I had never played in an “organized” sporting event with no score. Of course, parents and players were keeping unofficial score. In fact, my cousin’s coach had assigned one of the parents to keep a score book, complete with a record of what each player did in every at-bat. Technically, nobody was winning, yet everybody knew which team was winning and who the best players were. It struck me that practically all those involved—parents, coaches, fans, and players—thought that keeping score was a good idea, even though league rules stated that no score would be kept.
There are some activities that merit competition and scorekeeping, and some that don’t. I am not arguing here about which activities do and which don’t. I merely want to argue for three propositions: (1) Striving to win is inherent in competition; (2) Competition to win as such is not unchristian; and (3) Children may be healthily accustomed to competition through sports.
First, striving to win is inherent in competition. If you want to get a hit in baseball, then you necessarily try to “win” the at-bat. If you want to prevent the football receiver from making a catch, then you necessarily try to “win” the play. These instances of winning are usually part of a larger effort to win an entire game, and perhaps an even larger effort to win a title for an entire season. At any of these levels, the competition cannot occur unless some or all of those involved try to win.
Second, competition as such is not unchristian. While it might seem on the surface that trying to beat other teams in a contest must violate the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), competitors in sports are actually doing one another a service by cooperatively striving in a game.1 Unless both or all sides of the competition commit to winning, no team can win in any meaningful sense. There are, of course, other benefits to the cooperative effort of competition, such as increased physical and mental strength, fun, camaraderie, teamwork, humility, etc.2 Participating to the best of one’s ability in a competition is, all things being equal, a way to obey the Golden Rule.
A corollary of this point is that winning is generally joyful, and losing is generally a disappointment. Notice what Oliver North, former baseball player, boxer, and Marine Colonel, said on this point:
“[N]ot winning is a disappointment. Not that Dad or any of the other coaches I’ve had in my life would say, ‘You’re a lousy player.’ But I learned that winning does make a difference. People who go out there and say, ‘It’s just to play the game, it’s not to win,’ are losers. I hate to put it that way, but in my book, you ought to go out there to play to win, but you ought to play fair, you have to play by the rules, and these are things you should learn as a kid.”3
This leads to the third point: Children may be healthily accustomed to competition through sports. There is a need for children to become accustomed to winning and losing, because life is full of success and failure in competition. We won’t always get an ‘A’ on every test. We won’t always get the coveted job. We won’t always be in everyone’s favor. We must learn to deal with such things graciously, i.e., in a Christian way (Colossians 4:6). Sports is one of the best arenas in which to learn, because sports usually carry few and mild consequences (a high school football game is lost, but a career is not ruined; a tackle is missed, but an opportunity to learn is found).
I hear that we live in a sports-obsessed culture. In some senses, this is probably a bad thing. Nonetheless, sports afford Christians the opportunity to teach their children valuable lessons by competing and keeping score. After all, there is a sense in which we all need to be counting our losses: “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. . . . (Philippians 3:8, King James Version). If we take this approach, we all will win the ultimate prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
See Caleb Colley, “Kentucky Sports and the Handshakes,” Restore, http://www.calebcolley.com/kentucky-sports-handshakes/ (2013). ↩
Brian Kilmeade, The Games Do Count: America’s Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 36-37. ↩