King Reflects on 'Sports Obsession' and the Church During SLT

By Jim Bishop

Dave King on sports obsession and the church at SLT 2009It may be "the new American dream," but David A. (Dave) King believes it contains some nightmarish aspects.

King's concern - that sports has become an obsession in American culture. Further, he says, this fixation is having a negative impact on many families and the congregations they attend.

King, the athletic director at Eastern Mennonite University, led workshops on "finding a healthy balance in the sports culture" Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 20-21, during the annual School for Leadership Training (SLT) at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He perceives an explosion of the youth sports movement in the past 10 years "may be causing more problems than positive growth experiences.

"I don't think the church is addressing this issue directly," King told workshop participants. "I've heard many parents tell me how busy and stressed their lives are as they respond to the pressure to participate. Some are beginning to feel out-of-control, but most don’t think about the potential for negative experiences. I want to hold up the mirror so we can see what is happening."

The father of three young adults, all of whom played high school and college sports, identified several components of a growing sports mania that suggests "something's out of balance":

  • Organized sports have replaced free play. "Those back yard pickup games are a thing of the past," King notes. "This loss inhibits the development of creativity and problem solving in children.”
  • The placing of "adult models" on to organized sports, "which isn't how kids think," according to King. "Strong competition is introduced before most youngsters are ready for it."
  • Sports "specialization" is occurring at an early age, limiting the variety of sports experiences that is needed for healthy development. The move to sports specialization and year-round play "leads to a greater risk of injuries and a higher burnout-dropout rate, according to King.
  • The stratification of youth sports, with all-star elite, select and premiere teams "feeds directly into the college scholarship mentality and eliminates those who are late developers,” King points out.

"I'm fully committed to the value of sports and athletic competition, but I sense that many students and their parents aren't viewing sports as a way to develop life skills, but rather a means to achieve recognition and acclaim.

"Plus, I fear that certain values may be compromised or sacrificed in the process if decisions are largely based on what is achieved on the playing field," King added.

Some time ago, King spoke on this topic at Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway, Va., receiving much affirmation and some resistance. A similar message given in an Eastern Mennonite Seminary chapel service prompted Clyde Kratz, pastor at Zion Mennonite and an EMU trustee, to encourage King to take his message on the road.

Virginia Mennonite Conference has licensed King for "specialized ministry" to share his message about the intersection of faith and sports and how the two can affect family and congregational life.

"I don't have neat answers to this dilemma," King admits, "but there are some ways to work at it - by educating parents and creating support groups, developing alternative programs as congregations, holding scrimmages with parents not present and supporting youth sports programs that don't use the scoreboard."

"I hope to broaden the conversation and get people with shared values to look at this issue and support each other as they make choices that may be counter-cultural," he told the workshop group.

King already has spoken to a number of church and civic groups and welcomes more invitations to continue the dialog. He can be contacted at ; phone 540-432-4646.

posted 1/26/09