Examining Our ‘Sports-Obsessed’ Culture

Dave King, EMU athletic director
EMU athletic director Dave King welcomes invitations to speak on what he perceives as troubling trends in competitive sports. Photo by Jim Bishop

David A. (Dave) King knows he may be juggling a hot potato, but he’s prepared. And, comments such as, “It’s about time!” when he addresses the topic, assure him that he has a message that needs to be shared.

King, athletic director at EMU, is concerned that sports has become an obsession in American culture. He believes that this fixation is keeping young people and families from gaining all of the valuable benefits of sports participation.

King has been at EMU since 2005; prior to that he served 14 years as athletic director and middle school principal at Lancaster (PA) Mennonite School. He also spent nine years teaching and coaching at the elementary and middle school level.

The father of three young adults, all of whom played high school and college sports, sees several cause-and-effect connections with society’s growing obsession with sports:

  • Sport “specialization” at an early age that limits childrens’ ability to learn to play a variety of sports for fun and excludes, at a young age, those who are not “good enough” to compete.

  • Parents at every game and sometimes even practice sessions which creates unwanted pressure on both children and coaches. This phenomenon shifts the purpose of the game from fun and learning to winning. The game becomes the parents’, not the child’s.

  • Sports being so organized that the ability to develop creativity is greatly reduced. Kids aren’t learning some of the problem-solving and creativity that comes with free play.

  • The all-consuming desire of student-athletes, coupled with pressure from parents, to get an athletic scholarship only to find out that sports at that level is a business. For many, the result is unfulfilled dreams and disappointment.

‘American Dream’

“I see what’s happening in sports as chasing the newest ‘American dream’,” King stated. “Kids have expectations early on about what they want to accomplish or are being pushed to accomplish, when often those dreams are unrealistic.”

King’s concern was initially sparked several years ago by the book, “Sports: The All-American Addiction,” by John R. Gerdy, visiting professor of sports administration at Ohio University. King and other Lancaster area educators met several times with Gerdy to discuss ways to slow the troubling trend.

“It is becoming more difficult to recruit student-athletes to play at Division III schools like EMU because so many have their sights set on receiving scholarships from ‘big-name’ schools,” King said. “Many parents push their children this direction, which exacerbates the issue.

“I’m fully committed to the value of sports and athletic competition – it’s my bread and butter, after all – 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 their decisions are largely based on what they achieve on the playing field,” King added.

Sharing the Message

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

Virginia Mennonite Conference is in the process of licensing 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. This includes having the backing of the EMU administration in carrying out this role.

More broadly, “EMU sees how the intersection of sports and faith can affect not only families and congregations, but also whether or not student athletes choose Mennonite higher education,” said EMU president Loren Swartzendruber. “When we lose students to Division I schools for athletic purposes, that sometimes means we lose them to the larger church.”

“I don’t think the church is addressing this issue directly,” King said. “I’ve heard too many stories from parents who tell me how stressed they are, how sports has negatively affected their family and church life, how their children are chasing an unrealistic dream and forsaking core values in the process, but no one has been giving any warnings.”

King already has spoken to a number of church and civic groups and welcomes more invitations to continue the dialog.

“I’ll quickly admit I’m no expert in this arena,” King declared. “I’m doing more reading and study and learning as I go. I hope to open up a 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.”

Contact King to schedule a speaking engagement at david.king@emu.edu; 540-432-4646.