Boys and Sports

Let’s be honest about it: Sports have become a religion in our society. 

Professional athletes are among the highest paid people in the country. I’m not objecting to their incomes; they are drawing millions of fans to the stadiums and so their commercial value is undeniable. My problem is with the widespread philosophy that propels so many people to spend their money and time watching it all happen. That attaches so much worth to the playing of games. What does it say about our culture that we so reward people who don’t serve us in any serious way, but only entertain us? Athletes, like movie actors and rock stars, are people whose services we could very easily live without, when compared to medical personnel, police officers and even grocery store employees. At the same time, the moral character of people in the entertainment business—of which professional sports are definitely a part—is generally known to be less than exemplary. Yet they are worshiped and everybody knows their names. They are paid big money to endorse products. What’s wrong with this picture?

We are rapidly becoming a society defined more by our play than our work. That’s a far cry from the America of earlier days, when we gave the world the steam boat, the locomotive, the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the electric light and the x-ray machine and still more importantly, the world’s first lasting republican form of government. We were known for accomplishments that made the lives of millions better. Now we’re the country that gave the world Tiger Woods.

Home school sports leagues are springing up all over the country these days and parents are having to decide how much time, money and inconvenience they are willing to expend for the value of having their children involved. The Boyers say no, thanks. With all respect to the motives and the sacrifice of those who organize these events, and some of those people are dear friends of mine, it’s just not worth it. Why? Because time, like money, is limited. Every dollar and every hour you spend on one thing ceases forever to be available for the purchase of something else. Let the buyer beware.

When our son, Josh contracted leukemia, he was admitted to the pediatric oncology unit at University of Virginia hospital. The first sight I recall seeing when we walked through the door there was a little boy of about seven who was out for his daily exercise. That consisted of walking around the halls rolling his IV pole behind him. The sight of that little guy, his head bald from radiation or chemotherapy, stuck a dagger in my heart. It was a poignant reminder to me that this life we’re in is no Sunday School picnic. Later, the nurses told me of special hardship cases. One example was the young single mom who had a child on the ward, perhaps terminally ill, who wanted Mom to be there all the time. But there was another child, or two or three, at home who needed Mom also. And usually, there was a boss who needed Mom back at work. If you’ve ever spent any time in a ward full of very sick kids, you have to wonder how much time and energy you can really afford to spend on amusements.

So, when deciding whether to put your time and your child’s time into sports, consider what other uses you could be making of that same amount of time. Maybe there’s a sick kid and a desperate mom somewhere not far away who would be a better investment than a chance at a gilded trophy. It’s not hard to find needs you can meet, that is, if that’s what you’re looking for rather than games to play.

But don’t kids need sports—especially boys?

Yes, I believe they do. Everybody needs some play, some recreation. The issue is how much of it we need, and how much of a price should be paid in time and resources to get it. There’s a big difference between an hour of pick-up basketball or a neighborhood baseball game and the ultra-organized sports leagues many parents and kids build their schedules around. Is there really that much value in uniforms and trophies?

Kids have always played and competed. But the cumbersome phenomenon of sports leagues is quite new. Read the biography of any American hero who lived a couple of generations ago and you’ll find that his boyhood recreation consisted of hunting, fishing, swimming, climbing trees and mountains, playing tag, shinny and mumblety-peg, exploring caves and hunting for treasure. Tom Sawyer didn’t seem to languish for someone to organize games for him. Boyhood play in the old days gave its satisfaction mostly through the use of creativity and imagination rather than meaningless competition.

But don’t sports build character? As Voddie Baucham points out, if sports built character very successfully, our pro athletes wouldn’t need drug testing and…too bad about Tiger. Ah, poor Washington, Franklin, Jefferson! If only they’d had Little League, they might have amounted to something.

But boys are after all, growing into men. Yes, I do think sports have some value. As did General MacArthur, who wrote of the value to future military leaders of lessons learned “on the field of manly sport.” But which sports? And how much time are they worth?

I’ll be the first to confess that I was a sports nut as a teenager. My junior and senior years in high school, I was in three sports a year. I wasn’t a gifted athlete, but I enjoyed it and I didn’t understand the value of the time I was investing and what other uses I could have made of it. I see it rather differently now. I’d do it differently if I could do it over, and my children have definitely done it differently. None of them have ever played in any sports league, though they have done a lot of playing. None of them has missed it.

If asked my opinion about boys and sports, I’d say keep it in perspective and priority. No, you don’t have to be an athlete to get a scholarship. In fact, you probably don’t need college any way. But if you do, you’re more likely to get a scholarship for real life achievement than for either sports or good grades. I recently read that Harvard turns down four out of every 5 high school valedictorians in favor of young people who didn’t strive for straight A’s but who have done something worthy of real world significance. The Harvards of the world like to invest in a student who has written a book, started a business or done something else of real value. They know that here they have a young person who will someday make his mark on the world and bring glory to the old Alma Mater.

If your son wants to compete in sports, look outside the mainstream. Don’t run yourself ragged and sacrifice essential family time chasing around to two or three contests a week (in addition to practices). The assumption that “everybody does it” doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile from God’s point of view. Make your choices carefully. And for heaven’s sake, don’t think of putting your son back in school for the supposed value of playing big boy games!

Because boys are designed to grow into protectors of young and the weak, I’d suggest combative sports. These include boxing, wrestling, karate, judo, and the like. It could plausibly be argued that football is also combative.

From that list, I would eliminate boxing and football as too injury-prone. Lots of high school football players have permanently ruined their knees and boxers often leave the sport with brain damage.

I’d also recommend serious limits on the time invested in sports. Most sports are “me-centered” in that they don’t benefit anyone but the participant. How much time is it really worth per day or week? Please don’t let the playing of games dominate your life or your son’s life. True, there are lessons to be learned from sports. But there are more important lessons in other things. Visit a kid with cancer sometime. And take a coloring book.


New Uncle Rick Audio Book Club