What a difference a year makes. Last season the Spartans were loaded with talent. Last season they were preseason favorites to return to the Final Four and maybe even win a national championship. But it didn't happen, far from it. Instead it was a season marred with disappointments. They barely made the tournament and bowed out with a first round loss.
Compare that to this season. The Spartans started the year un-ranked, were picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the conference. They didn’t appear on anybody’s radar even as a dark horse. But then the season began; two losses to North Carolina and Duke, and then 15 straight wins, a conference championship, and hope for a national championship. What an amazing turn around!
But that's college basketball.
Then again, that's human nature.
In comparing the two seasons, the biggest problem with last year’s team had nothing to do with their talent pool. It had everything to do with performance. The team was virtually intact from a 2010 team that went to the final four. They should have been awesome. But they were not. They were a huge disappointment; and the biggest problem was sin.
Now you don't typically hear sports analysts discuss sin as a factor in the outcome of a basketball game. But it’s there. And just like it affects everything else, it also affects basketball. It affects baseball, football, tennis, track & field, downhill skiing, and the luge. Why? Because sin affects sinners and the people who play sports are sinners.
So what does that have to do with the Spartans? They had a roster full of sinners. And that sin got in the way. It’s well documented. Players were dismissed mid-season for "being a bad teammate". Locker room squabbles led to on court performance issues. Star players disappeared at crucial points in the game. And sin was at the heart of all of it.
Sin messes with your head. It hurts your confidence. It creates poor team chemistry. It makes it difficult to come back from “adversity”. It does all of these things because it insinuates selfishness pride, greed, shame, lust, anger, all into the minds and hearts and psyche of each individual athlete.
Here's how it works. Let’s say a point guard steps up to the free throw line after a foul for a one & one. There can be any number of things that go through his mind. Much of it is psychological, but it is also spiritual. He steps up to that line not just as an athlete, his Old Adam steps up to the line with him. The devil is not far behind. He experiences pride and lust for glory, anger, covetousness, jealousy, greed, all pulling at him to succeed so he earns glory and fame and power. It feeds his ego and motivates him so that nothing and no one stand in his way. It also shakes his confidence. It hovers around with fear and anxiety. It diminishes his worth and value apart from his success and threatens him with failure. He is eager for success and opportunity and at the same time he fights with fear. Athletic competition is a prime outlet for the Old Adam. It pushes him out from hiding and can encourage bad behavior, just think Shaq & Kobe, Ndamukong Suh, or Cincinnati-Xavier. Each athlete (or team of athletes) is a sinner and this sin has an impact on his or her athletic performance.
So back to the Spartans. Does this mean that they had a bad season because they were sinners? In part. Are they winning this season because they are no longer sinners? Of course not. The Spartans are winning because they are playing together as a team. Sometimes the law can have that affect. The law motivates sometimes by threats (a hard week of practice, getting kicked off the team) sometimes by reason (hard work's cause to success's affect is solid logic) sometimes by emotion. The Spartans are hard, going all out and focused on their goal. They are playing with emotion, with love for the game, and with each person understanding and accepting his role. With each person looking out for his teammate. This is good when it works. It is much easier to do and to sustain when you are winning. Losing a few times can really make the wheels a fall off that good behavior.
There is another way. For the Christian there is hope for addressing this temptation and sin. For good or bad I am or have been an athlete. I have competed at the high school level and at the college level and more recently at the recreational level. That is never to say that I was very good. But I played. I participated. And I have experienced these things first hand. I will personally say that an understanding of life under the cross and Christian vocation made me a better teammate, a more consistent performer, and less prone to the attacks of Satan. It all has to do with Christian freedom
I am a sinner. I experienced in game temptations to covet, glory, lust, greed, conceit, selfishness and pride. I experienced the fear of failure that can cause an athlete to disappear in a game. I have had competitors try to get in my head. Understanding myself to be a redeemed child of God enabled me to call those sins what they are, they are sins. Sure basketball is just a game but it is also an opportunity for sin and temptation. Confessing those sin gives the right diagnosis so that you can apply the right cure.
The right cure is the gospel. Christ on the cross forgives those sins. Yes I am tempted with them and yes I commit them. But yes Jesus forgives them. He washes me clean from them so they are gone. What's even better is that as a baptized child of God my sinner is matched to a saint. My God given saint is free from sin and no longer mastered by temptation. That saint is free from fear and free from the devil and is not enslaved by sin and temptation.
I have played against dirty opponents. Their anger and hotheadedness tends to rub off on other players. But as a Christian I know that Jesus died for my desire to make the game about him and me. I also know that Jesus loves him and died for him and so I can love him too. I can play the game without losing my composure.
My understanding of Christian Vocation is also a great boon that pays off in athletic competition. It makes me a better teammate. On every team, every player has their role. These roles are defined by their ability and by the game plan set by the coach. I have been the go-to guy who needs to take the shot. I have also been the support player who needs to play defense and rebound. I have been the bench warmer who needs to cheer the team on and provide a moment's rest for the guys on the floor. Each is important. Forcing a shot because I want points on my stat sheet is selfish. It doesn't help the team (my neighbor) so I shouldn't do it. Hogging the ball or showboating doesn't help the team so I shouldn't do it. Playing half hearted defense doesn't help the team so I should step up and make the plays that need to be made; hustle, move my feet, take a charge all for the good of the team. Whatever my role on the team I should play it as a servant to the other members of the team. My Old Adam says no. The Gospel sets me free to say yes, to fill my role on the team.
I love college basketball. As a college basketball fan, I love Coach Izzo. I think he's a great coach. I love the way he coaches and the teams he puts together. I love the way his teams thrive on hard work and 110% effort. But that's not vocation. It's a system built by reason and logic and hard work. It's a system that works and produces success.