The Rivalry: Sport versus Religion?

Whenever Hope College faces Calvin College on an athletic court or field, an intense, decades-long rivalry gets renewed and, with it, the thrill and agony of heated competition as zero-sum. One will win; one will lose. One must take; one must give. And when rivals meet, neither likes to imagine the latter notions.

Long touted as one of the nation’s best college rivalries, most notably in men’s basketball, Hope versus Calvin fills every criteria for what makes any rivalry great – close regional proximity (like Michigan vs Michigan State), ongoing league and national success (like Duke vs North Carolina), similar size and academic mission (like Army vs Navy). But the Hope versus Calvin rivalry adds one more element that other high-profile rivalries don’t, an element that should bind but has over the years divided. It’s ironic really, for it is religion — noted for this adherences to compassion and love — that adds to the zealous nature of this rivalry for all who play and watch.

Hope versus Calvin rivalry adds one more element that other high-profile rivalries don’t, an element that should bind but has over the years divided. It’s ironic really, for it is religion that adds to the zealous nature of the rivalry for all who play and watch.

Hope.Calvin.York
A team of both Hope and Calvin professors and students presented their research on Christianity and the Nature of Sporting Rivalries (of course) in York, England this past summer.  From left to right, Dr. Chad Carlson, Eric Brower, Harrison Blackledge, Jason Zeigler, Ty VanWieren, Dr. Brian Bolt

And it is this last component – religion – that brought together two students and a professor from each school to attend and present at the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity at York St. John’s University in York, England during the summer of 2016. With over 250 participants from 30 countries, the GCSC aims triennially to affect a ‘culture shift’ in modern sport by sharing ideas and practices from across academic disciplines and denominations of Christianity. Since Hope has ties to the Reformed Church in America and Calvin with the Christian Reformed Church, it naturally would follow that Dr. Chad Carlson and students Harrison Blackledge and Ty Van Wieren, from Hope, and Dr. Brian Bolt and students Eric Brower and Jason Ziegler from Calvin, would team up to lead a session on rivalry and Christianity at this collaborative conference.  In attendance were academics, journalists, politicians, clergy, coaches, administrators and athletes.

“Part of the value of working together on this presentation was just that – the value of working with Calvin folks on it,” says Carlson, associate professor of kinesiology, and a Hope men’s basketball coach, who emphasizes the “with” preposition strongly. “There was no point total to see who was going to be on top at the end of the day. We were just spending time together talking about Jesus and sports. The more we see each other’s humanity, the more helpful it will be to the heart of this rivalry.”

With that foremost in mind, both schools’ professors and students went to work to research the writings of multiple scholars who are both for and against the co-mingling of sport and religion. Their qualitative question to answer was this: How should we be competing in ways that can justify our participation as a Christian in sport?

It would seem that competition is unhealthy for Christians, especially in a passionately contentious atmosphere like Hope versus Calvin.

On the face of it, Carlson says, there are many normative elements that are incompatible between sport and Christianity. The killer instinct, the ways athletes treat their bodies in harmful ways, the development of negative moral values, and the elevation of individual pursuits all fly the face of Christ’s admonition that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It would seem then that competition is unhealthy for Christians, especially in a passionately contentious atmosphere like Hope versus Calvin.

Well, not really, the six Hope-Calvin investigators would say — and did say at the conference. But there are some conditions. As long as Christians desire to mimic Jesus when they play (and watch) — offering respect and integrity and the best of their abilities as gifts to God —  then competitive aspirations are redeemed. This “mapping” of mimetic desire from Jesus onto others, a theory coined by French-American scholar Renee Gerard, “teaches us to be like him, to imitate him, and no one else, in everything we do, and in this case, even in rivalry,” says Carlson.

“Harrison and Ty are both senior captains on their teams and initially they were afraid to find that they should be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ with their opponents. But I believe each of them came away realizing that we can be intense competitors as along as we are aware of where our hearts are at.”

“The biggest thing I learned (from this research) is how important it is to have the right goal in mind,” reflects Harrison Blackledge, a basketball student-athlete. “Rivalries and competitive athletics can help sharpen people on both sides, bring them together as a unit, and achieve success when the main goal of the contest is to glorify God in how we play.  Win or lose we can always do that.  What happens so often, though, is that we make winning our ultimate goal and that is what influences us to bend our ethics and convictions in order to win the game.”

“Working with Calvin was a unique opportunity,” adds Van Wieren, a baseball student-athlete. “So often we get caught up with the intensity of the rivalry that we forget that they are college kids just like us. It was fun to learn more about how rivalry shapes us with our greatest rival. We may be rivals on the court, but off it we can easily be co-workers.”

“Let’s make sure that when we step in between the lines that we understand we are children of God first and foremost. That always needs to be front and center.”

So now, the ball is in their court. Blackledge and Van Wieren will take these lessons and share them on the court and diamond with their teams as well with other Hope student-athletes in other sports. Because while more healthy than some other big-time national rivalries, Hope versus Calvin is still played by humans who are imperfect. Yet, no matter the sport, The Rivalry has the potential to be an exemplar of what any good rivalry can and should be.

“As Christians, we should not be afraid of sport and competition,” concludes Carlson, “but let’s make sure that when we step in between the lines that we understand we are children of God first and foremost. That always needs to be front and center.”

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