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Spring 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 1 · pp. 91–102 

The Integration of Athletics and Faith

Lawrence Ressler

The Christian worldview should impact how one understands competition, coaching philosophy, the concept of team membership and the use of abilities. It should impact the purpose and meaning of sports.

Harry Blamires begins his 1963 book, The Christian Mind, with the pithy statement, “There is no longer a Christian mind.” 1 There is, he bemoans, no significant thinking going on that reflects a Christian perspective about issues that are taking place in the world. According to Claerbaut:

Blamires observes a sort of schizoid or compartmentalized Christianity in operation. It is one in which Christians, while often clearly distinguishable from the larger society in areas of faith and personal conduct, are not at all distinct when it comes to matters of thought. Instead they think secularly. To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth; it is to keep one’s calculations rooted in this-worldly criteria. 2

Harris calls scholars who practice this compartmentalized approach to faith and thinking “two realm” scholars. 3 Two-realm scholars, he suggests, have two identities, one identity as a person of faith and the other identity as a scholar. The two realms are distinct and largely unrelated. Scholarship is scholarship and faith is faith. One does not affect the other in the two-realm model of scholarship.

Much has changed in the four decades since Blamires made his unsettling allegation. Christian scholars began to call one another and the evangelical community to task for the two-realm thinking. A commitment to scholarship that integrates faith and learning began to emerge in a modern form. Arthur Holmes’ 1975 work, The Idea of a Christian College, 4 a seminal volume which addressed the integration of faith and learning, played a major role in this development. According to Jacobsen and Jacobsen,

Holmes argued that the integration of faith and learning was concerned not so much with attack and defense as with the positive contributions of human learning to an understanding of the faith and to the development of a Christian worldview; and with the positive contribution of the Christian faith to all the arts and sciences. He argued that the real goal of Christian scholarship was the development of an “integrating worldview” that would allow reality to be seen as a whole in the light of God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. 5

While the writings of Blamires and Holmes did much to bring about the recent development or re-emergence of an integrated worldview, their approach still left at least one significant gap.


The International Forum on Christian Higher Education in March of 2006 was a marvelous event. Nearly 1,300 individuals attended what the promotional reports labeled the “largest known world-wide gathering of professionals in Christian higher education.” The CCCU-sponsored event, held from March 30 to April 1, 2006 at the Gaylord Texan Hotel in Dallas had as its theme, “Significant Conversations.”

The keynote speakers were impressive and the topics were stimulating. There were dozens of workshops on pressing issues facing Christian institutions of higher education. Special sessions were held for peer groups including presidents and trustees, chief academic officers, chief advancement officers, chief enrollment officers, public relations officers, chief financial officers, faculty, and students.

It dawned on me, as the three-day event proceeded, that one major group was missing—athletic directors. Not only was there no peer group for athletic directors, there were no workshops that addressed the issue of athletics. It was as if athletics do not exist in Christian higher education. I was particularly sensitive to the absence of topics related to athletics since the college where I was employed had just weathered a particularly difficult time in which some athletes were involved in some unruly and illegal activities. The sports debacle had me longing for a place where I could engage in discussions with other administrators about athletics and Christian higher education.

Not only did I not find an opportunity to engage in the conversation at this prestigious event, I also discovered that no peer group existed for athletic directors and coaches of the 105 CCCU institutions. When I asked where I could find a group of Christian educators that were focusing on the integration of faith and athletics, I was encouraged to check out the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). While FCA may be a fine organization, the lack of attention within the Christian academy itself was troubling.

Forty-four years after Harry Blamires declared that “There is no longer a Christian mind,” it seems that there is still no Christian athletic mind. Athletics appears to be compartmentalized from faith. Athletics, in 2007, appears to be where academics were four decades ago, a separated realm.


The re-emergence of a Christian mind did not happen overnight. It has taken decades of work by individuals who have explored the relationship of faith and learning. While many individuals have contributed to the integration of faith and scholarship in the past four decades, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), founded in 1976, has been a particularly positive force in the integration movement. Since its inception, integration has been a key part of its mission. The stated mission of CCCU is “to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.”

The original membership of 38 institutions in 1976 has grown to 105 North American members with 77 affiliate institutions in twenty-four other countries. 6 During this time, the CCCU has provided a rich array of activities related to the integration of faith and learning. Conferences have been regularly organized to assist faculty in integrating faith and various disciplines. Specially designed workshops have provided assistance to new faculty in the integration of faith and teaching. Institutes have been available for administrators who have moved into Christian college and university administration. Grants have been provided to encourage faculty to work across institutions on integration issues. Books and articles have been published that address a wide variety of integration topics in various disciplines. As the internet emerged, the CCCU developed listservs and a rich website dealing with the integration of faith and scholarship.

I began my involvement in higher education as a faculty member in 1981. While my master’s and doctoral education had not included any encouragement to integrate faith and my academic discipline, I was privileged to work at three CCCU institutions where the integration of faith and learning was an explicitly stated priority. Promotions and tenure were based in part on evidence that the integration of faith and one’s discipline was taking place. Questions regarding the integration of faith and academic pursuits were placed on student evaluation forms. Financial resources were provided at each of the institutions making it possible for faculty and administrators to attend conferences focusing on the integration faith and learning. Mentoring with faculty who were familiar with the integration of faith and academics was encouraged.

As I look back over the twenty-five years that I have been involved in Christian higher education, a great deal of progress has been made related to the integration of faith and academics both personally and in various academic disciplines. While there is much work yet to be done and many faculty need to be brought into a better understanding of how faith and learning can be integrated, Blamires’ assessment that “there is no longer a Christian mind” is much less true today in than it was in 1963.

The same cannot be said about the relationship of faith and athletics. Little thought seems to be taking place with respect to the relationship of faith and athletics. The absence of conversation at the CCCU International Forum is symptomatic of the problem, a problem that seems even more pronounced when one understands the prominence of sports in society in general as well as within the academy.


It is difficult for persons not connected to sports to appreciate the attention given to athletics. It is difficult even for those who enjoy sports to justify the worldwide priority it receives. Sports in North America is more than competition; it is big business. In 2002 the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Football League (NFL) were reportedly worth a combined total of more than $12 billion. 7 Average Major League Baseball salaries grew from $76,066 in 1976 to $2,384,779 in 2002. 8

Williams argues that sports are “among the largest and fastest growing industries both in the United States and abroad.” 9 According to Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal Annual Survey (noted in Williams), the sports industry, which includes sports entertainment, sports products, and sports support organizations, generated over $213 billion in revenue in 2005. Williams points out that this makes the sports industry twice as large as the automobile industry.

It is clear that sports are not merely a North American phenomenon. According to, there was a total cumulative television audience of 26 billion for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. 10 According to the FIFA statistics, the 2006 World Cup was viewed in 214 countries and territories. The final Italy versus France match had an estimated 715.1 million viewers. 11

The Olympics provides another glimpse of the passion that exists around the world for athletics. According to USA Today, the 2004 Olympics in Athens had an estimated cumulative television audience of 40 billion. 12 An estimated 3.9 billion people watched Olympic broadcasts at least once during the sixteen-day period. The importance of athletics internationally can also be seen by the investment that governments are prepared to make for the Olympics. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing, for example, are projected to cost $2.6 billion. 13


The sports phenomenon is not a new phenomenon. Guttmann suggests that “sports are a human universal, appearing in every culture, past and present.” 14 According to Cashmore, evidence of wrestling dated to four thousand years ago was found on a fresco excavated from the tomb of an Egyptian prince. 15 The fresco depicts more than one hundred different wrestling positions and holds. Pharaoh Tutankhamen in the fourteenth century BC is shown in a fresco hunting lions from a chariot. 16

In a sourcebook entitled, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, 17 Miller describes the fascination that the Greeks and Romans had with sports. Miller has compiled ancient perspectives on sports including boxing, the pentathlon, literary competitions, and body building. Cashmore points out that many modern day sporting events were established by the ancient Greeks and have existed since then with little modification. 18 The best example is the Olympic Games, which they inaugurated in 776 BC and which have left a lasting legacy.

Athletics was an important part of the culture of the early church, as can be seen in references made to it in the New Testament. The race is a metaphor used by the Apostle Paul on numerous occasions. He states in 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (9:24). Paul tells Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul asks the church at Galatia, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7). The book of Hebrews has one of the most colorful images of athletics: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1).


It is unclear when sports were first introduced in the life of colleges. They may have been there from the beginning as intramural activities. Intercollegiate competition began in the nineteenth century. According to Ringenberg, baseball was the first intercollegiate sport to be played. 19 He points to a twenty-six inning game played on July 1, 1859 as the earliest known intercollegiate contest.

Intercollegiate competition did not come without some resistance. Ringenberg cites an 1868 edition of an Albion paper which criticized baseball as a “finger destroying” sport that distracted students from higher literary interests. 20 Football, which was especially violent in the early years, was called “barbarous” by a Bucknell faculty member, “madness and slaughter” by the President of Columbia, and a “boy-killing, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport” by the Dean of Chicago. 21

Such objections did not halt the amazing growth of athletics in higher education. Football was introduced to the college community in 1869 with a game between Rutgers and Princeton. According to Ringenberg, crowds of more the thirty thousand attended football games as early as the 1890s. By 1914, 450 campuses had football teams as football spread throughout the East. 22

Basketball, which was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, was introduced as an intercollegiate sport in 1892. Naismith’s goal was to “develop a new game that would challenge the student more than the traditional gymnasium activities, yet be less rough than the outdoor sports.” 23 It was designed to reduce the “boredom with the lack of an indoor winter sport that could compete in excitement with football, baseball, and track.” 24 The first intercollegiate basketball game took place in 1896 between Chicago and Iowa. Basketball was an “instant success” and became “the most popular sport at the Christian colleges.” 25

These modest beginnings have turned sports into a major component of higher education and into a major business. In 2006, the most powerful athletic college association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), had revenues of $564 million. 26 More than forty thousand students competed in twenty-three NCAA sports. 27 The 2006 national attendance for all varsity football contests was slightly under 48 million. 28 Men’s national varsity basketball attendance was just under 31 million 29 while women’s basketball was approximately just under 11 million. 30 Baseball attendance was slightly under 5 million. 31

While statistics for the 105 CCCU colleges are not available, a review of the websites reveals that all of the colleges have intercollegiate athletics.


Sociologists have spent considerable effort to understand the sports phenomenon. Indeed, it has become a specialization within sociology. In their introductory sport sociology text book, McPherson, Curtis, and Loy provide a standard perspective of sport sociologists:

Sport is viewed as a major social institution similar to the family, education, the mass media, the economy, or politics. Sport is similar to these other institutions in that each involves social organizations and cultures (a set of values, beliefs, and norms), and each has an impact on the lives of many members of the society. 32

The authors go on to discuss such topics as sport, law, and politics; sport and economy; sport and mass media; social class, socioeconomic status, and sport; race, ethnicity, and sport; gender, age, and sport; sport and subcultures; and sport, collective behavior, and social movements. They demonstrate how invasive sports are in society.

Maguire and Young provide a typical view of sports from the perspective of sociological theory. 33 They examine sports from a conflict perspective, from a functionalist perspective, and from an interactionist perspective. They view sports through contemporary lenses, dealing with a feminist perspective, the influence of postmodernism on sports studies, and understanding sports in light of such theorists as Michael Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu.

What is missing in the literature, however, is an understanding of issues related to the integration of faith and sports, a perspective that one would surmise would be of interest to Christian colleges and universities. Unfortunately, such interest appears to be lacking.


The integration of faith with higher education apparently does not have a natural appeal to institutions of higher education. Public institutions avoid the topic due to the interpretation of the First Amendment which places a high value on the separation of church and state. Private non-sectarian colleges and universities are apathetic about the topic due to two-realm thinking that sees no need to integrate faith with learning or athletics.

It would seem, however, that religiously affiliated institutions of higher education should be deeply interested in the relationship of faith to various components in the academy. This seems not to be the case. Religiously affiliated institutions of higher education are a varied lot. The degree of interest in the topic relates in large part to the mission of the institution and its relationship to the church and to Christian faith. Sandin has developed a fourfold typology of how religiously affiliated higher education relates to the church. 34 The first category is what he calls independent institutions with historical religious ties. This category includes institutions, like Harvard College, that were once tied to a church but that no longer have such a connection. In a 1643 pamphlet, for example, its founders describe the purpose of Harvard in this way:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, Jn. 17.3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. 35

The religious purpose is no longer a part of the mission of Harvard. This is how Harvard College 36 now describes its mission: “Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities.” 37

In Sandin’s second category of religious affiliation are the nominally church-related institutions. Such institutions still identify with a church but only in a superficial way. There is no significant relationship between the mission of the college and the church or denomination. The religious connection may be limited to the denomination’s name which may be in the institution’s name, or the connection may merely be described in historical statements. Beyond that, the institution operates essentially as a non-sectarian institution.

The religiously supportive institutions have a more active relationship with the church, but the faith component is not integrated into the mission or the operations of the educational institution. The supporting denomination or churches may provide financial, emotional, or student support but the institution has a non-sectarian purpose.

Sandin calls the fourth type of Christian higher education institution the pervasively religious institution. This type of college or university makes the integration of faith and scholarship a central part of its mission. The 105 CCCU schools would be in this category. Tabor College, the institution with which I am associated, has as its mission, “to prepare people for a life of learning, work and service for Christ and his kingdom.” Its vision statement states that Tabor “is to be the college of choice for students who seek a life-transforming, academically excellent, globally relevant, and decidedly Christian education.” While the formal relationship between the churches/denominations and academic institutions varies considerably, all CCCU schools claim to place a high priority on incorporating faith in the mission of the institution.


One of the greatest lessons I learned about the integration of faith and learning took place at Temple University where I earned my Master of Social Work degree. Unbeknownst to me, the social work program had a Marxist theoretical orientation. On the first day of class, my primary professor walked into class and said, “I am a Marxist and I teach from a Marxist perspective.” I soon discovered he was and he did. During that year, I learned that being a Marxist made a difference in his understanding of history, human nature, social relationships, social problems, intervention strategies, and the future. Marxism served very much like a religion and my professor did a masterful job of integrating his Marxist ideas with learning. When I became a faculty member my goal was to become as proficient at integrating my Christian faith with social work as my professor was at joining social work and Marxist ideology.

Athletics is similar to academics in this regard. There are differing philosophies about competition, differing understandings about coaching, differing ways to treat players, and differing meanings of the game. The Christian worldview should impact how one understands all of these issues. It should impact an understanding of competition. It should impact coaching philosophy. It should impact the concept of team membership and the use of abilities. It should impact the purpose and meaning of sports.

As a co-curricular issue in colleges and universities, especially Christian college and universities, there are many additional questions about sports that should be explored. What is the relationship of athletics to learning? What is the relationship of athletic recruiting to the overall fit of the college? How does the discipline of athletes mesh with the lifestyle expectations of the college or university?

Sports at pervasively religious institutions, where integration of faith and learning is a priority, should be different from sports activity at institutions where two-realm thinking dominates. Twenty-five years after I was encouraged to integrate faith and my academic discipline, I wonder who is encouraging coaches and administrators to explore the integration of faith and athletics. Where can one send young coaches to engage in dialogue about the integration of faith and athletics? What funds are available to send coaches to conferences where the issue of integration is discussed? What books and articles are being written about the integration of faith and athletics? Where are mentors to be found?

I have discovered, to my disappointment, that there is no significant conversation going on about how to integrate athletics and faith, not even among CCCU institutions where conversations have been taking place about faith and many academic disciplines for more than twenty-five years. Books and articles are not readily available to help coaches recruit in a way that preserves and contributes to the Christian campus culture. Workshops are not available about how coaches can instill Christian character in their players and more fully to understand how faith impacts competition, winning, and losing. Conferences are not being offered to help coaches and student life personnel collaborate about campus discipline issues of athletes. Grants are not available to study the integration issues related to faith and athletics. Mentorship is not being actively promoted between young coaches and more seasoned coaches who have worked through integration issues.

Romans 12:2 is an apt challenge with respect to athletics in the Christian college: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” In a world that is crazed with passion for sports, where the lure of fame, power, and riches are strong, where images of players loom larger than life, where the desire to win becomes a justification for anything—in such a world, the need for thoughtful exploration of the relationship of faith and athletics is critical.

Not to engage in serious reflection of the integration of faith and athletics at pervasively religious institutions is to risk having an institution where the integration of faith is applied only to some arenas. Such a division will in time undermine the integrity of the institution and result in significant problems on campus as students, coaches, and faculty work toward different ends.

It is time to move beyond the two-realms model when it comes to faith and athletics. It is time to begin earnestly to study how to integrate Christian faith with one of the most powerful dynamics at work in the modern world—sports.


  1. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1963), 3.
  2. David Claerbaut, Faith and Learning on the Edge: A Bold New Look at Religion in Higher Education (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2004), 22.
  3. Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004).
  4. Arthur Holmes, The Idea of the Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Press, 1975).
  5. Douglas G. Jacobsen and Rhonda H. Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 19.
  6. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  7. Soonhwan Lee and Hyosung Chun, “Economic Values of Professional Sport Franchises in the United States,” The Sport Journal 5, no. 3 (2002), (accessed October 13, 2007).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jack F. Williams, “The Coming Revenue Revolution In Sports,” The Willamette Law Review 42, no. 4 (2006): 672, http://www.Willamette.Edu/Wucl/Pdf/Review/42-4/Williams.Pdf (accessed October 13, 2007).
  10. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  11. Ibid.
  12. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  13. “2008 Olympic Games Cost Within 2.6 bln USD,” (accessed October 13, 2007).
  14. Allen Guttmann, Sports: The First Five Millennia (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 1.
  15. Ellis Cashmore, Making Sense of Sports (New York: Routledge, 2000), 63.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, 3rd and exp. ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004).
  18. Cashmore, 67.
  19. William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006).
  20. Ibid., 107.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 106.
  24. Ibid., 108.
  25. Ibid.
  26. “The National Collegiate Athletic Association Revised Budget For Fiscal Year Ended August 31 2007,” (accessed October 13, 2007).
  27. “Sports & Championships Administration,” (accessed October 13, 2007).
  28. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  29. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  30. 2006-07_w_basketball_attendance.pdf (accessed October 13, 2007).
  31. (accessed October 13, 2007).
  32. Barry D. McPherson, James E. Curtis, and John W. Loy, The Social Significance of Sport (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Books, 1989), xii.
  33. Joseph Maguire and Kevin Young, eds., Theory, Sport and Society (London: Elsevier Science, 2002).
  34. Robert T. Sandin, Autonomy and Faith: Religious Preference in Employment Decisions in Religiously Affiliated Higher Education (Atlanta, GA: Center for Constitutional Studies, Mercer University and Omega, 1990).
  35. “New England First Fruits,” quoted in Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
  36. This is the mission statement of Harvard College. Harvard University does not have a mission statement.
  37. (accessed October 13, 2007).
Lawrence E. Ressler, PhD, serves as the Vice President of Academics and Student Development at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. During his twenty-five years of involvement in Christian higher education, he has also taught or had administrative responsibilities at Roberts Wesleyan College, Messiah College, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Malone College, Eastern Mennonite University, Daystar University in Nairobi, and Russian American Christian University in Moscow. He has graduate degrees from Case Western Reserve University and Temple University.

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