Ethics on the basketball court

When Faith Baptist played Grinnel on the basketball court last November, Grinnel’s Jack Taylor shot an NCAA-record 138 points as his team went on to win 179-104. Was their star a hero blessed by God or did the winning team–representing an evangelical Christian school–simply humiliate their opponents?

Samuel Freedman writes in the New York Times:

Sporting tradition has always made allowances so the vanquished can save face. Youth leagues have a “slaughter rule” to halt lopsided games. Football quarterbacks with a big lead hand off the ball rather than passing it. Basketball teams run down the clock instead of running up the score. Coaches pull the starters and send in the bench warmers. Very little mitigation of that sort happened last November at Grinnell.

And beyond the question of athletic ethics, the rout has taken on an overtly religious cast. Jack Taylor, an evangelical Christian, attributed his achievement to divine intervention.

The secular media made Taylor into a hero who broke a sporting record in amazing fashion. But the two schools, steeped as they are in their religious traditions, had different responses.

In an interview with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Web site, in which he alluded to a parable about talents in Matthew 25, Mr. Taylor said of God: “He definitely multiplied my talents that night. His fingerprints were all over that game.”

At Faith Baptist, they turned to their faith to make meaning out of the loss.

For both players, the game against Grinnell had presented temptations — to give up, to slow down the pace to frustrate a fast-breaking opponent, to rough up Jack Taylor as payback for the way he was pouring it on. The Faith Baptist team resisted all those snares, hustling until the final whistle and committing only 16 personal fouls.

The head coach, Brian Fincham, spoke only admiringly of Grinnell and Mr. Taylor after the game. That does not mean, however, that his team, given the opportunity, would have done the same thing.

“Our focus is always on bringing glory to God in whatever we do,” he said in a recent phone interview. “If we’re in a game where our opponent is outmatched, I’ll look at it as a chance to give experience to guys who don’t always get to play. I’ll encourage them to play hard, but we’ll work on specific things that are weaknesses — working for a good shot, taking care of the ball — so you can limit the disparity in score. A lot of that has to do with our philosophy of faith and sports. We’re God-honoring in everything we do. We don’t want to embarrass anyone.”

Not everyone was cheering the feat. WFAN radio host Mike Francesca said:

“This isn’t greatness,” Mr. Francesa said on WFAN. “This is gluttony.” Whether by accident or design, he chose a religiously tinged word, for gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins.

Freedman concludes with an interview with Amy Laura Hall who teaches ethics at Duke Divinity School.

“What strikes me in this story about Grinnell is that you have the unapologetic, brazen appeal to ‘Jesus’ right alongside the unrepentant quest to make a name for the school, the team and the player,” said Amy Laura Hall, an ethics professor at Duke Divinity School who is writing a book about muscular Christianity. “Would the story have even come across our radar if the coach had consciously pulled the player out, and kept the score more sportsmanlike, and missed the chance for a moment of fame, on principle? I wish that were the story to cover, this week after Easter, but it isn’t.”

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