Youth sports and the “everyone wins” mentality

October 12, 2015

The Youth Association Football program in Keller, Texas, made national headlines years ago because of a decision that many onlookers found scandalous. What brought media from major metropolitan cities and national news organizations to investigate the actions of a youth football program of a small city in Texas? They had the unmitigated audacity, in the eyes of many, to stop giving out participation trophies. According to the league’s vice president, the action was to fight the pervasive and unhealthy sense of entitlement that children grow up with today.

Leave it to independently minded Texans to stand up and defy the spirit of the age. But I am troubled that a youth football program in Texas has to lead the way by voicing what biblically minded Christians should have been saying all along.

The Bible is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24, Ps. 19:3-6, 2 Sam. 2:14, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, Gal. 2:2, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 12:1-4). In fact, the Apostle Paul uses the language of athletic competition as one of his three primary metaphors (together with warfare and agriculture) for talking about the Christian life (2 Tim. 2:4-7). All three are physically demanding and require self-control and self-restraint for success.

Is a desire to win bad?

Paul was undoubtedly a sports fan (he probably attended the Isthmian games), and it seems he could not think about the spiritual battle of Christian living without pointing to the obvious parallels drawn from his interest in athletic competition. Throughout these allusions, it does not seem to occur to Paul that one would ever compete in an athletic contest without trying to win: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24). In fact, he has no desire to “run aimlessly” (1 Cor. 9:26). For Paul, sports involve agony, strife, discipline, self-control, hard work, focus, intensity and a desire for victory—just like the Christian life.

Paul makes it clear that the eternal reward of an incorruptible crown is far more important than winning a corruptible crown on an athletic field, but his point only makes sense in light of the appropriate desire to win on the athletic field (1 Cor. 9:25). A child who doesn’t care if they win in a sporting contest and one who cannot lose without throwing a fit both have troubling character problems that ought to be addressed by Christian parents. Self-centered rage is not a spiritual virtue, but neither is weak-willed apathy. Christian parents must defy the spirit of the age by teaching children cruciform ambition, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Playing sports heartily, as for the Lord (Col. 3:23), will often be visible in sweat, bruises and occasionally blood.

Does actual achievement matter?

Though not keeping score and handing out participation trophies in children’s and youth sports is often passed off as a Christian idea, the root of this kind of thinking is found in modern psychological theories and not the Bible. In 1969, Nathaniel Branden published an article titled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.” He argued that feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life, and his notion became the foundational presupposition in education and child rearing for a generation of Americans.

When this theory is applied to children, praise is detached from any actual achievement. In NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman conclude that the result of this thinking is a generation of American young adults who feel better about themselves though they achieve less and fear challenges. If feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life, the thinking goes, then every child must be told they are a winner, and handed a trophy, even when they lose.

A few years ago, my oldest son’s middle school football team lost a game by about 40 points. When they announced the score after the game stating who had won and who had lost, a mother of a player on our team leaned over the rail and yelled, “Don’t listen to that! You didn’t lose. You are all winners. You are winners,” to which I could not help but to respond, “Not tonight. Tonight they’re big losers.” Everybody is not a winner and Christian parents ought to be willing to fight for our children’s right to lose.

There are grave implications for nurturing children in this type of self-oriented flattery culture where no one ever loses and everyone gets a trophy. The Bible relentlessly kicks the legs out from under our misplaced self-esteem and calls us to humble Christ-esteem. There’s a danger in telling children, “All that matters is that you participate, play nice, have fun and feel good about yourself.” The danger is that they might believe it.

Sports do not build character; they dramatically expose character and provide Christian parents and coaches with a valuable opportunity to develop Christian character. Our culture says, “Believe in yourself” and Jesus says, “Deny yourself and follow me.” No one can do both.

Nice children who just want to have fun and who have been consistently rewarded for intentional underachievement with a trophy are being cultivated in a worldview that is antithetical to self-sacrificial Christian discipleship. An entitlement mentality is at odds with the gospel message and God’s promise; it is “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). If sports participation simply becomes another vehicle to prop up the notion that our children’s desires and feelings are more important than the good of others (the team), we must not act surprised when they someday conclude that their desires and feelings are more important than the good of their family, church and everything else, too. Narcissism, laziness and self-protection are not fruits of the Spirit.

When parents and coaches turn off the scoreboards and hand out participation trophies as though recognizing winners and achievement is unspiritual, sports are stripped of the essence that makes them such a valuable metaphor for the Christian life. The desire to win and receive the prize in athletic competition is the very thing Paul latches onto as a transferable concept for cultivating a single-minded focus on the advance of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:24-27). There are eternal winners and losers (Rev. 3:21), and we are to count the cost, take up our cross and follow him because we know what is at stake. Our task demands courageous, self-sacrificial, Great Commission gospel warriors.

And at its best, athletics provide Christian parents and coaches a limited but genuine theater for the examination and cultivation of Christ-honoring characteristics. When everybody is a winner, nobody wins. When everybody gets a participation trophy, everybody loses. Christian parents and coaches ought to know that better than anyone.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24