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NCAA scandal spurs warnings against sports idolatry

PLANO, Texas (BP) — Amid news of an NCAA basketball scandal involving alleged illegal payments to recruits, two Southern Baptist-linked high schools known for producing elite players have underscored the need for a God-focused perspective in athletics.

“We’ve got a couple of young men that are being actively recruited” by college basketball programs, said David Conrady, boys basketball coach at Prestonwood Christian Academy, a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. “I expressed to them [that] it all starts with your foundation of what you believe in.

“Hopefully, that starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ…. Then we can use Him and His standards as our barometer,” Conrady told Baptist Press.

Prestonwood Christian Academy won its sixth consecutive state championship this year and has sent players to NCAA schools like Kentucky, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Prestonwood alumnus Julius Randle plays for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.

The New York Times reported Sept. 26 that federal investigators have made public a series of complaints alleging efforts by college basketball programs and their corporate sponsor to secretly send money to recruits and their families. The complaints also allege bribery of assistant coaches at four universities to send players to certain financial advisers once they turn professional.

Conrady, who has coached at the college level, said the emphasis on money and winning at all costs among some college programs tempts coaches and athletes to commit the types of ethical and legal violations alleged by the federal investigators.

“Nobody woke up a couple of days ago and said, ‘We should start doing some of these things that are not in the best interest of the student athletes or the institution,'” Conrady said. “When the focus changes from what the original intention was and it turns to winning only or getting distracted by the money,” that leads “to people trying to find shortcuts to success.”

Yet fans should not assume all major college basketball programs violate the rules, Conrady said. “I can promise you that a lot more than not are doing things the right way,” he said.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor Evan Lenow wrote in a Sept. 27 blog post that the NCAA scandal suggests “sports has become a form of idolatry in our society. What else could drive coaches, players, families and major corporations to participate in criminal behavior?”

Believers, Lenow wrote, must apply to sports the Bible’s teaching on idolatry.

“For the most part, we do not find ourselves fashioning graven images to worship in an American context,” Lenow wrote. “However, there are plenty of idols that we worship. In this case, money and basketball come to the forefront. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the role of sports in our society. Particularly in the church, it may be time to focus our time, attention and money on the things of God.”

That’s what Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md., attempted to do two years ago, when it ended an elite basketball program that produced about half a dozen NBA players and won the 2010 ESPN Rise high school national championship.

Pastor Ken Fentress of Montrose Baptist Church, the congregation that operates Montrose Christian School, told BP the church is attempting to bring all its ministries in line with its mission.

Followers of Jesus, Fentress said, “need to be careful that we don’t slip into or participate in turning sports or even sports figures into idols.”

Christian schools, Fentress said, “should do everything that they possibly can to ensure that their athletic programs are in line with the Christian mission of the institution and in line with the Gospel principles of the Christian school.”

More than producing elite athletes, said Fentress, an African American, one of his great joys in sports is being able to “encourage and shape young African American males” spiritually and “trying to influence their souls for the grace of God.”

Conrady, of Prestonwood, agreed that the focus of Christians in sports should be “to instruct and to teach … a great life lesson: that there’s never a right way to do a wrong thing.”