Integrating Sports and Faith: In Conversation with Dr. Tim Sceggel
By Andrew Shaughnessy

From the foot races and javelin throwing of Homer’s “The Iliad” to the helmet-crashing combat of SEC football, we humans are enthralled by sports; always have been. Across the globe, crowds of tens of thousands pack stadiums to watch colorfully clad supermen and wonderwomen face off in contests of strength, skill, and teamwork. Tens of millions more watch from salsa-stained couches and beer-drenched bars, rattling off obscure statistics and the life stories of athletes they will never meet.

Sports are big business too. According to The Economist, Americans spend about $15 billion on sports-related merchandise every year. TV rights for British Premier League soccer games are worth $3.6 billion per season, and in 2018 the estimated total worth of global sports sponsorships was $55 billion. Even more startlingly, Americans illegally bet nearly $150 billion per year on sports, approximately equal to the GDP of Ukraine.

So why do we love sports so much?

Psychologists and anthropologists theorize that sports tap into ancient survival tendencies — loyalty to our “team” and its champions kept our ancestors alive in a less civilized world, while physical and athletic prowess helped them hunt prey, defeat enemies, and attract mates. Literary theorists point out the similarities between the narrative structure of a football game and Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” — the monomythic story arc deeply embedded in the human psyche. For many of us, myself included, sports have played a major role in our own stories: The playing field is where we forged friendships, overcame adversity, and first felt the thrill of victory or the sting of defeat.

Whatever the case, the influence of sports on our culture and lives is undeniable. For Dr. Tim Sceggel, Covenant College director of athletics, this begs an obvious question: “How does our faith fit into all this?”

How do you judge whether discipleship is active and effective in a college athletics context?

Shifting Perspectives

Sceggel’s journey to athletics leadership and administration can be traced to his days as an undergraduate at Covenant. A number of his friends played on the college basketball team and, looking for a fun way to hang out with his buddies, he signed up to be the team manager. When he became a Christian in his junior year, Sceggel says that the lens through which he looked at sports began to change. Before, sports were just … sports. He knew he loved them, but he hadn’t given much thought to whether Christianity had anything to say about the way we play, watch, cheer, or coach. Now, for the first time, he began to ask questions such as: “When people are injuring each other in sports, is that ‘glorifying God with our bodies?’” “When it comes to sport, is the church speaking into culture, or are we just letting secular culture speak into the church?” A few years later, an internship with the Wheaton College athletic department further sharpened his perspective and began to shape a lifelong philosophy.

“Wheaton was really intentional about pursuing excellence,” Sceggel said. “We were trying to win, but at the same time really trying to glorify Christ in what we’re doing even as we’re winning. In Covenant’s athletic history they had not quite balanced that yet. … I thought, ‘This is really cool. I need to explore [it] more.’”

After leaving Wheaton, Sceggel earned a master’s degree in sports administration and made his way back to Covenant College, landing an initial job managing athletic events and facilities. During the next 12 years, he slowly climbed the ladder, teaching sports-related classes and earning his place as an assistant athletics director, then associate AD, and finally director of athletics in 2016. When Covenant encouraged him to pursue a doctorate in higher education administration, Sceggel finally had his chance to explore the intersection of faith and sport more deeply and directly.

How Jocks Find Jesus

When it came to measuring the success of Covenant’s sports teams, Sceggel took three categories into account: athletic success, academic success, and discipleship. The first two were easy. Athletic success could be judged by the number of games won or lost, academic success by student GPAs and graduation rates. But how do you judge whether discipleship is active and effective in a college athletics context?

“Covenant, Wheaton, Gordon, Calvin, all of [these Christian colleges] are saying: ‘We’re doing athletics in a way that helps our student-athletes grow in their faith,” said Sceggel. “That’s what we hung our hat on. But we didn’t have any real research to prove that we were actually doing this. … So I thought, ‘Let me see if I can develop a framework [to measure this.]’”

For his doctoral dissertation, Sceggel designed a research study that sought to uncover one central question: “Does athletic participation influence faith development?”

During the course of a year, Sceggel interviewed junior and senior student-athletes, exploring the process by which their faith had developed during their time as athletes at Covenant. Ultimately, four themes emerged, earmarking specific catalysts for spiritual development among college athletes.

First, individual relationships: Over and over again, athletes cited deep, personal relationships as the biggest contributing factor to their faith development in college. But not just any casual friendship would do — these had to be intentional relationships, built on a strong foundation that allowed for the discussion of spiritual topics. These could be family members, faculty, teammates, residence life staff, or (importantly) coaches.

Second, adverse experiences: Students who experienced significant hardships, but approached these challenges through the lens of faith, noted that the experience deepened their faith. While there was no particular pattern to the specific type of hardship that helped deepen their faith — with athletes citing everything from the death of family members to season-ending injuries — students consistently noted that a strong faith community helped them not only survive their ordeal but come out stronger. Teammates, roommates, coaches, and professors alike were key in helping student-athletes properly frame their hardships through a Biblical lens and ultimately grow.

Third, identity formation: Much to Sceggel’s surprise, the majority of the student-athletes he interviewed confessed to wrestling with whether their identity was found more in sports or in their faith. Athletes on healthy teams led by solid coaches often worked through this tension slowly during the course of their college careers, a natural outworking of discipleship, positive relationships, and a maturing Christian faith. Others were forced to face the identity question when sports were suddenly taken away. Sceggel recalls one Covenant baseball player, an MLB prospect who tore a muscle, forcing him to sit out the season and miss his chance at getting drafted.

“He was asking: ‘God, why are you doing this to me? Why are you taking away this awesome opportunity?’ But also, ‘Is my identity in sports or is it in Christ?’” Sceggel explained. “I would not wish that [experience] on anybody, but working through those things was a really cool opportunity for him to grow in Jesus.”

Sports do not build character in and of themselves. … Character development is dependent on intentional efforts by coaches.

Fourth, a holistic Christian environment: Many student-athletes pointed to the integration of faith in nearly every part of their life at Covenant as key to their personal spiritual growth.

“It’s tough to escape the gospel here,” Sceggel laughed. “It’s in the classroom, the dorm room, the chapel. … It’s this all-encompassing thing at Covenant … and we don’t take off our Christian hat when we go compete on the playing field.”

Individual relationships, adverse experiences, identity formation, and a holistic Christian environment — all together, these four formed Sceggel’s framework for intentionally thinking about how to help student-athletes grow spiritually. His conclusion? Hiring the right coaches was crucial.

Wanted: Leaders of Character

From misusing of Paul’s athletic metaphors to the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorian era, there is a longstanding myth in Western culture that participation in sports naturally builds character — teaching grit, discipline, courage, leadership, teamwork, and more. Yet more recent scholarship contradicts these assertions. Sports do not build character in and of themselves. Rather, athletics simply provide a structured opportunity for growth. Character development is dependent on intentional efforts by coaches.

“If you look at the history of Covenant College athletics, we have always been a Christian school, and we’ve always hired Christian coaches, but [we haven’t always hired coaches] that integrated their faith with their coaching,” Sceggel said. “Now we have this framework that we can look at [and ask]: How does this coach relate with their student-athletes? What does it look like when a coach shepherds a student-athlete through a really difficult circumstance?”

If character development, discipleship, and spiritual growth are true priorities for an athletic department, it’s not enough for them to hire coaches who can help a team win games. They have to hire coaches willing to be holistic disciplers, men and women with robust faith, willing to build deep relationships with their athletes, walk with them through hardship, and mentor them through difficult questions of identity, pride, and purpose. 

Today, Sceggel says that all Covenant coaches are unified in their desire to help their student-athletes not just win, but build up their faith. In addition to win/loss stats and team GPAs, coaches now have a framework to judge the intentionality of their discipleship efforts. Measuring something such as spiritual growth may be largely impossible, but the trends are encouraging. Even as Covenant sports teams win conference championships, they’re simultaneously winning sportsmanship trophies. Four years ago (before Sceggel unleashed his research and began implementing change), 80% of Covenant’s student-athletes said in an annual survey that they had grown in their faith as a result of participation in Covenant sports. Last year, that number had grown to 94%.

“We’re [still] trying to win, and we do win at a high level,” Sceggel said. “But at the end of the day winning just provides temporary joy, and we’re looking for eternal faith development.”

The way Sceggel sees it, whether we’re talking about business or bioethics, social justice or sports, the gospel touches every part of our lives and culture. Christ’s redemption of our broken world extends to our games as much as it does our philosophies, to what we do with our bodies as much as to what we do with our minds, to how we lead young athletes as much as how we lead young seminarians. Our faith not only can fit into how we play, watch, and coach sports, it must.

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