13 May 2008

Crusaders drub foes in gridiron (and cultural) 'clash'

The relation between sports and masculine Christian virtue is obvious to any sports fan in the United States. Team members often pray together before and after competitions and it is not uncommon for stars and coaches in press interviews to thank God or Jesus for their successes. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, non-denominational ministry, has been evangelizing among young athletes in all sports for many than half a century. Many Christians perceive sports as an ideal forum in which to develop the virtues of leadership, team work, discipline, sacrifice, goal setting and achievement.

That was all part of the cultural baggage that accompanied the Evangel University football team from Springfield, Missouri, which earlier this week concluded a three-team American football “tournament” in Bishkek with club teams from the host nation of Kyrgyzstan and from nearby Kazakhstan. The final game between Evangel U. and Kyrgyzstan was, at best, lopsided and was over long before the score climbed to 27-0 Monday night and I left Spartak Stadium.

Evangel is private Christian university associated with the Assemblies of God. They are an NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Division II school and play football in Heart of America Conference, in which they were champions in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2005. Over the past 13 years, the Crusaders are the winningest collegiate football team in the state of Missouri--at any level,” according to the school’s website.

That’s right, the Crusaders, an irony that was not lost on anyone in the group I sat with the last night. American football, after all, may be the most militaristic of all major U.S. sports in terms of objectives and its language of analysis. So to add to the clash of civilizations motif, there were suggestions that the team from Kyrgyzstan, a nation which is approximately 75% Muslim, temporarily rename themselves the Jihadists, Mujahedeen or Wahabbists.

Even before the 9/11 attacks and escalated tensions between some Christians and Muslims, some colleges and universities in the United States were rethinking potentially inflammatory athletic-team mascots. In 2000, Wheaton College, the Christian school in Illinois, bagged its mascot, a crusading knight on a charging steed, in favor of “Lyons.” At the time, after researching the European Christian quests to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims in the 11th, 12th and 13th century, the college president concluded, "We are hard-pressed to find anything in these disastrous waves of fighting that our Lord might have approved, despite the fact that the conflict was ostensibly carried out in his name."[1]

The faculty, students and alumni of Evangel, however, held firm. "The word originally meant one who bears the cross, and when we selected the name Evangel and the mascot of a crusader, we were intentionally trying to communicate our desire to bring the good news and cross into every situation we encountered." explained a professor emeritus to Christianity Today magazine.

So add that cultural context to the spectacle of an American college football game in Bishkek, complete with cheerleaders, a karaoke songbird at halftime, and a fine student vocalist singing Freddie Mercury and Queen’s power ballad “We Are the Champions.”

In the style typical of post-Soviet Central Asia, the game was preceded by the presentation of certificates to the officiating crew and team trophies from an earlier game by announcers who sincerely believe they are contributing to the “total entertainment package,” plus generating excitement and enthusiasm, by screaming into the dangerously loud public address system.

Come on, with all of that (and maybe even in spite of it), how could you not have a good time among friends on a warm spring evening?

[1] See Jody Veenker, “Higher Education: Eagles, Crusaders, and Trolls—Oh My!,” Christianity Today magazine web site at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/june12/12.18.html, 12 June 2000 (accessed 13 May 2008).