Sports Spectrum, SportsFocus and Me

Seeing this article on Sports Spectrum magazine on The Ringer site brought me a sense of pride and nostalgia. Pride, because I was the founding editor of the publication. Nostalgia, because it generated memories of its founding days. Here are a few:

As the article states, Sports Spectrum started as SportsFocus magazine in 1985. Three of us magazine folks–myself, Sara Anderson and Steve Gier–joined some broadcast personnel, leaving Campus Crusade in July 1984 to start a ministry, New Focus.

The move provided me with the answer to the question, “What is the worst decision you ever made?”, for the rest of my life, conveniently. But it also would provide a lot of good memories.

We published SportsFocus and produced a syndicated television show, “Julius Erving’s SportsFocus.” The show itself was excellent, but it also generated this all-time out-take worth sharing, in a show that looked at sexual morals in the 1980s:

SUBJECT: I lost my lover to AIDS that year
INTERVIEWER: You lost your liver?
SUBJECT: No, my lover
INTERVIEWER: Your lover lost his liver?

We also created a film series for Word Publishers, “Champions”; two of the narrators were Orel Hershiser and Cheryl Miller (then a college student). By August 1985, the TV show and the magazine had failed to catch on, and we were broke and unemployed.

We went our separate ways. I eventually found employment first with Focus on the Family and then with Group magazine in Colorado. During this time, Radio Bible Class (publishers of Our Daily Bread) entered the picture, seeking a media project to reach a younger demographic.

They picked up SportsFocus magazine, renamed it “Second Look” and also created a “Second Look” television show co-hosted by Kyle Rote Jr. and pastor and author John MacArthur. The Group opportunity did not work out, and I rejoined New Focus, which had re-formed as a media agency producing the project for RBC, in July 1987.

The show combined segments on topics in sports with a Kyle/John studio segment that included audience questions. The magazine and television show typically covered the same topics.

New Focus’s president during this time was Ralph Drollinger. You might recognize Ralph as a leader of Bible studies both at the California state capital and more recently in Washington D.C.

Back then he was our company’s president, and sadly, not a very good one. He did not work well within a client agency structure, and pretty much negotiated the television show out of existence.

Seeing this, Steve Gier and I, fearing for our jobs as well, contacted our client RBC directly, pleading for help. They believed in the magazine, so they renegotiated the contract and even had us help develop a second project for them: a youth version of its popular devotional called Our Daily Bread Campus Journal, which is still published as Soul Journey.

The tenure did produce another unforgettable moment–on Jan. 5, 1988, when Ralph called me from Focus on the Family headquarters, shaken and upset, to tell me that basketball legend Pete Maravich had died after a pick-up basketball game that Ralph had joined in that morning.

The magazine also came back after a brief hiatus, but I soon tired of agency work (especially that experience of agency work), and I took a position at Azusa Pacific University as public information director in February 1989, ending my career in magazine publishing.

(By the way, you can link to some of my Sports Focus and Second Look issues through this blog post from three years ago.)

That put me on the path of transitioning to college teaching, and to my position  29 years later, as a full professor journalism at Auburn University.

Radio Bible Class brought the magazine project in-house about a year or two after I left (at some point renaming it Sports Spectrum), and Steve Gier moved from Southern California to Grand Rapids to continue as its art director for many years.

To be honest, I eventually lost track of the magazine and its progress as a different form of publishing (that kind that avoids perishing) consumed my attention.

I knew that it had been picked up by a group in Charlotte, N.C.; a former student of mine at Auburn even got a job there a couple of years without knowing my connection.

But The Ringer article caught me up with its progress, and I’m glad that it’s in a solid place with Jason Romano at the helm. Pro Athletes Outreach seems a perfect organization to oversee it (though granted my last contact with PAO was more than 30 years ago).

Now, as back then, the project seems guided by a belief that sports can be used in a positive way, to reinforce biblical concepts. I was particularly encouraged by Romano’s wisdom in navigating some perilous waters given race-related controversies among pro athletes today (much wiser than many evangelical leaders with a high media profile are handling political issues).

I am also grateful that the article recalled 1985, when some friends and I took our idealistic faith in Christianity and the power of sports media, stumbled around a bit, and ended up affiliated in a small way with a project that does us proud, even today.

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When God Hated SEC Football

oldfootballThese days, Southern football and evangelical Christianity have forged a strong bond.  But it hasn’t always been that way.

At least, so wrote Andrew Doyle of Winthrop University, in an article he wrote titled, “Foolish and Useless Sport: The Southern Evangelical Crusade Against Intercollegiate Football.”

In fact, the article was published about 15 years ago, in the Fall 1997 issue of theJournal of Sport History.  I came across it while doing some other research, and the topic naturally interested me (as did the mentions of Auburn University).  But keep in mind that basically all of this stuff is his.

The Auburn-Georgia game in February 1892 is considered the first intercollegiate football game in the Deep South.  But the arrival of football did not impress the local clergy.

The Rev. C.L. Chilton, pastor of the First Methodist Church in Auburn, declared that this “foolish and useless sport [was] more properly called a fight.”  He gave an injury report for both teams, but the sprains and broken bones listed were a denunciation of the spectacle.

Chilton, like many church leaders, was concerned that football would overwhelm the academic mission of the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, as it was known as the time.  “Here in Auburn, football is the one engrossing theme during the season.  The whole thing is a travesty upon higher education,” he complained.  Even the daily practices were popular: “Learned professors hasten to the scene of the fray,” he said.

Some might argue that football provided exercise to build strong young men, but Chilton was unimpressed: “Any young man can acquire that at home in the useful emoluments of cutting his mother’s yard or driving his father’s plow.”

The Wesleyan Christian Advocate in Georgia joined the criticism that immediately followed the game: “And so the sacred altars, whose incense has been so inspiring to our people in the past, are broken down, and these gods of the sensual and material man have set up their altars instead.”  To the WCA, the game represented “a swing back to Olympic Greece and her barbarian ideals.”

So how could such an outrage happen?  The WCA blamed it on the South’s defeat in the Civil War.  Social degeneration allowed football to find its way onto Southern campuses.  “This new outbreak in the South, in contrast with the sturdy integrity of our past history, is but a natural result of lowering the standard of citizenship and manhood.”

To others, it was another cultural evil brought down from the North whose effects would be felt deeply on the college campuses.  W.P. Fleming, a teacher and Methodist church member writing in the WCA, urged Southerners to resist “the athletic craze [that] is just beginning to take southern colleges … before our higher education will be degraded into what it has already become in some institutions of the North.”

Alabama and Auburn played for the first time the year after Auburn and Georgia.  By 1900, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery said the behavior of fans who attended that years game in the state capitol “is such as to startle and shock the community.”  Indeed, the Alabama Christian Advocate described football’s ability to “convert a crowd of students, inflamed with liquor and excited by loyalty to their institution, into a howling mob of toughs, gamblers, and drunkards.”

Even after Auburn stopped playing Alabama, the Tigers continued to travel to Birmingham to play games.  Seeing the students flock to the city’s saloons, the president of the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union asked the Auburn president to stop scheduling games in Birmingham.  Unfortunately for the WCTU, the bigger cities provided bigger ticket sales, so the request was ignored.

As part of the greater debate on the usefulness of sports like football, many pointed to its role in building strong young men imbued with a commitment to teamwork and sacrifice toward a common goal.

But these Southern writers were not buying the “manhood” argument.  The WCA exhorted the universities to “hold the standard of scholarship high, so as to require true manhood to reach after it, and when it is attained, we could feel that we have real men as our sons and not mere prize fighters.”

The ACA complained that the mind was subordinated to the body on campuses that embraced football: “The ideal man is the one that can kick, rather than the one that can think.”

It’s amazing to think that because of the pressure, the University of Georgia trustees banned football shortly after the first Auburn-Georgia game, though they caved to pressure from students and the media a year later.  The University of Alabama restricted the Alabama team to home games.  That restricted football so much that Alabama played only four games overall in 1896 and 1897, and did not field a team at all in 1898.

Eventually, of course, all of this changed.  The evangelical church has come around, and institutionally speaking is one of football’s biggest supporters.  And the University of Alabama even allows its team to play away games (though getting them to the Auburn campus would take a few more decades).