Reading Time: 4 minutes

Moral Lessons from ESPN’s ’30 for 30′

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

email

Southern California head coach Pete Carroll, foreground, celebrates a win over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl NCAA college football game, San Francisco, December 26, 2009 (Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

{source}
<div style=”float: left; border: 1px solid #000000; background-color: #c0c0c0; padding: 2px; margin: 10px; -moz-border-radius: 3px; -khtml-border-radius: 3px; -webkit-border-radius: 3px; border-radius: 3px;”>
<script src=”http://player.espn.com/player.js?playerBrandingId=4ef8000cbaf34c1687a7d9a26fe0e89e&adSetCode=91cDU6NuXTGKz3OdjOxFdAgJVtQcKJnI&pcode=1kNG061cgaoolOncv54OAO1ceO-I&width=400&height=225&externalId=espn:13739648&thruParam_espn-ui[autoPlay]=false&thruParam_espn-ui[playRelatedExternally]=true”></script>
</div>
{/source}ESPN first debuted it’s now popular 30 for 30 films in late 2009, with arguably the two most popular films being The U and The Pony Excess. If you’re not familiar with 30 for 30, think of a documentary, but imagine it through the lens of sports and cultural phenomena. For instance, The U chronicled the high-flying University of Miami football program in the late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s that was known for its brashness on the field, and its decadence off.

One of the most recent additions to the 30 for 30 series was a film entitled Trojan War that followed the University of Southern California during their dominant years in the early 2000s as the premier college football dynasty, led by Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and head coach Pete Carroll.

One of the reasons these documentary films have been so popular (even winning an Emmy in 2014) is that they take a deeper look into sports issues than the normal 24-hour news cycle of SportsCenter. Sports fans are used to the immediacy of sports, where instant reactions and instant analysis is mostly all that is offered, because when tomorrow rolls around, there will be another batch of games to analyze and react to. 30 for 30 films provide a chance to take an introspective look at the deeper issues of sports and culture.

The U, The Pony Excess, and Trojan War all highlight the all-too-familiar story of the college sports empires that inevitably crumble amidst scandals of various kinds. The fall-from-grace story is ubiquitous in sports, but captivates our collective attention because in the moment, dominant teams feel like any other dominant entity: they feel invincible. Think of the 2008 banking crisis, when a number of massive financial institutions crumbled overnight, or when Enron and Worldcom fell precipitously in 2001. In the moment, those institutions, just like dominant teams, feel like they’re larger than life and will continue on into perpetuity.

30 for 30 makes for great drama, because they pick stories that the average sports fan can connect with easily. They also are surprisingly one of the best ways to connect with those who may not hold Christian convictions, but still live in a sports-saturated culture. They provide clear, understandable moral exegesis of our culture, describing such universal moral issues as hubris, greed, pride, and lust.

The sports culture of today so dominates our society that it’s sometimes hard to recognize it in the moment. Even over just a few decades the entire sports industry has taken gargantuan leaps in popularity, moving beyond the traditional sports world and breaking into popular fashion, politics, business, and legal areas.

We need to pay attention to what this sports obsession is doing to our culture and to the lives of individuals within that culture, so that we can know how to communicate the gospel faithfully and compellingly. Films like 30 for 30 help us in going beyond the basic headlines and actually beginning to understand the motivations, fears, and dreams that sports represents.

North American Christians have largely not known what to do with this growing sports world. Therefore we don’t know how to encourage athletes who want to faithfully exhibit Christ in their professions. We also don’t know how to push back when diversion and hobby becomes obsession.

The point is that if nothing else, films like 30 for 30 provide a great starting place for conversations to be had about the impact of sports on our culture. If we string together stories like The Pony Excess, which happened in the 80s, with The U, which happened mainly in the 90s, along with Trojan War, which took place in the early 2000s, a common theme emerges of hubris, pride, and the absence of humility.

Sports are just like any other thing in life in that they can become corrupted by sin. As Christians, it is vitally important to engage with our sports fandom and think about its role in our lives as well as how it is impacting our culture. We need to think about what values, morals, and ethical standards it is communicating, and how we can not only understand them better, but how we can know when to push back. 30 for 30 is a great place to start.