Last Is the New First


“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first,” (Jesus in Matthew 19:30). 

So many things made an impact upon me this weekend as we gathered at the Hendricks County 4-H Fairgrounds for Special Olympics to watch our Owen participate in equestrian events along with well over 100 athletes from all over the region. It was a fantastic day!

I spent the day surrounded by winners and learned again that last is the new first. What do I mean by that?

You see …

You have already won if, holding your silver medal, you can’t wait until the end of the awards presentation to hug the gold medal winner.

You have already won if you are mute but you can maneuver a 1,000-pound horse around a series of barrels.

You have already won if you can fall off a horse and jump back on with a smile and without a tinge of embarrassment.

You have already won if you are so full of joy that you jump up and down, hands raised in the air, upon receipt of your participation ribbon.

You have already won if you have friends and family who will cheer like crazy just because you finish the ride.

You have already won if you refuse to quit.

You have already won if you have refused to let your “disabilities” render you disabled.

I was so blessed to be surrounded by a bunch of men, women, boys and girls who society largely tolerates (at best), ignores, discards or abuses (at worst).

They were so much fun! The smiles were so big and so genuine. Joy permeated the event even in the presence of joy-stealing adversaries like Down’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, severe learning disabilities, paralysis, and dozens of other diseases and difficulties that I’m sure none of the participants would have chosen.

My Special Olympics experience was such a stark contrast to the hyper-competitive nature of the world in which we live. Ambitious coworkers fight one another for promotions. Professional athletes lie, cheat and steal to achieve a slight edge over the competition. Siblings snipe at one another to win the affection of distracted parents. We stay longer at the office so we can buy a nicer car than the neighbors. We measure our worth by the relative worthlessness we project onto others. It’s an awful way to live.

If you have to become a wretch to come in first place, are you really a winner? No way.

The weekend reminded me that Jesus came as a physician to the sick,  as one who would seek and save the lost, as a rebel who hung out with the blind, lame, mute and diseased instead of those who could pay him back. He understood that in God’s economy of things, the least are the greatest, the meek inherit the earth, and those who recognize their need are the ones who walk away right with God.

In a very real way, I want to take my cues from the athletes I met this weekend. Character is more important than the place in which I finish. Joy is more important than looking good. My friends and family are more important than the strangers I try to impress. Refusing to give up is more important than perfection. Brokenness and honesty are better than hypocrisy.

Last is the new first.

A Full Ride to Nowhere


Are college athletes getting a full ride to nowhere?

I read an article the other day that saddened me. I wish I could say it surprised me. It didn’t. Take a look for yourself. If you don’t have time to read the article, here’s a tidy little summary:

College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry. … The NCAA continually wants to ignore this fact, but they are admitting students who cannot read. … Based on data from those requests and dozens of interviews, a CNN investigation revealed that most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes.

Institutions of higher education all across the nation—specifically those with successful men’s football and basketball programs (“revenue sports”)—are admitting 18- and 19-year-old men who are reading at grade school levels. These men have incredible talent. But, many also have quite significant educational needs. These man pursue athletics with all they have. But, reality demonstrates that sports are only a ticket to social and financial success for a fraction of a percentage of the men who play college basketball or football.

What do these young men really need if they’re going to have a future? They need an education. If their athletic skill earns them room, board and tuition at a university, wonderful! Shouldn’t universities be more concerned about the education of their students than what those same students can do with a helmet and shoulder pads on?

But, to many of these universities—institutions that make multiple millions of dollars from their athletic programs—these young men are merely commodities in a system designed to exploit them for TV contracts, apparel deals, big-name boosters and merchandising revenue.

And, that’s not the only issue. Many of these athletes are playing their hearts out at great risk to their brains and bodies.

Certainly, there are a lot of wonderful success stories in college athletics. I’m sure there are thousands of people walking around who can point back fondly to their experience in big-time college athletics as a place of great personal growth, character development and rich experiences. But, there’s something wrong with a system that is also producing a high rate of 22-year-old men who are, in many cases, physically and intellectually hobbled.

I’ve always been a big sports fan. When I was a kid, I loved playing. As an adult, I enjoy watching games and pulling for my favorite teams. But, I have honestly begun to question my own enthusiasm in light of the cost. Am I OK watching it all and pretending that it’s acceptable? Can I jump and scream the big hit that concusses both players? Can I support schools who have been caught red handed even if they’re successful on the field?

Sure, the stadiums and arenas are full. But, so was the Roman Colosseum.