Sports and the Gospel: A Purpose Higher Than Victory

“Sports and the Gospel: A Purpose Higher Than Victory,” Ensign, Feb. 1992, 58–60

Sports and the Gospel: A Purpose Higher Than Victory

When two players lost their tempers and created a difficult situation during a basketball game in the Sparks Nevada Stake a few years ago, President D. Wayne Abbott determined that this kind of behavior could not be accepted among Latter-day Saints. As stake president and as an avid basketball fan, he gave us a charge as stake sports leaders to build a priesthood-correlated sports program with an atmosphere that would foster Christlike behavior.

We decided to proceed in the spirit of a statement from President Thomas S. Monson in a 1988 general conference address: “Church sports activities have a unique central purpose much higher than the development of physical prowess, or even victory itself. It is to strengthen faith, build integrity, and develop in each participant the attributes of his maker.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 44; see also The Church Sports Official, videotape, stock number 53019.)

It wasn’t going to be a simple adaptation of the program. The stake presidency told us that we should consider various options but that they wanted a distinctly Church program. They quoted the words of Brigham Young: “The Latter-day Saints want to get to Zion, but we keep trying to drag Babylon along with us.” (Speech given in Salt Lake Tabernacle, 6 Apr. 1873.)

After much prayer, hard work, and some experimentation with principles that could apply to any sport, our program has made a complete turnaround.

Sports with Priesthood Values

When we first received the assignment from our stake presidency, we began to think about men’s basketball in priesthood terms, with priesthood values. (While the same principles would apply in the women’s program, there have been few sportsmanship problems in our stake among women participants.) The stake presidency approved some name changes to help us think about who we are. Men’s sports teams in the stake go by ward and quorum names—Sparks Fifth Deacons, for instance. The competitive stake basketball tournament was replaced by the Priesthood Round Robin, which has no winners’ or losers’ brackets. The divisions are designated by priesthood names (Teachers-Priests Division, Elders Division).

The individual formerly known as the coach is now the “priesthood leader for sports.”Other changes were made, too. Games now begin and end with prayer, to remind participants that Church buildings, including the cultural halls, are dedicated for the purpose of teaching Christlike ideals. There are no longer any eligibility forms to be signed by the bishop. The ward’s priesthood leader for sports is responsible for seeing that only eligible players participate. To be eligible, players must attend at least one sacrament meeting and one priesthood meeting each month and must live within the boundaries of the ward. Players of other faiths are welcome on our teams, and they have two weeks from the time they begin playing to meet our attendance goal.

Playing the Game Our Way

President Monson challenged leaders to make it possible for every worthy individual to play and develop. (See Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 44.) We found we had to change the way we played the game to do that. It helped to have games of two different types:

Ward team games. Young men play on their quorum’s team against members of another quorum within the stake. With the changes in our program, we find these games build friendships, closeness, and unity within each quorum. Three-quarters of the games in the stake are of this type.

“Chosen team” games. The priesthood leaders for sports from two different wards bring together their quorums of the same age. One captain is chosen from each ward. The captains then choose team members, alternating in selecting from each quorum so that the two teams contain an even mix of players from each ward. This allows the brethren to be teammates with others with whom they do not have weekly contact; it helps them find new friends. In the stake, every fourth game on the schedule, in each division, must be one of these.

We have a rule in the stake that every player on a team gets playing time in each half, though no time limit is specified. This is in line with President Monson’s advice: “When you put a player in a suit, put him in the game.” (Ibid.)

What’s the Score?

The final score has lost a lot of its importance under our program. In fact, sometimes there isn’t one, and many boys like those games best.

Every fourth or fifth game is a nonscoring game. That means we don’t record the team scores, but we keep detailed records of each player’s individual performance in a variety of categories—two- and three-point shots attempted and made, assists, plays successfully run, etc. This helps players gauge their own development.

Both experienced players and less-skilled players like these games because they can try some new things—maybe more three-point shots or driving the lane—without worrying about hurting their team. The less-skilled players seem to get more playing time in these games. Some of the more experienced men in the elders division didn’t get a chance to play Church ball in younger years because they were playing for school teams. We have seen some really beautiful basketball when some of these brethren get out there and play just for enjoyment.

Of course, most of our games in the stake are scoring games. However, any game in which one team is twenty points ahead immediately becomes a nonscoring game. If the players on the two teams then begin playing more evenly, they may ask the officials to turn the scoreboard back on, with both scores at zero.

“All-Stake” or “All-Star”?

The worldly way of honoring “all-star” players—based on athletic prowess alone—wasn’t acceptable. In the priesthood, there are no winners or losers, and no one advances at the expense of others. So we developed our own standards, based on these principles, for “all-stake” players.

Our standards take athletic performance into account, based on things like goals, assists, three point percentage, and playmaking. But they also recognize sportsmanship, development of leadership skills, and effective use of the sports program in missionary work. As statistics are kept during the games, a player’s performance in any of these categories is noted with a single tally mark. At the end of the season, every player who reaches a predetermined number of tallies receives an all-stake trophy.

We present the all-stake trophies at the end of regular play during our basketball season. Every player who participated on a team gets a certificate. But there is no championship to determine a stake winner among teams.

We finish the season, though, with an all-day “shootout” for those who enjoy competition. It features three-on-three play in which no team can have more than one elder; at least two team members must be Aaronic Priesthood holders; and teams can be made up of members from different wards. The teams use honor calls (there are no officials), and we provide lots of cold, wet refreshments. It’s one of our most popular events.

A Difference in Atmosphere

Our program isn’t perfect yet. We still have a few problems, but nothing as serious as those we used to have. Putting priesthood principles to work has enormously strengthened the program.

The changes have altered the attitudes of many priesthood leaders toward sports. For some of them, scores have become incidental. Their focus is on developing players. Now they can coach every player in the stake. They may watch a player on another team and think, “I could help him.” When their turn comes, in one of our “chosen-team” games, they have the opportunity to teach that player.

Changes in our stake’s sports program have been so noticeable that experienced Latter-day Saint sports officials who formerly avoided officiating in Church games have been drawn back into service. Some athletes have left school teams or city league teams to play on Church teams because of the difference in atmosphere.

We think the principles used in developing our basketball program could work in any sport. Our stake has found that members, along with their associates of other faiths, want to enjoy organized sports in an atmosphere that encourages Christlike behavior. Once they have experienced a purpose higher than victory, they won’t settle for anything less.—Clifford J. Stratton, Sparks, Nevada

One bishop coaches while another plays on a quorum team during a game in the Sparks Nevada Stake. (Photography by Tom White.)

Photography by Phil Shurtleff

Players from different quorums receive awards at the end of the Sparks Nevada Stake’s basketball season. (Photography by Marsha Stratton.)