by Colleen Tinker
The Adventist Review has published a story celebrating the fact that the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has “officially transitioned cross country national championships away from traditional Saturday competitions beginning in 2018.”
Four Adventist universities are part of the NAIA: La Sierra, Pacific Union College, Walla Walla, and Washington Adventist. NAIA is attractive to “faith-based schools” partly because of its five central values: integrity, respect, responsibility sportsmanship, and servant leadership.
Javier Krumm, the athletics director and Randal Wisbey, the president of La Sierra University petitioned the NAIA leadership during its annual convention in April. Krumm requested the meeting, and other Adventist athletic directors joined him and Wisbey in the meeting. They successfully pled their case, and the NAIA is changing its policy to accommodate Adventists’ Sabbath-keeping. In 2018 the cross-country events will occur either on Friday before sundown or on Monday.
“It was a very meaningful and important conversation for Adventist athletics,” Wisbey said. This resolution “will be seen as a significant decision long into the future. We represent a system of 25,000 students around North America. Though not all are NAIA schools, this decision sends a clear message that Adventist students are welcome to play in NAIA championships.”
Significantly, the NAIA has a membership of 249 schools with a large number of them representing Protestant and Catholic churches. Moreover, the league does have an official “Sunday Declaration of Intent” that allows schools that do not compete on Sundays to compete on different days.
It is worth noting, however, that the NAIA did not issue a “Saturday Declaration of Intent” nor an official letter. Further, the council did not “guarantee Sabbath accommodation in all instances toward maintaining event-scheduling flexibility.”
Krumm says they will continue to have conversations with the NAIA leaders to try to obtain an official declaration of intent. “Our students and schools need this foundational policy accommodated,” he says.
The great irony in this story is that Adventists have shamelessly entered the intercollegiate competitive sports arena. Just a few decades ago, Adventist schools did not participate in inter-scholastic competitive sports because of Ellen White’s strong counsels against Adventist schools promoting sports and “matched games” including football and tennis and other indulgent activities such as horseback riding.
Following are some examples of her councils on this matter:
Labor should be connected with study, and through following a course of this kind an all-sided, well-balanced education will be the result. This is the rational method through which souls may be barricaded against evil influences. In this way the mind may be preserved in its soundness, and the nervous energies may be regulated. …
But do not substitute play, pugilistic boxing, football, matched games, and animal exercises, for manual training. All of this stripe and type should be vigilantly prohibited from the school grounds (Manuscript Releases, vol. 11, nos. 851–920).
I entreat the students in our schools to be sober-minded. The frivolity of the young is not pleasing to God. Their sports and games open the door to a flood of temptations. They are in possession of God’s heavenly endowment in their intellectual faculties, and they should not allow their thoughts to be cheap and low (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 366.2).
Few evils are more to be dreaded than indolence and aimlessness. Yet the tendency of most athletic sports is a subject of anxious thought to those who have at heart the well-being of the youth. Teachers are troubled as they consider the influence of these sports both on the student’s progress in school and on his success in afterlife. The games that occupy so much of his time are diverting the mind from study. They are not helping to prepare the youth for practical, earnest work in life. Their influence does not tend toward refinement, generosity, or real manliness (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 201.2).
The young naturally desire activity, and if they find no legitimate scope for their pent-up energies after the confinement of the schoolroom, they become restless and impatient of control, and thus are led to engage in the rude, unmanly sports that disgrace so many schools and colleges, and even to plunge into scenes of actual dissipation (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 72.3).
Those in charge of our schools should put into active service every talent possessed by the students that can be used for the help of the school. When this is done as it should be, it will be found that students will not hanker for football, tennis, and other amusements. What the students need to be taught is how to make themselves as useful as possible wherever they may be placed (Letter 142, October 16, 1901, Par. 17).
Through the love of pleasure, horse racing, cardplaying, cricket and football matches, the intellect is enfeebled. Is this the way in which Christ would have those formed in His image devote their time? God has given man faculties to cultivate, improve, expand, elevate and ennoble. But too often these faculties are laid as a freewill offering upon Satan’s altar. Thus men make it impossible to prepare for the future immortal life (Manuscript 5, 1899, par. 8).
The preceding quotes are by no means exhaustive, but they demonstrate that Ellen White gave “prophetic authority” to the severe restriction if not outright prohibition of athletic sports as part of an Adventist school’s curriculum. In fact, traditionally Adventist academies (high schools) and colleges used their bands and choirs as publicity and recruiting tools instead of their nearly-non-existent sports teams. Music, after all, was an approved activity and useful in church services; sports were, according to the “prophetess”, mentally and morally degrading.
As state accreditation became mandated for high schools to be able to issue college-preparatory diplomas, Adventist school did develop physical education programs and conducted intramural sports programs. Interscholastic sports competitions, however, were not allowed.
Today, however, many Adventist academies and universities do participate in athletic leagues, especially with sports such as baseball, basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Football, however, remains a game which Adventist schools do not promote. Since EGW wrote especially and repeatedly against football specifically, deeming it rude, violent, and morally bankrupt, it remains a non-emphasized sport. When Adventists school do include football in their physical education curricula, they usually teach flag football as opposed to tackle football.
Clearly Ellen White taught against physical sports and preferred that students get physical exercise through hard work. She used God’s authority to emphasizes her anti-sports councils, declaring that Adventist youth would expose themselves to indolence and debauchery if they played competitive games.
While on the one hand we might be tempted to applaud those Adventist schools which are venturing out to play sports and to put their students into leagues, we have to ask: where is their integrity? Can a school which is Adventist owned and operated, which teaches Adventist doctrines in its “Bible classes” and which exists to perpetuate Adventism among the younger generations, ignore the numerous councils of their prophet who shaped the organization?
Are schools truly teaching Adventism if they offer their students league sports?
Even more disjunct is their persistence in lobbying for Sabbath observance for their athletes participating in league competitions. If a school is ignoring the “prophetic counsel” against competitive sports and is actually allowing its students close contact with non-Adventist competitors from “outside” schools, how can they simultaneously hold to the Sabbath mandate which EGW demanded of Adventists?
By lobbying the athletic associations for Sabbath accommodations, Adventists are trampling on one prophetic mandate to uphold another. It would be disingenuous to claim that the Bible mandates the Sabbath but says nothing about sports as a defense, moreover. After all, their Fundamental Belief #18 states that Ellen White’s words have “prophetic authority”. By her own admission, her visions “are either of God or the devil” (Letter to John Andrews; 1 MR 307.1).
Conversely, the Bible makes it clear that the Sabbath was the sign of the old covenant which is now obsolete and has been replaced by the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 8; 2 Corinthians 3; Galatians 1–6). Yet Ellen White declared Sabbath-keeping to be the seal of God (The Great Controversy, p. 640).
If Ellen White truly has “prophetic authority”, no Adventist can take her counsels lightly. One must embrace her counsels in full or not at all. There is no rationale for deciding one of her mandates is relevant while another is not.
Adventists are celebrating their accommodation for the 2018 track and field competitions within the NAIA, but they are sending a message: they are not true to their prophetic mandate. If Ellen White’s athletic restrictions are no longer relevant, Adventists need to ask themselves why they cling to her Sabbath mandate which she says marks those who will be saved.
Neither sports nor Sabbath-keeping shapes a person’s character for heaven. Only believing in the Lord Jesus and His finished work of dying for our sin, being buried, and rising from death qualifies a person for eternal life.
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:7–10).