When Saturday competes with Sunday

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Originally posted Nov. 28, 2013

DULUTH — The emotions in the house had run a crazy course. Disappointment. Disgust. Hope. More hope. Elation.

But then Mike Dorough and family watched the prayer of a throw from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (just two years ago a member of Dorough’s beloved Georgia Bulldogs). They watched the ball tip off UGA safety Tray Matthews’ fingers and land almost divine-like in the hands of Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis for a touchdown that will be relived on stadium screens and watercolor paintings for the next 50 years.

Now another emotion went through the Dorough living room – disbelief.

“It just got silent,” said Dorough, student pastor at Second Baptist Church in Warner Robins. “No sound. I don’t even know how long we sat there.”

The devotion to sports – particularly college football – runs deep in households across the state. What can be interesting is how the way a ball bounces on Saturday can play such a strong part on Sunday.

“If you can’t get up on Sunday morning despite what happened on Saturday, there’s a problem,” Dorough points out.

As a point of reference: “The day after the Auburn game one student was still so upset he couldn’t even be excited about his high school making the playoffs for the first time on Friday,” Dorough adds.

Opportunities for spiritual growth, unfortunately

If psychologists ever ordered up a sports season to study the emotional effects on fans, this Fall would’ve been it for the Peach State. Rewind to August. UGA and the Falcons had high hopes of championship runs. The Braves were battling for the best record in baseball. Georgia Tech had momentum after winning three of its final four games in 2012, not to mention claiming its first bowl game victory in seven years.

Oh the agony that followed. Injuries annihilated the Bulldogs and Falcons. The Braves … well, were the Braves when it came to the postseason. Tech’s season has been streaky – three wins followed by three losses then three wins again before a blowout loss to Clemson.

“If sports in the state of Georgia were your source of hope we’d all need to be medicated,” Dorough jokes.

When he was a young campus minister in Arkansas, current UGA BCM Senior Campus Minister Franklin Scott remembers a similar experience. A large Southern Baptist church would charter buses to take fans to Razorbacks games, and this particular Saturday the opponent was the hated Texas Longhorns.

“Arkansas’ coach at the time, Ken Hatfield, was a strong believer like [UGA head coach] Mark Richt,” Scott remembers. “At the end of the game Arkansas had Texas – big, mighty Texas – beaten. On the last play Texas threw a 30-or-40-yard pass into the end zone that went through two Arkansas players’ hands and right to a Texas receiver who’d fallen and was lying on the ground.”

On the bus ride back to the church, he adds, “People were mad. Really mad. There wasn’t foul language, but the anger and frustration was real.”

Suffice it to say, those Razorbacks fans still hadn’t gotten quite over it the following morning as they opened their hymnals.

The crux of this dilemma – how a sport can affect your mood to the point it inhibits your worship – was explored in the 2010 book God and Football, written by Auburn alum Chad Gibbs (chadgibbs.com). A former Alabama fan turned Auburn supporter, Gibbs was troubled by how his devotion to a game impacted how he felt in church. To get a broader scope, he traveled to all SEC campuses for game day and while there spoke with Christian groups about it.

“If you ask some people point-blank, ‘Do you worship football?’ they’d say no,” Gibbs wrote. However, the truth is plain to see for many.

Evangelist David Nasser summed up the arc of the book in pointing out that “football is a great hobby, but a horrible god.”

A season of high hopes for UGA was dashed by losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, says Scott. As disappointing as the Auburn loss was, he says the prevailing attitude among students was it was typical.

“It affects the atmosphere of the entire campus, believers and nonbelievers,” he observes. “If we were undefeated this place would be abuzz. [Such attachment] affects our judgment about ourselves and coaches and eventually takes a toll on our relationship with God.

“My background was one of feeling worth when I did well in sports, but then horrible when I didn’t. I was that way until I became a believer, though it’s not completely gone.

“When our teams do well, we feel good about the world. When they struggle, so do we. It connects back to living as if we feel our worth is connected to how we perform. There’s still this false perception we need to ‘perform’ well for God for Him to love us.”

Responsibility both ways

That’s measured tangibly. “We can predict attendance on Sunday based on how teams fared Saturday,” says Associate Pastor Randy Presley of Rosemont Baptist Church in LaGrange, just a 45-minute drive up I85 from the Auburn campus.

“Our congregation is pretty evenly split between Georgia and Auburn fans,” adds Presley, an Auburn graduate. “If both win, we have a big attendance. We also notice more people attending worship only and avoiding Sunday School and small group times during football season. That could be due to staying up late watching games but also to avoid comments from other teams’ fans.”

Following that observation, several church members commented to Presley Sunday morning after the Auburn/Georgia game that they’d just go to worship. It’s said with a grin acknowledging that’s not a good thing, but the way it is.

It’s easy to heap scorn on that practice, but there’s another view to remember, Presley points out.

“It’s wrong when our allegiance to a team trumps our responsibility to our brother. If something – such as a comment – isn’t going to be received well, perhaps it shouldn’t be given. I’m not saying pretend you’re not excited about your team. Just don’t be a jerk.”

Dorough earned a political science degree at UGA. His wife Julie was born in Athens, where her father taught at the veterinarian school.

Mike and Julie later married at Prince Avenue Baptist Church – a congregation with numerous ties to the university and where UGA coach Mark Richt is a member. Their son, John Michael, is currently enrolled at Truett-McConnell College but planning to transfer to UGA’s vet school, the same one his grandfather taught at. The Doroughs’ daughter, Holly Ann, has applied to attend UGA as well. Football Saturdays not at Sanford Stadium aren’t spent socializing with others, but in a red-and-black cone of intensity in the family living room.

Even so, perspective regarding God and football is kept.

“As much as I love the Bulldogs, they didn’t die for my sins,” states Dorough.

Then, almost as if he can’t help himself, he points out one more thing with a smile.

“However, without the red blood of Jesus, there is no forgiveness.”

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