The Pitfalls of Platforms

Michael Metzger

Christians often talk about work as a “platform” for evangelism. Tonight’s NCAA national championship game reminds us of the pitfalls of platforms.

If you catch tonight’s game between Clemson and Alabama, you’ll notice both teams huddle before a play. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio says the huddle is one of the facets of football that explains America. It also tells us something about American Christianity.

There was no huddle in college football before 1894. Teams like Harvard and Michigan had the quarterback or halfback bark out the plays at the line of scrimmage. Nothing was hidden from the defense. Gallaudet University, a Washington DC college for the deaf, imitated these schools. But they used hand signals—American Sign Language—to call a play. This gave Gallaudet an advantage against nondeaf schools.

That advantage disappeared against other deaf teams. They could read sign language. So Gallaudet quarterback Paul Hubbard came up with an ingenious plan. At the beginning of the 1894 season he decided to conceal the signals by gathering his offensive players in a huddle. It worked brilliantly. “From that point on, the huddle became a habit during regular season games,” states a school history of the football program.1

By 1896, other college teams had adopted the huddle. At one school, the University of Chicago, coach Amos Alonzo Stagg saw the huddle as a way of introducing the Christian faith to the game. The huddle could be a platform for the gospel.

Stagg had started out wanting to be a minister but instead became a coach. With evangelical zeal, he saw the huddle as a way to be a minister, winning souls by introducing “muscular Christianity” to the game. The huddle could be “a kind of religious congregation on the field, a place where the players could minister to each other, make a plan, and promise to keep faith in that plan and one another.”

And therein lies the pitfall of platforms. They use things for their utilitarian value, not their intrinsic worth. Platforms treat everyday things as a means to an end, ignoring whether they have any moral value apart from their functionality.

I saw this in the college ministry I was a part of for several years. We held seminars such as “How to Make Good Grades.” A high GPA was a platform for the gospel. We ignored the intrinsic value of education. Success was seeing people come to Christ. Today’s college education is about getting a high-paying job. You make good grades to make good money. In elite schools, a high GPA is a passport to privilege.

And then there’s collegiate sports. In the past five years public universities have allocated more than $10.3 billion in student fees and other subsidies to prop up sports programs. Median pay for NCAA Division I football head coaches increased 93 percent between 2006 and 2012. Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $6.9 million a year. He’s the highest paid public official in the state of Alabama. But is this right?

In a commercialistic culture, the answer is yes. This is what the market will bear. David Brooks disagrees. These are moral and cultural issues. “A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed.”2 Those who see the intrinsic value of sports see salaries as moral issues. Those who see a sport as a platform rarely do. They measure conversions, not commercialism.

Commercialism drove the University of Chicago to drop football in 1939—though it was reinstituted in 1969 at the more low-key level of Division III. In the 1930s Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the university’s president, called college football an “infernal nuisance.” As Hutchins put it: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one.”

Hutchins saw sports as a moral issue. It is. God created a world for us to play in, “to have sport in it” (Ps. 104:24-26). Sports have intrinsic value. John Milton wrote that Christians “have need of some delightful intermissions, wherein the enlarged soul… may keep her holidays to joy and harmless pastime.” The prophet Zechariah describes the new heavens and earth where “the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets” (Zech. 8:5). There will be play, perhaps even football, in heaven.

That’s why football explains America. But sports also explain creation and heaven. Viewed however as merely a platform for evangelism, huddles also explain American Christianity. We’ll observe this every time Clemson and Alabama huddle tonight.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Sal Paolantonio, How Football Explains America (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008), pp. 38-41.
2 David Brooks, “The Amateur Ideal,” The New York Times, September 22, 2011.

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9 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Platforms”

  1. The words ‘integrity’, ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ spring to mind. Though metaphors of the sojourner, farmer, athlete and soldier also prompt context specific behaviours.

  2. I am interested to know the connection between the “rise of the two chapter gospel” and the use of “platforms for preaching the gospel”. I assume they are related but would appreciate anyone’s thoughts about it.

  3. Would like to see more details on the theory of intrinsic values. The pearl of great price comes to mind. Modern morality starts with the fact/value distinction. Nature does not have intrinsic value in this scheme. Moral judgments are subjective added “values.”

  4. You’re making me think, as always, Mike, but I struggle with your arguments. For example, Baylor U. is determined to raise their Christian standards internally while raising their standards externally in worldly success, and I do not see a conflict in doing both. The only hypocrisies are in a man, not in his utilities (his position, his money). It’s not what goes into a man but what comes out of him. David Brooks is extremely dissillusioned in expecting a university to be a moral beacon or to look at students confined to taking classes as some kind of marker that indicates amateur ideal and restraint. More than ever it’s clear that it’s the man, and not the institution, that leads. Therefore if Saban gives charitably, he has countered your implied position that he is about naked self-interest – just because his institution might be. Or if he has personally counseled players away from self-destruction – he has vaulted your implied position that he exploits players – even though his institution might be. Institutions are place-holders where the magnification of an institute leader’s heart can be better seen.

  5. “. . . Platforms treat everyday things as a means to an end, ignoring whether they have any moral value apart from their functionality.”

    Mike, ironically, this is what your argument seems to do to platforms. While there is much to commend in your critique, it does not follow that leveraging one thing as a platform for other ends negates or ignores the value of the initial thing. It is quite possible to be doing both.

    For example, as I understand it, your business consulting practice seeks to make entities more innovative, productive and profitable. That said, your practice also seeks to foster a more human (and ultimately biblical) ethos and approach for the people affected by those companies. To say that you are motivated to improve the latter does not mean you are “ignoring” whether the goods and services those businesses produce ha ve any moral value. Or vice versa. This is a false dichotomy.

    Granted, people can and have abused both sides of this equation. I know nothing about football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, beyond what you note here, but that relatively benign quote from a far more religiously-inclined era 120 years ago does not strike me as utilitarian or inappropriate. It certainly does not infer seeing a lack of value in the game of football. Rather, it recognizes the human and cooperative nature of our beings — that we gain strength from each another, particularly in the face of opposition. Thus, we can approach and use those brief moments while together in the huddle to build solidarity and trust that will benefit our team performance.

    The alternative to the critique you outline is to segregate everything from everything else. So when we play football, we only concern ourselves with football. No other dimensions of our life experience matter. When we are at work making widgets, nothing else matters — only widgets. Few of us live such compartmentalized lives, and those who do are seen as eccentric (or worse). We are each whole persons, for whom each area of our self interacts with other areas.

    Certainly, there are myriad ways to abuse life’s platforms. But let’s not paint with too broad of a brush here, or (to mix metaphors) create a field of straw men to set alight. You and I leverage platforms for other purposes all the time. For example, as a parent, you put your kid in music lessons and youth-league sports for those activities own sake, but even more importantly to build beneficial qualities in your son or daughter — resilience, grit, working with others, submitting to instruction or coaching, learning to perform under pressure, managing their emotions when they win as well as when they lose, etc. In the long run, those other outcomes matter far more than whether their 4th grade Little League team wins the community rec league pennant. That said, baseball also matters.

  6. What you are calling “commercialization” I have been referring to as the “commodification” of all things.

    I really look forward to reading more from you on this as you continue to think about it!

    – John

  7. Mike Metzger

    Kent: Of course it’s a both/and. I just don’t recall our campus ministry addressing the intrinsic worth of a well-developed mind. That’s changing – I understand that – but the old model still persists.

  8. Thanks, Mike. Perhaps my experience ministering on campuses in New England and in the Ivy League was a little different — both with students and professors. We did (and continue to) affirm “the intrinsic worth of a well-developed mind.” That said, there are healthy limits to the worth of such a mind. Like any good thing we value, intellectual development and achievements risk becoming an end in themselves, the center of one’s sense of identity (and/or superiority), and an idol that is worshiped. As in all areas of life, we are complex beings, so discerning a healthy balance is the antidote.

    As William F. Buckley famously observed, he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.” Few of those randomly distributed names in the Boston phone directory will have PhD’s and Ivy League posts, but often the ways in which their minds are developed offer more common sense and practical wisdom for navigating the world. Plus they will be more varied in perspective and life experience compared to the rather ideologically monolithic concentration of “well-developed minds” toiling away at Harvard.

    I appreciate your weekly columns, Mike, and largely benefit from your insights. Occasionally I feel you get a little one-sided or characterize something complex a bit too simplistically, so will push back against what strikes me as an unfair or “straw man” argument. But keep up the great work. Many of us are glad you write these!

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