From the Mat: Speaking on Behalf of the Marginalized

Well, I really want you to read….and perhaps my title got you doing that. Now before you close this window and curse my name for even considering athletes and sports are “marginalized,” hear me out. As a future pastor, part of my job is to give voice to that what’s marginalized in our world. While there’s much out there to draw attention to, I wonder if drawing your attention to the sport of wrestling, and what happened this past weekend is important, because I think it highlights something that’s good about sports and humanity, and something that’s disturbing about our world and what it values.

Those who follow this blog know my passion for wrestling, but I realistic to know it has relatively small, but faithful, following. It’s a marginalized sport, at best. To prove my point, how many of you knew that the NCAA Division I National Tournament was happening this weekend, and that history was made, the kind that transcends the sport? This past weekend, a wrestling from Cornell University, Kyle Dake, won his 4th NCAA National Title. And that’s noteworthy for a couple reasons:

– In the history of college wrestling (Division I) Dake became only the 3rd wrestler to achieve this accomplishment. He finished with a career record of 139-4, having not lost over the last 2 + years.

– Dake accomplished this at 4 different weight classes (141, 149, 157, 165). To put that in perspective, that would be like an all-pro safety or cornerback in football choosing to be a defensive lineman, and becoming an all-pro at that position. It would be like one of the best point guards in basketball becoming a center and becoming the best center in all of basketball. Or a featherweight boxer moving up to light heavyweight and winning the belt. That just doesn’t happen.

– Dake attends Cornell University – an Ivy League school. That means he never took a redshirt year to develop physically and athletically, and he had to have the grades to get in and stay in. Ivy League schools don’t drop their standards for athletes in any sport….and Dake maintains over a 3.0 GPA in sociology. That might seem like an “easy” major to you, but I guarentee taking sociology at Cornell is just a “bit” more rigorous than taking it at State University X.

– By the way, to achieve this, Dake had to beat David Taylor, who is no pushover himself: He was the defending National Champion at the weight last year, and was the Hodge Trophy winner – the Heisman Trophy winner of college wrestling. By the way, Taylor maintains over a 3.5 GPA at a state school – Penn State University. But, Penn State isn’t your typical state school….while it’s not an Ivy League school, PSU is widely known as a academically challenging school, and doesn’t cater to its athletes.

In short, Dake achieved history by making the choice to move up a weight class to take on and beat a wrestler who was considered the best in all of college wrestling. He chose to take the hard route – to take a shot at achieving something great, rather than choosing an easier path and staying at the previous weight class. And, this was so out of the ordinary, ESPN actually found it notable enough to give it 1 minute of airtime. (Thanks ESPN….note my sarcasm)

So why am I bringing this up? Simply, it’s just a great story. But also, it’s important for me to bring up because Dake’s accomplishments, how he achieved them, and who they’ve formed him to be contradict everything our culture and society holds up as “the right way.” This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative values…..I think it has to do with how we view and value ourselves and each other as human beings. Because by pushing stories, lives, and people like Kyle Dake’s to the margins, we’re essentially saying:

– Hard work & discipline don’t matter.
– Success is dependant on how well one can market themselves, often portraying something they’re not.
– Political correctedness is more important than honesty.
– Confidence and humility cannot coexist simultaneously.
– Fairness is defined as everyone having the same success or ending with the same result.
– Risk is something to be completely avoided, especially when it comes to our own security, reputation.

Despite the fact wrestling is facing extinction on the Olympic level, I wonder if we’re losing something even greater as the human race. Sports like wrestling have the ability to be the “great equalizer.” No matter who you are, how you’re physically built, where you come from ethnically, culturally, or socio-economically, you can excel. Respect is earned because of just that – it is earned. It’s not an entitlement or right. Our culture seems to think that latter is true though….and that to me flies directly in the face of the worth of humanity, especially in God’s eyes. In the name of entertainment,fairness, money, and political correctedness we’ve de-humanized ourselves, building a less resilient and unforgiving society that places ungodly demands on people.

So I raise up the events of this weekend, and the culture that’s created by this tiny, marginalized sport. Wrestlers everywhere, I think the best thing we can do is spread this message about our sport – grow the numbers who share in it. And from the persepctive of faith, I think in many ways it witnesses to a God who’s worried less about how religously holy we can be, but rather is concerned with our ability to simply be human – human beings living as God intended them to be.

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