Calling Audibles Part XXI: Thank God for the NCAA

Here may encouragement be found and relationships strengthened.”
~ from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community

At the beginning of the 2010 football season UNC played LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.  Looking back on that game I realize the remarkable ways that it set the stage for this tumultuous path we’ve been traveling since then.

In fact, I had a strange experience that night in 2010 riding back to the hotel from the game.  I actually wrote about it on my blog way before I had even imagined doing this “Calling Audibles” series.  The post, “Providential Symmetry”  explored the fact that, even though I was in Atlanta that night, my GPS kept telling me I was in Tennessee.  And I wasn’t just anywhere in Tennessee, I was near a graveyard close to Bell Buckle.   

As I wrote in that earlier blog post, the strange symmetry was that Bell Buckle was where my husband, John (then a lowly GA just getting started in coaching), went to training camp when he coached at Vanderbilt under Gerry DiNardo.  Bell Buckle is where he learned to drink pots of coffee to stay awake with hardly any sleep.  Bell Buckle is where he was initiated into the insane work habits of football coaches.  It is where he made the choice to gut it out and make this football world his life’s work.

My GPS was putting me back there—near a graveyard, no less.  I had an intuition then, and I see it even more clearly now, that something about this way of life we are a part of is in the process of dying.  In our death averse culture, that can sound ominous, like there is something to fear.  The providential part, however, is that death can be a doorway to birth, to new life, to something life-giving that we can barely imagine.

Now here we are all these months later.  The NCAA decision has been finally handed down and the consequences continue to ripple through our lives and so many others.  After all these months one could assume that what died was our official connection to the University of North Carolina when they fired all the coaches a few months ago.  And one could point to the loss of our family’s life as we had been living it here in Chapel Hill.  Indeed, we are still grieving all those layers of loss.

At the same time we grieve the losses we are also seeing more and more of the golden threads of God’s providential offer in it all.  This time of change and death is one we share with larger systems and mentalities that need to die.  We are caught up in this wave of change that is coming, whether people want it to or not.

Joe Nocera, the New York Times Reporter who has been writing about the injustice of the NCAA’s policies, practices, and procedures, was here in Chapel Hill this week.    I had the privilege of two meals with him in which people from several different constituencies were able to talk and to listen to each other–from players to faculty members, from advocates and lawyers to a coach and a theologian.  We all shared our experiences, our ideas, our concerns, and our hopes.

The way his visit brought us together and created space for such constructive conversations only confirms that God’s providential symmetry is stitching itself into seismic cultural shifts around things like race, power, and justice.   Sport is one arena in which these shifts are happening.   And in our broader culture this wave is gathering steam. Some things are going to change; some things are going to die.

In it all I catch glimmers that encourage me to trust life, to trust this unfolding even with all that we have lost.

Under the circumstances it might seem bizarre for me to say I am thankful for the NCAA.

Twenty-one years ago I was named the NCAA Woman of the Year for Centre College and then for the state of Kentucky.   I then was named one of the ten national finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year for the whole country.  1991, the year I received this recognition, was the first year for the NCAA to honor women’s athletics with this award.   During this time I learned a great deal about the legacy of women in sports even as my career as a competitive athlete was coming to an end.  I saw myself after that as a part of a strong heritage of women who fought for a place in the world of sports.  I was thankful then for the NCAA and the money they gave my small college as a result of that honor to support women’s athletics there.

Those gifts of recognition and monetary support to my alma mater are not all that being NCAA Woman of Year gave me.  In a very concrete way, the NCAA brought John and me together and helped to start our married life together.  John and I had lost touch with each other after meeting in Oxford, England in a summer abroad study program during college.  It was John seeing the announcement in USA Today of the ten NCAA Woman of the Year finalists that put us back in touch with each other.   And becoming a coach’s wife ushered me into new challenges and opportunities for how I fit into the world of sports.

Now here we are, twenty-one years later, and the NCAA once again is a major factor in creating a moment of truth for me, indeed for us.  This time around it is a loss of employment and another move that the NCAA has helped to put into motion.

After careful consideration of the opportunities John had for other jobs, we decided none were the right fit for us right now.  For many reasons, some we don’t totally understand even ourselves, we are not ready to move on from Chapel Hill yet.  John has decided to take a year off of coaching.  And we’ve entered into a time of discernment and prayer about our role in the world of football.  We are taking risks to speak out about things that need to change, wrongs we’ve witnessed first hand.  We are sticking around Chapel Hill because we care and we believe there are important issues that need attention.   We want to be a part of honest conversations about them.  And we know that, no matter what, this experience will make us better people and John a better coach.

And our lives and beliefs are being integrated in new and startling ways.

Sharon Lee, mother of UNC fullback Devon Ramsay, whose courage and determination helped to get the wrongs done to Devon by UNC and the NCAA exposed and even reversed (as much as that was possible) was here for Joe Nocera’s visit.  She said to me, “I have the NCAA and Holden Thorp to thank for my getting involved in speaking out.  If they hadn’t put Devon in the death grip, I wouldn’t have done what I did.”

Her statement points to the golden threads of providential symmetry once again.  These golden threads invite us to show up for moments of truth.  And so often the seismic shifts of history are birthed from anguish, from the trials of labor pains that spur us to move, to speak, to cry out.

I know that if John hadn’t lost his job and our whole lives hadn’t been turned upside down we may not have been moved to speak out either.   If the aftermath had taken us quickly away to another place that we were excited about we would have left so much unsaid, unattended.  I would have never started writing “Calling Audibles” and found my voice in a new way in this world of football, this world that so potently effects mine.

We also wouldn’t have had the blessings of several new friendships that this situation has helped to create.  Ironically, we now feel more connected with several faculty members and alums at UNC than we ever did while John worked for the University.   Because they have reached out to us and we have reached out to them a conversation is growing.  And all of us are being grafted into a larger and growing movement about reform in the world of college sports.

We are receiving new ways to do work that we care about like racial justice, economic justice, community transformation, and courageous cross-cultural conversations.  More and more space is being cleared for our family and others to walk along Jesus’ way of connection, compassion, and conversion.

From loss comes gain.  From death comes new life.

So, the audible here for me in the wake of the NCAA report, after Joe Nocera’s visit, and in the face of a future that is full of more unknowns than I can list, is simple.  I am taking a minute to see the gifts, the grace, the healing invitations.  I am saying thank God for the NCAA, for Holden Thorp, and for anyone else who pushed this situation to the brink.   I still see and protest the wrongs that have been done and the injustices suffered.  Even so, my life and the lives of others will somehow, someway be the better for it.  Even in the midst of the struggles, the grief, and the loss, encouragement is being found and relationships strengthened.

Thanks be to God for that!

14 thoughts on “Calling Audibles Part XXI: Thank God for the NCAA”

  1. Marcia,

    Beautiful post–insightful as always. The wisdom of acceptance, us realizing that God’s plan is perfect, even when there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, is something I wish and hope to have the courage to do. When you sustain a huge loss such as you, John, and the players have, you have many choices, and I commend you and John for making the brave choice. You’re making meaning out of this, you’re doing the hard thing, and you seek integrity in a situation where people have valued image over truth. But the truth always outs, as much as we try to hide it, and so does courage among those who know what they have to do to sleep at night. Keep up the fight! And thank you for fighting!


    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for the encouragement, Lyn. So many lives have been altered. I feel especially for the players, like Devon Ramsay and Deunta Williams, who are living into what this all means so early on in their lives. I surely wish we could find our way through these issues in the future without costing young promising men like Devon and Deunta so very much. If humanity can get better from all this–I pray they are able to enjoy in that redemption the most!

  2. Frank Tew says:

    Thank you for Audibles. Now I learn that you were a Cross Country Runner and one of the finalists for NCAA Woman of the Year in 1991.

    Life has surprises for us each day. You have helped so many of us enjoy the good and deal with the not so good. You and John have my deepest respect.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Frank. Yes, I spent many years of my life running Cross Country and Track. I was on some great teams in high school and college and my coaches are still some of the dearest people in the world to me. I use to want to be a coach myself because of how positive my experiences were.
      You, too, have helped me to enjoy the good and deal with the not so good. God’s Spirit has been generous! Thank you for all the ways you support and affirm us.

  3. The most interesting piint and it is one many of us are in is that your husband after losing his job feels he can speak out more. We need more of our coaches who are able to speak out to do so. that did not apply to Coach Shoop as an OC at UNC, but people like Nick Saban, Frank Beamer and even Butch Davis who are financially set from coaching, have the backing where they would not be fired for speaking out could make more of difference if they chose.

    The University of North Carolina had a man like that who in my mind is the greatest ever. Coach dean Smith was advocate for what was right so he won both on and off the court. His views were not always accepted, but the respect he had made people listen.

    thank you for the series.

    1. Marcia says:

      You are so right, Matt. Coach Dean Smith was a great model for standing up for what was right even when it wasn’t always what others wanted him to do. He used his position and his platform for some good work on and off the court. And you are also right that coaches generally do not feel the room around them to take those kinds of professional risks. The constant fear of being fired and the unbelievable pressure that they are under exacerbate the problems that we are facing in big time college sports. Very few coaches have been vocal about the problems of the NCAA and universities. And generally the ones who have (Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban) tend to be in positions where some argue that they have pretty dependable job security. Sometimes in life, however, we come to a crossroads and we are called to make a choice for a larger good than our own personal gain. As people of faith, John and I pray that we can meet the challenges of making such a choice. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting.

      1. You are correct in there are few coaches with that type job security, but also where are the Presidents? For Presidents who are whining about Academics being put on the back end why are they agreeing to join conferences halfway across America? It is a very hypocritical business.

        1. Marcia says:

          Another good point, Matt. When New York Times reporter Joe Nocera was here he said in his public address that the real villains of this situation with big time football and basketball and the NCAA are the college Presidents. At some point, our institutions of higher learning do need to step up to the plate and come up with more creative and equitable solutions to problems. And the reorganizing of conferences is one sign that others are going to step into that gap and make things work for them. There is a lot at stake so I am praying for more collaborative and collective decision making than we see happening these days. Thanks again, Matt, for your great comments and observations. I hope you will keep reading.

          1. You are right in that assessment, but i think an issue that no one wants to touch is the success of student athletes who come to college already at risk of not graduating. When freshmen were not eligible it gave kids a chance to adapt to being away from home, but also whether or not they could perform academically. If presidents want higher graduation rates then either make them immediately ineligible to play, or if a students incoming grades/SAT scores are not to a certain level then they could sit out the first year. As a middle school coach we had requirements for attendance and grades that made a kid eligible. They were tougher than the state rules, but we had very few to not meet that requirement. However making sure kids were in class would require professors to track that and they will probably fuss over it saying it is the students responsibility. That is true, but they are in an institution of learning, and the ultimate goal should be student success.

          2. Marcia says:

            Thanks again, Matt, for making some important points. The irony of all this is that SAT scores, GPAs and Graduation Rates were increasing during Coach Davis’ tenure. I know John (Coach Shoop) made attention to players getting to class and how they were doing in the classroom a top priority. These commitments and practices of the former coaching staff makes it even harder to accept that they were dismissed.
            Your point about Freshmen not being eligible is an interesting one. Back when that was the rule there were unlimited scholarships so teams could field a full team even without freshmen. Under the current system of limited scholarships it would not be possible to play with no freshmen. Many first year players come at mid year and do get themselves settled into college life and the course load for spring and summer semester before their first football season revs up in the fall. That jump on things helps a great deal.
            Thanks again for reading and for the good conversation!

          3. I will have to respectfully disagree about not being able to field a team. The FCS schools only are allowed 65 scholarships and they have no problem fielding teams. That being said I am more in favor of student athletes who come in with a better academic resume being allowed to play right away than ones who may need extra help. With the demands on student athletes with class, practice time and studying it can overwhelm a freshman. Perhaps too a school who has a successful graduation rate could play more Freshmen than others. Nothing concrete just suggestions.

            I do not doubt the prior staff made a commitment to having great student athletes. it is a shame what a few athletes did along with Coach Blake that disrupted so many lives. However that is another post for another conversation.

            The NCAA rule book amongst other things needs complete overhaul before anything can improve. In my opinion how cooperative the university was more hurtful to innocent kids than anything. The SEC seems to rewarded for not working with the NCAA and perhaps that is a misguided statement, but perception in many cases is reality.

          4. Marcia says:

            More good points, Matt! Just remember that for FCS teams they are at a little bit different level of competition. They can probably do a bit more with walk ons, etc. than a Division IA school. Regardless, I think blanket rules tend to not work too well. A blanket rule about all freshmen not being eligible ignores the fact that everyone is different. Universities can do a better job of providing support for students who need extra assistance and football staffs can continue to gauge who is ready (on all counts) and who is not ready to play.
            I agree about the NCAA rule book. And yes, UNC’s blind cooperation was extremely hurtful. Thanks again, Matt!

      2. FCS school are at a different competition level I agree, and I am not for blanket rules. i believe there should be rules that support a student athlete. Many programs really do not care about preparing these young men for life after college. That is not everywhere, but it is a perception. With as few a players that do make it to the NFL their academic success should take precedent over on field performance, but the high pressure coaches face to win a true monster has been created.

        When the scholarship numbers went 85 the parity in college football went up. Prior to that schools over recruited players just so they did not have to compete with them. Bear Bryant was one of the biggest culprits in this practice at Alabama.

        Hypocrisy is rampant throughout sports not just at the higher levels.

        1. Marcia says:

          You are right, Matt. I would say hypocrisy is rampant in human life in general!
          Universities should hold the athletes in their schools with the same care and nurture that they hold all students. Their success in the classroom and in life should be what universities are all about. I do believe the money in big time college football and college basketball have made players into commodities. Universities can treat them more like property than like students. That is a disturbing and demeaning pattern. We’ll never get to a place where real change is possible until universities come clean about this conflict that exists at the very core of their mission to educate and nurture ALL of the students that populate their campuses.

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