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!

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