Category Archives: Sports

Almost Every September I Cannot Help But Think of What I Wrote Years Ago

Thirteen years ago I wrote a sports column titled “Of Preseason Polls and Prejudicial Christians.” The column was published nationally through BP Sports (a division of Baptist Press) and was featured in several newspapers across the country. While it remained archived online for several years, Baptist Press eventually closed BP Sports. As a result, that column, along with several others of mine that they had published, is no longer available online.

As a sports fan who loves college football, one of my pet peeves is preseason polls. Each year it seems that as the season progresses we are reminded that ranking teams before the season even starts is an exercise in both arrogance (to think they are smart enough to know how good a team is before they have even played a game) and futility (every year we see how badly the “experts” judge teams before the season begins.

So, in light of the so-called “stunning” upsets across the college football landscape this past weekend, I thought I would dig up the column and republish it here on my blog. While some of the examples are dated, and the BCS Bowl system is no longer a reality (replaced by the playoff system) I think you will find that the basic thesis remains as relevant as ever….

“Of Preseason Polls and Prejudicial Christians” by Brett Maragni (originally published by BP Sports in October of 2009)

I strongly dislike preseason polls. They are meaningless and end up causing more damage than they are worth. Early season polls are not worth much either. Until a team has played four or five games, it is arrogant to assume where a team deserves to be ranked.

Early this season top five teams are losing at a record pace. Last year, the preseason favorite, Georgia, ended up #13 in the final AP poll while the Utah Utes went from unranked to #2. In 2007, twelve top five teams had lost to unranked opponents by the end of November. In 2006…well, three words: Boise State Broncos. 

The problem is that a team that starts the season unranked has a lot more to overcome to get into a BCS bowl game than a team that was ranked in the top five in the preseason. If polls were not taken until five, or even better, six weeks into the season, the bowl assignments would be more fair because the polls would be based more upon performance on the field than preseason prognostications. Even the BCS rankings, which do not begin until later in the season, are impacted because they utilize the polls that started in the preseason, thus making them skewed by the prejudgment of the polls.

But before I get too sanctimonious in my denunciation of the current ranking system, the reality is that we Christians can be even worse about prejudging people. We sometimes prejudge new people coming into our churches by the version of the Bible that they use or the kind of church they came from. If someone is not in our theological “camp” we assume that they are either naïve or close-minded to the truth.   

Sometimes our prejudice works the other way as well. Sometimes we are too quick to favor those who dress the way we do and look the way we look. Leaders say to one another, “They seem like a sharp couple,” meaning, “They look like us.” So sharp-looking couple starts the season off in our church ranked higher than the single lady who is currently without a job.  The reality is that Miss Unemployed might be more spiritually mature and ready to lead a ministry than Mr. or Mrs. Sharp. 

God’s Word addresses our tendency toward prejudicial favoritism: 

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

Bottom line for sports: wait until later in the season to start up the polls. Bottom line for us: get to know a person for who they are instead of making early assumptions.

Coach Ken Sparks (February 25, 1944 – March 29, 2017)

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 3.55.55 PM

Longtime Carson-Newman football coach Ken Sparks died early yesterday morning. He achieved remarkable success as far as football is concerned, but more importantly, he impacted thousands of lives for Christ. Below is a Baptist Press release about Coach Sparks, including material I passed along to Baptist Press to help with the story…


Ken Sparks, among winningest college football coaches, dies

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (BP) –– Ken Sparks, legendary football coach at Carson-Newman University, died Wednesday (March 29) after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 73.

Sparks, who announced his retirement Nov. 14 after 37 seasons, finished his Carson-Newman career with a winning percentage of .7699 — fourth highest in college football history, while his 338 victories stand at fifth best nationally.

However, those numbers — including 99 losses and two ties -– “mattered little to Sparks,” according to a news release from Carson-Newman, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “The Eagles’ head man was far more likely to ask a player, colleague or coach how their heart was and to guide them to a life in the light of Christ.

“Sparks himself lived his life at the foot of the cross, doing everything in his power to honor his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at every turn.”

Carson-Newman President J. Randall O’Brien said Sparks “leaves a legacy that has influenced, and will continue to impact, the lives of Carson-Newman student-athletes for years to come. Ken’s devotion to seeing that his players develop on the field was secondary to seeing them develop as Christian young men off the field.”

O’Brien added that Sparks “inspired us in the way he so bravely fought his battle with cancer — with courage and full of faith. Our hearts are saddened, but we know that Ken is with his loving heavenly Father. Our prayers are with his dear wife Carol and his family.”

Sparks grounded the Carson-Newman football program in a yearly theme rooted in a Bible verse, the C-N news release stated.

For the 2016 team, Sparks’ “me 2 We for HE” theme was based on Philippians 1:27 — “Just one thing: live your (me) life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (He), so (We) will be seen standing firm in one Spirit, with one mind, working side-by-side (we) for the Gospel (He).”

“For a Sparks-led practice, it was a common sight to see the session open and close with a prayer, led by players wearing Carson-Newman gear not adorned by C-N slogans, but with Bible verses,” the university release said. A video tribute to Sparks can be accessed at

Under Sparks, the Eagles won five NAIA national title games in six appearances. A move to NCAA Division II didn’t hamper his Carson-Newman squads as the Eagles played for the D-II national title three times and were a semifinalist in 2009.

Sparks’ teams recorded 21 South Atlantic Conference Championships, 25 NCAA or NAIA playoff appearances and 104 All-Americans. Most recently, a street was renamed after him that runs through the middle of Carson-Newman’s campus in Jefferson City, Tenn.

Sparks was inducted into the inaugural NCAA Division II Hall of Fame coaches class in 2010 and is a member of the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the NAIA Hall of Fame. He has been honored with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Lifetime Achievement Award and National Coach of the Year.

Sports columnist Brett Maragni, also a Florida pastor, noted that when Sparks ended his coaching career last fall “people talked more about Ken Sparks the man of God than the successful coach. Everyone who knew him, myself included, had zero doubts that winning on the field, as important as it was, was not the most important part of his job. No, his main goal in coaching was to impact young men with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Maragni, online at, reported that Sparks said in a January interview with WBIR in nearby Knoxville, “I don’t want to have a legacy,” noting, “Let me tell you what I want, I want an investment in the Kingdom of God that’s lasting. That’s what I want.”

Sparks’ son Chad, now the teaching pastor at Providence Church in Knoxville, chose to play for his dad at Carson-Newman even though he received attention from larger schools in higher divisions of college football, Maragni recounted.

“It was a great experience for me,” Chad said. “I had always wanted to play for my dad. He was and is my hero. When I was growing up, other coaches were about winning. For Dad, winning is priority No. 4, behind No. 1 – bringing players and others to Christ, No. 2 – teaching players how to be good people and No. 3 – teaching players to play great football.”

Chad Sparks said he is proud of the impact his dad had in the lives of thousands. “Not a week goes by when someone does not ask me if I’m related to Coach Ken Sparks when they hear or see my last name,” he told Maragni. “When I tell them that he’s my dad, I am often treated to stories of how their son or brother or cousin — or how they themselves — came to Christ because of him, sometimes with tears in their eyes.”

In addition to his wife and son, Sparks is survived by a daughter, Chandra Childress; stepson Tim Bobo: stepdaughter Kim Hines; and 14 grandchildren.

The Sparks family will receive friends at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., from 2-6 p.m. Friday (March 31) followed by a service open to the public. In accordance with the family’s wishes, the burial will be private.

Why All the Tebow Haters?

Nick Lannon has a theory:

Tebow never asked to be the starter this season over Kyle Orton. Never asked to have his name chanted in stadiums. All he ever said was that he’d work as hard as he could and that, as any player would, he wanted to play. It’s not his fault that he’s been a topic on sports talk shows for a year straight, tiring all the pundits out. Tebow inspires rebellion because he appears to be that thing that we all fear most: a righteous man.”

Read the whole thing HERE.

God and Football by Chad Gibbs

A few years ago, Warren St. John wrote a book about Alabama football fanaticism titled, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. Do you remember those little charts in Christian bookstores that would help you find a holy alternative to the secular bands you loved but felt so guilty about? Example…”If you like Run-D.M.C., try D. C. Talk.” Well, that’s exactly what is going on here. If you liked Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, but don’t want all the cursing and references to alcohol, then here’s the Christian alternative. Gibbs should send royalty checks to St. John. The only problem is his stories aren’t as good. I will say this, Gibbs is a really funny guy. In fact, he’s funny enough I’d definitely pick up another book of his, provided it’s on sale for $4 on the clearance shelf like this one was. Seriously, his comedic skills are what kept me turning the pages.

What disappointed me most was the lack of depth regarding the balancing faith and football theme. He only skims the surface. He confesses his addiction, make that obsession, to Auburn football, and takes the time to throw in a few guilty comments here and there, interviews fellow fans who struggle with this tension, even briefly describes attending church services in each of the cities visited. But the subtitle is deceptive; this is really a book about the SEC football fanaticism, not about faith.

“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand

At the risk of being overdramatic, I have to say that this may be the most powerful life story I’ve ever heard. Louis Zamperini has lived a life that tops anything you’ve ever seen in the movies. Laura Hillenbrand, also author of Seabiscuit, does a masterful job of putting you right alongside Louis in his Olympic and War adventures. I found this Youtube video featuring a CBS documentary on Louis followed by an interview with Louis and a Q&A session with a USC journalism class. The 2 hour video is priceless.

My recommendation is that you read the book BEFORE you watch this video. You’ll enjoy the book and the video more if you read the book first. So for those of you who’ve already read the book, or for those who can’t wait, enjoy:


Three Reasons to Like TPC Champ K. J. Choi

Reason #1 – He has a great story. He grew up on an island that has no golf course and didn’t touch a golf club until he was sixteen. When he did take up the game, after a teacher suggested he would do well at it, he had a three hour journey (one way) to get to the closest golf course. During his obligatory two-year term in the South Korean Army, he practiced his golf swing by hitting pine cones with the butt of his rifle. He was the first Korean to earn his PGA playing card, as well as the first to win on the Tour.

Reason #2 – He is generous. Last year he donated $100,000 to Japanese flood victims. In 2008 he won the Sony Open and gave a third ($320,000) of his earnings to the victims’ families of a warehouse fire in Seoul, Korea.

Reason #3 – He loves Jesus. In a 2003 interview Choi said, “I was first introduced to Christ in December of 1992 when I started dating my wife. She told me about the Lord and the Church and why it was good to have faith in God. And naturally I took her advice and after awhile, I felt it helped me and made me feel comfortable and gain patience. It also helped me concentrate more when it came to golf.” When he lived in Houston, one of his pastors wrote of his devotion: “He is also a member of our church and a devout Christian….and never misses a Sunday worship service or Wednesday prayer meeting when he is in town.”