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The Beginnings of Organized Sports Ministry in the United States in the 20th Century

This is an excerpt from Sports Ministry by David B. Lewis,David Irby,William Galipault & Wayne Rasmussen.

The previous chapter discussed several of the early, and mostly individual, efforts at sports ministry in the United States. This chapter will begin by examining the YMCA, FCA, and AIA. Just as individual athletes wrestled with how to integrate faith and sport, emerging organizations began to equip Christian athletes with sports ministry precepts.

Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

When the YMCA originated, it did not have sport or recreational components. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, young men left the fields and flocked to cities to find employment in factories. Urban areas grew rapidly, and the growth created an environment bustling with saloons, gambling, pickpockets, and prostitutes. Recognizing these unsavory living conditions, and to secure a haven for young factory workers, George Williams gathered a group of men together in London on June 6, 1844, to organize a Christian association for the twofold purpose of prayer and Bible study. The meetings grew, and several years later, the YMCA expanded to North America, with chapters opening in Montreal on November 29 and in Boston on December 29, 1851 (YMCA Richmond 2016; Pure History 2012; Ladd and Mathisen 1999).

By 1854, 397 separate YMCA chapters represented seven nations worldwide. In 1869, four years after the Civil War ended, the number of chapters in the United States blossomed to over 600. By 1885, one-third of American college students were members of the YMCA (Ladd and Mathisen 1999). An original intention of the YMCA was the saving of souls and offering community services such as Christian boarding houses, lectures, and libraries.

The Introduction of Sport and Recreation
As sport clubs emerged, the YMCA also began offering sport and recreational opportunities. By the 1880s the YMCA was constructing their own separate buildings and expanding their sport offerings. The new constructions were equipped with amenities such as gymnasiums, swimming pools, bowling alleys, and auditoriums, and many provided hotel-like accommodations. The YMCA has been instrumental in four key sport and recreational developments:

  1. Invention of the indoor sports of basketball and volleyball at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts
  2. The first to provide group swimming lessons
  3. The earliest to provide public fitness workouts
  4. The oldest continuous summer camping program—one of the first known summer camp programs for children, Camp Dudley in New York. Opened in 1885, it is believed to be the oldest running American camp but is no longer owned by the YMCA) (Weeks 2015; Pure History 2012).

The Autonomy of YMCA Chapters
Over the years tensions developed between some YMCA chapters. Many chapters desired to align closely with the biblical moorings of its Christian origins while others embraced the evolving social unity of diverse religions. Consequently, each YMCA chapter develops their own autonomous polity. They all share the same motto of “spirit, mind, and body,” and most will use sport and recreation as tools to build character, but they may differ in their definition of “spirit.”

The YMCA has grown to be one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the United States. It operates approximately 2,600 facilities and has 19,000 employees along with an estimated 600,000 volunteers. Nationally, the YMCA serves and enlists 11 million members annually, 4 million of whom are under the age of 18. Their growth and overall track record of successful management gives ample credence to the approach of autonomous polity when it comes to managing their many separate branches.

As for leadership, since 2015 Kevin Washington has served as the president and CEO of the YMCA of the USA organization. After six successful years of leadership, he retired. Kevin first walked into the Christian Street YMCA in his South Philadelphia neighborhood as a 10-year-old to participate in the afterschool program. Years later he would embark on a career with the Y, working his way up through the ranks to the organization’s highest position. In his own words, “For the past 43 years I have given the organization everything I have, and were I able to serve 43 more, I still could not repay all that the YMCA has done for me” (PR Newswire 2020). Washington represents yet another fine example of quality and continuity in organizational leadership. In August 2021 the YMCA of the USA named Suzanne McCormick as the next president and CEO. She became the organization’s first female leader and brought to the YMCA a strong background and experience in nonprofit leadership (Cridlin 2021).

Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA)

Don McClanen, a young Oklahoma basketball coach, had a dream. If prominent athletes could endorse products like shaving cream and cigarettes, why not use the celebrity status of sport figures to talk about and endorse the Lord? In 1954 he wrote a total of 19 letters to professional athletes and sport administrators whom he had read about in articles highlighting their Christian faith. He shared his vision for an organization that would enjoin athletes and coaches alike to influence the nation’s youth for Christ. Among those receiving his letter were Otto Graham (Cleveland Browns quarterback), Bob Mathias (Olympic decathlon champion), Louis Zamperini (Olympian who survived a Japanese prison camp during the war), Amos Alonzo Stagg (legendary college football coach), and baseball executive Branch Rickey (general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates) (Atcheson 1994, 158).

Branch Rickey: A Key Contact
McClanen believed a key contact would be Branch Rickey. After multiple failed attempts to secure an appointment with Rickey, McClanen drove to Pittsburgh with hopes of a cold call meeting with Rickey. His persistence paid off when a ‘five-minute’ meeting ended up lasting five hours. Rickey caught the vision for McClanen’s dream, and he made a statement that Don McClanen would never forget. Mr. Rickey said, “This thing has the potential of changing the youth scene of America within a decade. It is pregnant with potential. It is just ingenious. It is a new thing, where has it been?” Then he asked Don, “Are you independently wealthy?” to which Don answered no and told Branch how he had mortgaged his car to get to Pittsburgh for their meeting. Rickey’s response was simple and straightforward, “Well, you are going to need some money. You need $10,000 and I think I know the man who would be willing to give you that $10,000” (Murchison 2008, 19; Atcheson 1994, 163).

With the vision caught, Rickey suggested that McClanen reach out to Pittsburgh businessman, Mike Benedum. He did and soon thereafter, Benedum provided the seed money, and the official charter for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was rendered on November 10, 1954, in Norman, Oklahoma (Atcheson 1994). Approximately seven months later, on June 7, 1955, Rickey hosted a banquet in Pittsburgh to officially introduce the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA, n.d.). By the grace of God, Don McClanen’s idea, his faith, and his perseverance were combined with Branch Rickey’s “caught vision” and decisiveness and Mike Benedum’s gospel patronage and willful funding. The net result: the FCA was launched and on its way to touching countless lives for Christ through sport.

The Single Most Important Event in FCA’s History: The First National FCA Camp
Since its humble beginnings in the mid-1950s, the FCA has come a long way to where they are today in their sports ministry endeavors. Shortly after the organization’s founding and the successful Denver rally, another key event was to take place. It was in 1956 that this fledgling sports ministry movement held its first National FCA Camp at Estes Park, Colorado. It is significant to note that this weeklong camp was held at the beautiful YMCA of the Rockies retreat and camp facility. This partnership of major sports ministry organizations represented a quality example of cooperative efforts for the greater good and for the propagation of the gospel. This conference has been called by many the single most important event in FCA’s long and storied history.

The 1956 first-ever National Camp at Estes Park, Colorado, was truly a watershed moment for the FCA. In this singular event it brought together and engaged an array of athletic levels, from junior and senior high school to college and professional levels, including representation from the Olympic Games. Clergy from Catholic and Protestant denominations, as well as the nation’s leading magazines, caught the compelling vision. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower saluted the FCA for this National Camp. From this event, a surge of ministry activity followed: citywide programs, rallies, school assemblies, banquets, and weekend conferences with prominent athletes and coaches speaking and sharing their testimonies with the goal of reaching youths in the name of Jesus Christ (Atcheson 1994, 195).

So much more could be said about the FCA history, but this summary is a good case study in sports ministry on a couple key levels. The first level is the idea of having a dream and then, through prayer, planning, and much hard work, enabling the dream to become a reality. In the case of Don McClanen, the words of Cardinal Leon Suenens sum up his vision and work quite well when he said, “Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true” (Inspired Motivation, n.d.). For Don McClanen, his dream of athletes influencing young people’s lives for good through a faith-based sports ministry was realized in 1954 with FCA’s founding. McClanen followed through on the vision he felt God had laid on his heart, and with God’s prompting, he found a way to pay the price to make it a reality. From the outset and throughout the entire arduous process, he relied on God’s sustaining power, and the glory was credited to the Lord for the things he and his team were able to achieve. McClanen’s original dream of a special sports ministry to young athletes, college athletes, and coaches remains a vibrant and growing reality today. At the time of this writing, FCA was closing in on nearly 70 years of faithfully proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On a second key level, the FCA story is a case study in quality and continuity as far as a vibrant, biblically sound sports ministry is concerned. Where the quality of effort is high and leadership over many years is consistent, good things get accomplished and great results can come to pass. The FCA has been significantly blessed over the years in these two key categories. The numbers are impressive. Annually, over 24,000 young people will attend an FCA sports camp. Throughout the year FCA runs over 21,000 Huddles. FCA now has some form of ministry in over 100 countries worldwide.

The FCA has been led by president and CEO Shane Williamson since January 2017. Williamson became a Christ follower in 1986 while attending an FCA Camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina. He played collegiate football at Wofford College in South Carolina and later enjoyed 12 years of coaching high school football also in the Palmetto State. He joined the FCA staff in 2002 and steadily took on larger roles until taking on his present position. The FCA headquarters are located in Kansas City, Missouri, overlooking Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, and Kauffman Stadium, home of the MLB Kansas City Royals.

Athletes in Action (AIA)

In 1951 a student ministry organization was birthed on the campus of UCLA by a young seminary student, Bill Bright. The ministry was called Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). Its goal was to win and disciple college students for Christ. The ministry included social activities, campus lectures, small-group Bible studies, and publishing (Cru, n.d.).

In 1966 Dave Hannah, a draftee of the Los Angeles Rams, initiated a new sport-focused branch of Campus Crusade called Athletes in Action (AIA n.d.a.). In 1968 a wrestling team was formed with top wrestlers from throughout the United States (AIA n.d.a.). This team competed in exhibition matches both domestically and abroad. Starring on the wrestling team were 1976 Olympic gold medalist John Peterson and bronze medalist Gene Davis. Eventually, additional teams were added in basketball, baseball, soccer, track and field, and volleyball. Teams used halftimes and postgame opportunities to share about their faith in Christ with opposing teams and spectators.

In 1977 AIA basketball made national news when the team beat collegiate powers Ohio State, West Virginia, Maryland, UNLV, Syracuse, and San Francisco while compiling an exhibition record of 33–2. They also beat the Russian national team 93–84 (Athletes in Action vs. Soviet Union Basketball 1978). According to then UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, “They [AIA] beat you up in the first half, pray for you at halftime, then beat you up in the second half” (Cru, n.d.). UCLA grad Ralph Drollinger turned down a $400,000 no-cut contract from the New Jersey Nets to play for AIA. He emphasized that AIA players are different:

The difference between us and many of those we play is that we’re doing it for someone other than ourselves. This is demonstrated by the way we play. We have some of the best teamwork I’ve seen or can imagine, because we’re not playing for selfish motivation—personal gain, worldly adulation, and money. As players for God’s work, we really try to love each other, our opponents, and the spectators as well. . . . We’re convinced that a personal relationship with God is the most important thing in the world. What better way, then, can we love someone else than by sharing that relationship in a loving and affirming manner? (Quebedeaux 1979, 145-146)
Since initially launching as a traveling sports outreach, AIA has grown significantly with staff members on college and university campuses, in professional locker rooms, and in athletic organizations around the world. AIA is led by President Mark Householder, who has been in this role for more than a dozen years and is closing in on four decades of faithful ministry through sport. Mark came to faith in Jesus Christ as a freshman football player through an AIA ministry to athletes at the University of Cincinnati. The national and international headquarters for AIA is located on the Athletes in Action Sports Complex and Retreat Center in Xenia, Ohio. This 250-acre sports complex and retreat center is home to the corporate offices. It is comprised of six sports fields (over 600,000 square feet of artificial turf) and can house 300 athletes and guests at a time for their various sports ministry programs (AIA n.d.a.).

More Excerpts From Sports Ministry