“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
President Theodore Roosevelt was a zealous sports fan. He defended football from its critics, urged youth to be involved in sports, and even regularly boxed in the White House when he was the president of the United States. In one sparring bout, a crushing punch to Roosevelt’s left eye resulted in a detached retina and blindness (a fact that he kept as a guarded secret). His doctors ordered him to stop boxing, so he immediately took up jujitsu instead. In a letter to his son attending college, he wrote, “I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports.” But he also added an important qualifier, “Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.”2
The “In the Arena” quote from Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech has long been a favorite of mine. The speech emphasizes Roosevelt’s belief that the success of a republic rests not so much on the brilliance of its citizens as on the disciplined and courageous work and character of its citizens. Roosevelt tenaciously believed that one learned best by doing, and that it is better to stumble and fail than to do nothing or to sit by and criticize those who are “in the arena” striving and doing. The man worthy of praise is the one who willingly fights honest battles even if those battles end in defeat. Sideline cynicism and aloof critical detachment are the ways of cowardice and shame. Roosevelt believed sports were culturally valuable because they put people in the arena and provided limited but authentic tests of character.
It is understandable that many athletes have drawn inspiration from Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech and, particularly, the statement that has simply come to be known as the “In the Arena” quote. NBA star LeBron James has the quote posted on his locker and references it often as his favorite quote. Before the 1995 World Cup, Nelson Mandela gave a copy of the passage to Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team, and they won, defeating a heavily favored team from New Zealand.3 Former Washington Nationals’ utility player Mark DeRosa would read the quote to himself before games; when the Nationals faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series in 2012, DeRosa read it aloud to his teammates.4
Roosevelt’s call to action echoes what we find in Scripture. God calls his people to be fully engaged, Christ-centered participants, not spectators, in the arena of life. Christians know the greatest enthusiasms, the greatest devotions, and spend themselves in the worthiest cause—the spread of the gospel. As the apostle Paul declares, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). In another letter the same apostle writes, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15), and is quoted elsewhere, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). When everything is said and done, our greatest regrets will be the risks we didn’t take. What Roger Angell said of baseball could be applied in some measure to all athletic competition: “Baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life.”5
David E. Prince, In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship (Nashville: B&H, 2016).
I have just completed a 5-week Bible Study is a challenge to take your discipleship as seriously as you take your sports. The bible often uses the arena of sports as a metaphor to help us understand Christian discipleship.
Five sessions include:
Surrounded. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12.1 – 3.
Pursuing Holiness. Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. 2 Timothy 2:4–6
One thing. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on. Philippians 3:12–14
Run to Win. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24–26
Trained. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things. 1 Timothy 4:8
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