Whether or not you are a sports fan, by now you know the Clemson Tigers football team took down the Goliath of college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide, earlier this week.
Beyond the final score and game results, what is gaining headlines is the emotional postgame interview from Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney.
Coach Swinney, an Evangelical Christian (a Southern Baptist) known for being outspoken in his faith, when asked to describe “what it’s like to win it?” said this: “It’s indescribable. I mean, you can’t make it up, man. I mean, this is… only God can do this” (To see the full interview or read a full transcript, click here).
I am not a fan of postgame interviews in general (and for the record, I’m not a fan of Clemson or Alabama). Even the best ones are too charged with emotion with words that often are open to misinterpretation. It’s difficult to dissect every word, as though they are carefully planned speeches or policy papers. Be that as it may, Swinney’s postgame comments are being evaluated word-by-word by sports commentators, so I will join their conversation here.
When Swinney said, “only God can do this,” the “this” appears to refer to Swinney’s personal journey. He said, “only God can do this – take a guy like me from Pelham, go down to Alabama, win a national championship, come to Clemson and then have a chance to win a national championship against the best team in the country up until the last second of the game.”
Swinney also thanked “the good Lord” in the interview. As is often the case, when outspoken Christians in sports attribute credit to God after a win or any sort achievement, criticism will come. While I understand the frustration this can cause people who tend to be skeptical, I generally take these comments to mean, not that God chose Clemson over Alabama (or the winner of any given game), but that they are thankful to God for the achievements they have realized and that they don’t want sole credit going to the coaches or athletes.
What caused the most outcry, though, was Swinney’s assertion that love was the deciding factor. He said, “I told (my guys) that the difference in the game was going to be love.”
Popular Oklahoma sports columnist Berry Tramel, after penning a column titled “Loss to Clemson Only Proves Saban’s Greatness,” then wrote a column titled, “Why Dabo Swinney is wrong about Clemson’s Victory.”
While I generally enjoy Mr. Tramel’s columns, this particular piece went far in tearing apart Swinney’s postgame reactions. He also seems to impugn Swinney’s sentiments.
He said, “What did Dabo Swinney really mean when he says Clemson beat Alabama because the Tigers love each other? Swinney is saying that the Clemson Tigers won because they are better people than Bama. Not better athletes. Not better football players. Not better trained or better conditioned. Better people. Swinney is saying that Clemson’s innate or acquired goodness lifted the Tigers past the Tide. He’s saying that the Tigers are superior people. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is horse hockey. … Clemson beat Bama not because the Tigers are better people, but because they were better ballplayers.”
Yikes! That’s what I call reading between the lines. Mr. Tramel is right to analyze the game from an athletic and playmaking standpoint. It is possible to say, though, that sometimes players are additionally motivated to make plays by factors including a love for their teammates.
Did Clemson edge out the win because of love? Probably not. Did a love for and special chemistry among teammates and coaches factor in the win? Maybe so.
Be that as it may, this entire moment offers several good reminders to us all. This is a good reminder to weigh our words carefully, knowing that people are listening. Next, we are reminded that what we want to say, and what people hear, are not always the same thing. Lastly, this is also a reminder that we can more often believe the best about one another and not the worst, when someone says something puzzles us or grates on us. If we learn from this, that will be a win for everyone involved.