- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

They pray, they play and then they pray again. In the NCCAA, faith comes before football.
The National Christian College Athletic Association is an organization of 121 colleges and universities that believes it has a higher calling. The NCCAA happily sees itself as the antithesis of big-time, big-money college sports. It promotes sportsmanship, fellowship and missionary work. It discourages the use of alcohol and tobacco and does not tolerate homosexuality.
"Our mission is simple: We use intercollegiate athletics to serve our greater commitment to Jesus Christ," executive director Dan Wood said. "We are not chest-bumping, but we are overt in our faith."
The NCCAA began in 1968 as a way for Christian colleges to stage a basketball championship. This year the group will hold 21 championships, including football's Victory Bowl and a national basketball tournament.
"We want to use it as a springboard to share the gospel and spread the word of Christ," said Chuck Burch, athletic director at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C.
About half the current NCCAA schools also are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (mainly Division II or III) or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The NCCAA is not affiliated with either, but it abides within their guidelines so programs can maintain dual eligibility. Smaller schools, such as Washington Bible College in Lanham, have the NCCAA as their only governing body for athletics.
The NCCAA was designed to allow Christian athletes to enrich their spirituality by competing in sports. It promotes itself as an organization serving Jesus Christ and living by strict moral and ethical codes that reflect those beliefs.
"There is a need for the NCCAA to stand tall and let people know who we are and what we represent," said Michael Lightfoot, the basketball coach at Bethel College in Indiana. "There are many negatives in athletics and the things you see on TV, with the [Dennis] Rodmans and corruption at the Division I level. The game has become so big with shoe contracts and large coaching salaries.
"We are something pure that kids can look up to. The NCCAA holds something very important, where money and fame are not the most important things. The mission is to change lives for the better."
Member schools are located across the United States and include two colleges in Canada. They range in size from 3,300-student Gardner-Webb, the only NCAA Division I member in the NCCAA, to Kansas City College, with 60 students. About half its members are small schools, primarily Bible colleges, and participate exclusively in the NCCAA.
Many athletes who come to member schools are not Christian but are drawn by athletic scholarships. Often they convert.
"We usually had three or four guys a year come in that weren't Christian," said Eric Brand, a former basketball player at Bethel. "After three or four years, of the guys that stayed around, we normally didn't have anybody left that didn't give their life to Christ."
Brand led Bethel to two NAIA championships and one NCCAA title before graduating in 2000. Though he wasn't highly recruited out of high school, he became a star at Bethel and could have transferred to a much higher-profile NCAA Division I program. Brand said he considered doing so, but his faith won out over fame.
NCCAA schools have strict regulations. Many, such as Bethel, ban dances and discourage tobacco or alcohol use by legal adults and even faculty members when they are away from campus. The organization also bans schools that accept homosexuals on their campuses.
"One of the hot spots is homosexuality," Wood said. "That is a sinful act, based on the Bible. We would disqualify a school that openly allowed it. We see it as similar to an alcohol or other problem. We expect [homosexuals] to get help and want to help those people see the light."
Wood knows those views could open the organization to attack and says that so far the low-profile NCCAA hasn't undergone much scrutiny not that he would mind a closer inspection. It's all part of a mission that Wood says has more to do with serving Christ than sports.
The games are not much different than at secular schools. Brand said there is some cursing and just as much physical play in games between Christian schools, but bad sportsmanship is more quickly reprimanded at places like Bethel.
Coaches say the NCCAA sidelines are lower-key than those in big-time college athletics and that their job is oriented more to teaching. Many say the pressure to win at NCCAA schools isn't as great because the team has a higher mission. But even without the sideline theatrics or the pressure, the level of play is just as intense.
"Sometimes you see a player get elbowed and the guy on the ground will have fire in his eyes," said Lightfoot, who won three NAIA championships and three NCCAA titles in his 15 seasons at Bethel. "Then someone on the other team will extend a hand and pick him up. That is different than you might see elsewhere. Players and coaches are probably more fan friendly."
NCCAA games start with a prayer, followed by the national anthem. At the end of championship tournaments, parents join players, coaches and officials on the field for another moment of prayer.
"But the differences in the games are subtle," said Wood, a former golf and soccer coach at three NCCAA member schools: Limestone College in South Carolina, Oklahoma Wesleyan and Indiana Wesleyan. "We don't have an evangelist at every timeout giving an altar call."
The NCCAA sponsors missions to help struggling communities while promoting the faith. The crusade visits hospitals and works in inner cities and homeless shelters.
"We sent a task force to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to work basketball camps," said Brand, who plays professionally in Austria. "At halftime, we would give our testimony and tell people what the Lord has done in our lives."
And what inspires these student athletes to set themselves apart from the secular world and share their faith with others on a regular basis?
"Because simply that what's He would want," Wood said.

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