Football and God


The NFL season began last night.  That means it’s time for Christianity Today and other religious publications to start publishing pieces on Christianity and football.  This year is no exception.  Check out this piece by Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton, two emerging scholars of religion and sport.

Here is a taste of “God and the Gridiron Game“:

Some Protestants, especially “muscular Christians” like Yale graduate and University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, saw nothing wrong with the physicality of the sport. Indeed, football’s defenders often cited the prevalence of pious “praying” players as evidence of the game’s compatibility with Christian morality. But many Protestant leaders denounced football’s brutality. Charles Blanchard, president of Wheaton College from 1882 until 1925, took this view. He placed football in the same category as gambling and hard liquor, and viewed the sport not as a heroic, manly game, but a savage sport inhibiting students’ development into productive and civilized men.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, football’s leaders responded to critics like Blanchard by instituting a series of reforms (such as the legalization of the forward pass and the elimination of mass plays) to open up the game. Over time the rule changes helped to protect football from charges of brutality.

The passion that the game inspired in participants and spectators protected football as well. Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen was one of many to fall under its spell. “When I see a vacant field on one of these autumn days,” Machen wrote to a friend while in Europe in 1905, “my mind is filled with wonder at this benighted people which does not seem to hear the voice of nature when she commands every human being to play football or watch it being played.”

Read the entire piece here.  In their next piece, I would like to see Hampton and Putz historicize this story.  How much longer can Christian colleges continue to field football teams and keep their moral integrity?

Sportianity: A New Blog


Frank Deford coined the term “Sportianity”

Baylor University graduate student Paul Putz has started a blog on sports and American Christianity.

Here is how he describes “Sportianity“:

Let’s start with the name. “Sportianity” is a term coined by legendary sportswriter Frank Deford. He used it in a 1976 Sports Illustrated series on religion in sport (read more about that series here). Deford used it in a mostly negative sense, implying that Sportianity was a corruption of true Christianity; it was a religion “more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.”

I do not use it in the negative sense implied by Deford. Rather “Sportianity” is meant as a descriptive term for the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity. It is inhabited by institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and others. It is championed by media/publications like Sports Spectrum. And it is represented by celebrity athletes like Tim Tebow, Stephen Curry, and Maya Moore. 

Over the coming months I will focus on two types of content. First, book reviews/summaries. There are hundreds of books that take up the topic of sports and Christianity. Some are written from a critical perspective, others are intended to inspire true believers. Still others are biographies or autobiographies that focus on the faith of famous athlete and coaches. I will use this space to discuss some of those books, both new and old. 

Second, biographical vignettes. I’m currently finishing up a dissertation on the history of Sportianity. In my research I often come across the names of famous athletes from the past who were public about their faith. Many of those athletes will not make it into my dissertation, so I will post brief historical snippets about some of them here. 

Good luck with the new blog, Paul!  We will be reading.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 9

Clearview 3

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.   It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline.  We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.

Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success.  I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour.  Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.

Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio.  The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course.  (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University).  He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club.  He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm.  In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American.  Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:

Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional.  Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first).  Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.

Here are some more pics:

Clearview 1

with Renee Powell at Clearview Golf Club

Clearview 2

Clearview 4

The Greatest Sports Call of All Time

In my opinion it does not get any better than Al Michaels and Ken Dryden on February 22, 1980. (It happened on George Washington’s birthday).  There was a time during my teenage years when I had Michaels’s call of the final minute of this game memorized.  I can still recite some of it.  One of the overlooked parts of this call was legendary Montreal Canadian goalie Ken Dryden, a Canadian, saying “unbelievable” as the game ended.  He was clearly shocked by what he had just witnessed. (Dryden is also know for saying “the U.S. team is relying a little too much on [goalie] Jim Craig, he’s making too many good saves” seconds before Michael’s interrupted to call what turned out to be the game-winning goal: “ERUZIONE, MIKE ERUZIONE!!!!“)

Episode 14: 107 Years in the Making

When the Chicago Cupodcast-icon1bs finally ended the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” they demonstrated just how historic “America’s Pastime” truly is. When Michael Phelps won his 28th Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro, he furthered his case for being known as the greatest Olympian history has ever known. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling once again tackle the history of sports, and are joined by Emmy award-winning sports historian, Amy Bass (@bassab1).

Vernon L. Parrington and Oklahoma Football

Parrington in Office 1905

Parrington in his University of Oklahoma office, 1905

If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography.  Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought.  Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.

But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?

Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.

Read the entire post here.

The First “Dream Team”


Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, KC Jones, Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bob Petit, and Hank Gola.

It was the team that played 19 games in Poland, Romania, Egypt, and Yugoslavia as part of the United States State Department goodwill tour in 1964.  The team was coached by Red Auerbach.

Robertson tells the story of this “Dream Team” at The Undefeated.  Here is a taste:

A State Department official who knew Red asked him to put together a team to tour Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania and Egypt following the 1964 NBA season. The Russians took a look at the roster Red had put together and decided not to admit us into the Soviet Union.

In the other four countries, we were welcomed with open arms. For one thing, they knew our games were likely to sell out, and the gate receipts would help build their local basketball federations.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With Rebecca Alpert


Rebecca T. Alpert is Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Temple University.  This interview is based on the forthcoming paperback release of her 2011 book Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press).

JF: What led you to write Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. My mother taught me that the Dodgers were “Jewish” because they were responsible for breaking baseball’s color line, and racial equality is a fundamental Jewish value. As I began to do some research many years later, I discovered that my mother was not the only one who held that belief; many liberal Jews, like other ethnic groups in Brooklyn, believed that their support of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball was a big reason why that happened. (They weren’t entirely wrong; Branch Rickey could never have succeeded at his “Great Experiment” in St. Louis where he worked for many years; in fact, he never even tried.) I wrote an article about that topic entitled “Jackie Robinson: Jewish Icon.” But then I started to wonder, where were the Jews when baseball was segregated? Did they play any role in the Negro Leagues?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: In Out of Left Field I argue that Jews made a unique contribution to mid twentieth century black baseball, in three ways. They played ball–a community of black Jews in Virginia, known as Temple Beth El, had their own team that played against the Negro League teams when they barnstormed through the South; they owned teams—several second generation Eastern European Jews were instrumental in the operation of the Negro Leagues; and they fought to integrate baseball—the Jewish sportswriters at the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, both reported on Negro League games when other white newspapers ignored them, and led efforts to end segregation as early as the mid-1930s, working alongside the black press.

JF: Why do we need to read Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: The book opens up a new perspective on the old question of the relationship between Jews and African Americans. It shows quite pointedly that there is some kernel of truth to the myth of the Black-Jewish alliance in the post-World War II era, but that the story is much more complicated, as illustrated through these case studies of black Jews, Jewish businessmen, and Jewish communists that took place before and during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RAI actually don’t identify as an American historian; I’m a religious studies scholar who works primarily in the area of American Judaism. My interest in American Jewish history began when, as a religion major in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Israel to learn more about my Jewish identity. What I quickly discovered there was that I’m really an American Jew, and so when I went to graduate school I focused my studies on American Judaism. From there I quickly learned I couldn’t understand American Judaism without learning about American religion, and ultimately that I needed to understand American history to really comprehend American religion.

JF: What is your next project?

RA: I am continuing to work in the area of religion and sports, co-editing an anthology, Gods, Games, and Globalization: New Perspectives on Religion and Sports. It will include articles about religious groups of all shapes and sizes that have used sports as a vehicle for inclusion into the mainstream, as a recruitment device, or for developing spiritual and physical fitness. And beyond the “holy trinity” of American sports—baseball, basketball, and football—one finds the traces of transcendence in everything from mixed martial arts to soccer. All told, this collection will reveal the variety of religious experiences within sports on the global stage.

JF: Thanks, Rebecca!

“An Indefensible Hope”


Drew Dyrli Hermeling and I just recorded Episode 7 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  It is our baseball episode and it will go public on Sunday.  Our guest is ESPN’s Paul Lukas, an expert on the history of baseball uniforms.  Stay tuned. Better yet, head over to the podcast page and download a few episodes.  Even better yet, tell your friends to download a few episodes.

As the baseball season gets underway this week, I have been trying to catch up on the work of sportswriters and commentators who usually use the first week of April to reflect on the meaning of baseball to American life.  So far that best thing I have read comes from Chris Gerhz at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.  Here is a taste of “Opening Day: ‘An Indefensible Hope.’“:

For my Twins and most other major league teams, today is Opening Day: the time each year when I’m reminded again that I love baseball far above every other sport — and that it’s hard to explain that love to non-fans. For example, the fact that baseball could inspire a writer as acclaimed as John Updike to do some of his best work speaks volumes about the National Pastime: why I love it, and why others roll their eyes at people like me.

Consider Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams’ last game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“). Within three sentences, Updike has already described Fenway Park as “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” And he’s exactly right to do so… But that’s just the first classical reference in an essay that goes on to liken Williams to Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

And to compare him to works by both Donatello and Leonardo.

And to use “Wordsworthian” as an adjective. And to record a joke about Thomas Aquinas.

As you may have heard, baseball is “the thinking man’s game.”

But even if you find such allusions pretentious, stick with Updike’s essay. You’ll eventually come to his riveting account of the 41-year old Williams stepping into the batter’s box in the 8th inning of an otherwise meaningless game:

This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

As a historian, I appreciate how Updike has all those memories of the past (each hearkening back to earlier sections of the essay) converging in a single moment. That’s a big part of baseball’s appeal for me: everything that happens adds a layer to the archeology of a game that would be recognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama alike.

Read the entire post here.

Enjoy the Game Tonight

I hope you all saw CBS’s piece celebrating the 3oth anniversary of “One Shining Moment.”  (It is not up on-line yet).

Since it first premiered in the 1987 national championship game I have been staying up late to listen to this song.  After eight years of blogging here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home I now feel comfortable telling everyone that my wife surprised me at our wedding reception by having the band play this song.  It was great!

Here is the 2015 version:

Go Nova!  If they win I win the Messiah College pool.

The Religious Power of Baseball

Obama Cuba

Sean O’Neil starts his piece on the sacredness of baseball with Barack Obama’s comments in Cuba about the so-called national pastime.

I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.

O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality  Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team.  Here is a taste:

When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.

Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.

Did Donald Trump Kill the United States Football League?

Walt Michaels (coach of NJ Generals), Doug Flutie, and the Donald

Some of you may remember the United States Football League (USFL).  The league was in business from 1983-1985 and played their games in the Spring so as not to compete with the NFL. 

The USFL managed to attract some pretty serious talent, including Heisman Trophy winners Hershel Walker, Doug Flutie, and Mike Rozier.  Former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly played in the league.  So did Brian Sipe, Reggie White (the “minister of defense”), and Steve Young. George Allen (of Redskins fame) and Marv Levy coached in the league.

In 1983, Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals, one of the USFL’s flagship franchises. And everything went downhill from there.

Brent Johnson tells the whole Trump-USFL saga at  Here is a taste of his article:

But Trump saw playing football in the spring as “a wasteland.” Experts said he came into the USFL with the idea to move the league to the fall and challenge the NFL directly. 

“If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” Trump said at the time.

The league voted to make the move in 1986. But there was a problem: The NFL was on all three TV networks.

So, the league — with Trump supplying the lawyers — filed an antitrust and monopoly lawsuit against NFL seeking $1.69 billion. Critics said Trump’s hope was that the USFL would become as powerful as the NFL, or that it would force a merger — leading the 
Generals to be absorbed into the NFL.

In the end, the jury ruled that the NFL did have a monopoly and that the USFL was injured. But it also felt the USFL contributed to its own demise with too much spending. The  jury awarded the USFL $3 in damages.

The league folded and never played a game in the fall.

The Brief History of the Seattle Pilots

Seattle Pilots, 1969

Some nice sportswriting here.  

Matt Blitz, writing at The Smart Set, tells the story of the Seattle Pilots and the history of baseball in Seattle.  This Major League Baseball team made their debut on April 11, 1969.  They finished the 1969 season in last place in the American League.  

On April 1, 1970 (just days before the start of the team’s second season) the team moved to Milwaukee and became the Milwaukee Brewers.  There was no time for new uniforms so the word “Pilots” was ripped off the current uniforms and replaced with “Brewers.”  (Milwaukee’s team–the Braves–had moved to Atlanta).

Here is a taste:

As the season wore on, it became evident the team was losing money, though not millions like some pessimistic projections showed, but closer to the half million dollar range. Still, money is money and losing it is never a good thing. It became evident more money was going to be needed in order for the team to stay afloat and the Soriano brothers had to turn to William Daley. In a 1979 interview with the Associated Press, Max Soriano said, “Sure, he had the money to do so, but I don’t think he was a careless person with his dollars. I think he looked at it as the odds being too much against Seattle being a viable franchise until a new stadium was built…I’ve never told anybody this, but Daly wanted to leave Seattle as soon as the first game ended.” In early September, William Daley took to grandstanding and told the Pilots fans that if they didn’t come to games, he would be forced to sell the team. Mayor Floyd Miller (who was actually an interim mayor and never elected) responded by saying he would evict the team if they didn’t put up a bond guaranteeing they would pay the rent on Sick’s, for the Pilots had refused to pay in June. National news reports started coming out that the Pilots were moving at the end of season, most likely to Dallas. In the final month of the season, attendance plummeted to only about 4,500 fans on average a game.

Around this time, a Milwaukee ownership group led by a young, millionaire, car salesman named Bud Selig (yes, current commissioner of Major League Baseball) was looking to buy a team and move them back to the cheese state of Wisconsin. In 1966, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, despite Bud Selig arguing against this by saying “a baseball team owed it to its community to remain loyal, and not seek new homes, because the loss of a baseball team meant the loss identity.” So, when the Pilots own financial troubles arose, Selig jumped on the chance to move the team from Seattle to Milwaukee, in a twist of irony. After secret negotiations, a deal was struck during game one of the World Series in Baltimore. An ownership group led by Bud Selig was going to buy the Pilots for 10.8 million dollars.

"The Allrounder" Needs Your Support

Are you a sports fan?  Are you an intellectual, scholar, or teacher who has been looking for a deeper conversation about the connections between sports and society?  Then you need to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for “The Allrounder.”

My friend Bruce Berglund of Calvin College and a few of his colleagues around the world have started an online sports journal that will feature academics and journalists writing about the broader connections of sports to history, politics, science, even philosophy and theology.  Here is a small taste of what you can expect:

They also have a really nice group of contributors lined up, including Amy Bass, a friend of the blog, director of NBC’s Olympic research room (for which she won an Emmy), and one of our most thoughtful commentators on the relationship between sports, race, and American culture.  Oh yes–did I mention we went to graduate school together?
I should say up front that we at The Way of Improvement Leads Home only support Kickstarter campaigns for projects that have potential and promise and can make a contribution to the kinds of discourse and subject matter we value here.  The Allrounder fits the bill on all these fronts.

Perhaps some of you may not be familiar with Kickstarter campaigns.   Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform with a mission to “help bring creative projects to life.” Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are designed to gather money from the public thus circumventing traditional avenues of investment.  Project creators choose a deadline and a minimum funding goal.  If the goal is not met by the deadline, no funds are collected.  Money pledged by donors is collected using Amazon Payments.

CLICK HERE to go to the Kickstarter project page for The Allrounder

CLICK HERE to see the The Allrounder preview site.  The full site will go up in September.

Who is the Greatest Coach of All Time?

The New York Times says it is Sir Alex Ferguson, recently retired coach of Manchester United Football ClubHe won 13 league championships, five F.A. cups, and 2 Champions League titles.  According to this chart, he also won 65% of his matches.

Here are some of the North American contenders:

Phil Jackson:  11 NBA titles and won roughly 68% of his games.

Gino Auriemma: 8 NCAA titles and won 86% of his games.

Pat Summitt:  8 NCAA titles and won 84% of her games.

John Wooden: 10 NCAA titles and won 80% of his games.

Red Auerbach: 9 NBA titles and won rougly 58% of his games.

Scotty Bowman: 9 Stanley Cup titles and won roughly 66% of his games.

Casey Stengel: Won the World Series 7 times with a 51 winning percentage.

Bear Bryant: Won 76% of his games along with 6 national championships.

Mike Krzyzewski: Won four national championships and roughly 76% of his games.

Paul Brown: Won roughly 67% of his games along with seven NFL titles.

Joe McCarthy:  Won the World Series seven times and had a 62 winning percentage.

George Halas:  Six NFL championships and a roughly 68 winning percentage.

Who would you choose as the greatest coach of all time?

Jim Thorpe’s Body is Leaving Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, PA, but his remains will not be there for long. His sons will be moving them to the Sac and Fox lands in Oklahoma where he was raised.  Here is a taste of a recent editorial in The New York Times:

Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, but he was soon stripped of his medals for violating stiff-necked rules of amateurism for having played minor league baseball for token remuneration. In a fit of conscience, Olympic officials restored the medals in 1982, but, by then, Thorpe was long dead and entombed via a bizarre arrangement in which two Pennsylvania mining towns Thorpe had never visited — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — officially changed their name to Jim Thorpe, Pa. The 1954 deal with Thorpe’s widow provided a red granite mausoleum for the great athlete’s remains and hope that his name and grave would stir a boom in tourism and local pride amid the hard times of recession.
All that was prelude to a judge’s ruling this month that Thorpe’s two surviving sons had the right under American Indian ancestral law to move his remains from Jim Thorpe, Pa., to the Sac and Fox lands in Oklahoma where he was raised. The ruling was another chapter in the meandering ways of the Thorpe legend. He was rightly acclaimed as one of the surpassing athletes of the 20th century but ultimately pitied for being exploited by handlers and promoters amid his fall into alcoholism. Thorpe proved his true worth as a competitor. His spectacular time for the grueling decathlon test in the 1,500 meters — 4 minutes 40.1 seconds — stood for 60 years.