In February, toward the end of a hotly contested college basketball game between Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, OSU star player Marcus Smart fouled a player under the basket—his momentum carried him into the crowd on Tech’s home court. As Smart was helped to his feet, a Tech fan named Jeff Orr shouted, “You’re a piece of crap!” And Smart gave Orr a two-handed shove that knocked the man back a step. Smart was immediately assessed a technical foul but was not ejected from the game, which Texas Tech won.
After the game, Smart was suspended by the Big 12 Conference for three games and Orr made a public apology for taunting him. The day after the incident OSU officials held a news conference, where the 19-year-old Smart apologized for his actions and took full responsibility for what happened. But before Smart had a chance to speak, OSU’s athletic director Mike Holder led off the news conference with this statement:
I take away three things from Mike Holder’s press-statement that are worth leaning into:
1. “And last night was not our finest hour—it wasn’t Marcus Smart’s finest hour. How we deal with that, in my opinion, is a lot more important than what happened.”
As leaders, we too often want to distance ourselves from the mistakes of our students. Study the language Holder uses here when referencing “the mistake”—words like “our” and “we.” He doesn’t make the mistake of attacking Jeff Orr’s obvious “sin” here—instead, he uses inclusive language to identify with Marcus, helping protect him from the backlash that’s sure to come. I can only imagine how this sounded to Marcus in that moment—Holder’s “I’m with you” must have felt like a refuge in a storm. Identifying with our students’ mistakes, and standing in the gap with them, is modeling Jesus to them.
2. “I think that what happened last night will not define Marcus, and will not define us.”
There’s a lot of talk in youth ministry today about “identity.” We want our students to find their identity in Christ, not in the outside forces that are trying to define them. These “definers” include good things (athlete, dancer, academic) and bad things (cutter, divorced home, bully). Our role with students, as it relates to their mistakes, is to follow Holder’s lead—naming their reality for what it is, but then forcefully defining them through a filter of truth. By redirecting Marcus’ (and OSU’s) future away from his current reality, Holder is acting like Jesus when he “re-tooled” the identities of a couple of fishermen, redirecting their life away from a focus on a lesser identity, naming them “fishers of men” instead.
3. “My job is to stand by [Marcus], to give him the support he needs, and make sure he knows we love him and care about him.”
When students make mistakes, words like “stand by you,” “support,” “love,” and “care” are so critical. Sure, Smart was punished with a three-game suspension, and I’m sure he had to deal with the school’s leadership in the days following the event, but Holder made those realities secondary. Consider Jesus’ meeting with Peter in John 21. The last time Peter interacted with Jesus, prior to this breakfast on the beach, he’d denied him to a little girl three times. Imagine Peter’s surprise when he heard these words come out of Jesus’ mouth: “Peter, do you love me?”
“Love” is likely not listed in Mike Holder’s job description at OSU, but his bold stance reveals his determination to make it his mission. When the lights were in his face and the cameras were flashing, he didn’t quote university bylaws and stiff legalese—he went straight to the heart. He understood something only the greatest leaders know—love covers a multitude of sins. Brilliant.
We can learn a lot from Holder’s two-minute response to Smart’s enormous mistake—he took a situation that threatened to undermine his institution and destroy a young man’s identity and re-directed it the way Jesus always does. Let’s go and do likewise.