Sports have gripped the soul of our culture, and they are not about to let go. ESPN and Fox Sports usher us from one mountaintop religious experience to another. Sports trigger our adrenaline and fire our passions. We are possessed, enthralled, and captivated by the spiritual power of sports. They do more than entertain us; they defines us. There are so many positive reasons to participate in sports, as both athlete and spectator, that if I were to list them all, we might surmise that a few excesses in the name of sports should be no big deal.
What’s not to like about the endorphin rush that comes from a good workout or about the fun of playing with friends? Sports are great stress relievers, healthy escapes from the mundane chores of life, alternatives to video gaming for our children, and things we can do together as families. Sports can direct our competitive drive and challenge us to excel physically and socially, teaching us how to grow through defeat and how to win with humility. We are made in God’s image with a capacity for love and beauty, creativity and reason. Teasing these traits out through play is fundamental to our personal identity. Life without the fun of recreation runs against the grain of universe. God made us to swim, throw, bike, surf, skate, jump, and play. God made us to run fast, run patterns, run marathons, run sprints, run laps, and run to win.
The Game Is Everything
I served a church in San Diego that was only a short walk to Petco Park where the Padres play ball. Following worship one Sunday, I changed into jeans and headed for the ballpark with a free ticket in hand. I met up with friends and 40,000 fans. The place was rocking. The beer was flowing. And the food was flying, quite literally thanks to an army of peanut, nachos, and cotton candy vendors. The baseball game nearly seemed lost in a sea of churning humanity—I saw the two best plays of the day on the large screen because when they actually happened my vision was blocked by fans buying aerial hot dogs.
On that hot summer day, I had nine innings to contemplate the contrast between the worship I had just come from and the worship I was experiencing at Petco Park. How can the visceral experience of a ball game match the invisible realities grounding holy worship? How can the truth of our fallen human condition and God’s redemptive provision compete with the throbbing excitement of a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, one man on, and the Padres’ best hitter at the plate? Can the bread and cup compete with ballpark hot dogs?
Football is America’s high impact religion. The NFL is a ten-billion-dollar-a-year business with six billion coming from TV revenue. According to Steve Kroft of CBS’s 60 Minutes, the NFL “is the American adaptation of the Roman Coliseum, a spectacle that manages to package all the primal instincts of sex, violence, tribalism, courage, joy, and disappointment” (January 29, 2012). The first words aired on ESPN were, “If you love sports, if you really love sports, you’ll think you died and gone to heaven.” A new priesthood of sportscasters explores every imaginable dimension of the game for one hundred million households that can never get enough of their beloved sports. On the surface, spectator sports should be just an innocent pastime, a fun escape to distract us from life’s routine. But if we drill down a little deeper, we’ll realize that sports may be having a huge impact on how we think and live.
The synapses of a brain trained to the nonstop action of commercials and the quick visual stimuli of an NFL helmet-to-helmet hit, replayed two or three times, can hardly attend to a human voice preach the word of God. The sensual atmosphere of heart-throbbing international soccer is hardly a fair opponent for a hymn or praise song. True worship is bound to be a challenge for sports junkies who are hooked on the game’s adrenaline rush. Can we watch the second-to-second visual theater of the NBA, NFL, or MLB and learn to pray the Psalms? Within the inner sanctum of today’s home entertainment centers, Christians are mentally, emotionally, and physically manipulated and captivated by the game. No wonder we are bored when we come to church.
Friedrich Nietzsche follows up his famous “God is dead” declaration with a question: “How shall we comfort ourselves. . . . What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, two top-tier philosophers from UC Berkeley and Harvard, claim that living in the secular age means admitting that there are no deep and hidden truths to the universe, much less revealed truths. But that does not mean we have to live in despair, especially when we have sports. According to Dreyfus and Kelly, “Sports may be the place in contemporary life where Americans find sacred community most easily.” It is beyond dispute, they claim, that sports now play a kind of religious role in America. “There is no essential difference,” they write, “in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass.” That is not to say that sports are sacred in “any absolute sense. But there are moments in sport . . . during which something so overpowering happens that it wells up before you as a palpable presence and carries you along as on a powerful wave. . . . That is the moment when the sacred shines.” Sports hold an honored place in the modern pantheon of American deities.
We lived in Bloomington, Indiana, during Bobby Knight’s basketball reign at Indiana University (IU). Our church was a few blocks from campus and well attended by students and faculty. IU’s fan base was broad and deep, even among people who had nothing to do with the university. On those rare occasions when a game fell on Sunday, you might just as well have forgotten about worship. The congregation looked like an IU cheering section, and the minute the benediction was over, they were out the door, heading for Assembly Hall. Our rather subdued Sunday worship was in sharp contrast to the way those hot-blooded Hoosiers passionately cheered their basketball team.
When IU beat Purdue in a come-from-behind-victory one Sunday, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial to the paper suggesting that in the spirit of sports, we should cancel worship services altogether when game day is Sunday. “For too long we have tried to mix the spirit of sport and the Holy Spirit on the same day,” I wrote. “Whatever we do, let’s do it right. Enough of this vacillation between boredom and basketball, even the seats are more comfortable in Assembly Hall than in most churches. Let’s face it, the old hymns of the Faith, even the new songs of praise, do not compare to the IU pep band and cheerleaders. Is any choir able to compete with the IU flag hoisted three men high before the cheering throng with IU cheerleaders bowing in adoration? What does the ‘Amen’ of worship have to do with ‘Go! IU!’ Let’s set aside Game-Day-Sundays for Basketball.”
It’s Only a Game
When Germany handed a humiliating seven-to-one defeat to Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, I wanted to say to the devastated Brazilian fans, “It’s only a game.” It strikes me as wrong when the collective self-esteem of a nation is projected on to a sporting event. The human quest for meaning and purpose was never meant to be played out on the soccer field or tennis court or hockey ring.
A friend of mine is an avid Alabama football fan. If you live in Alabama, you’d be hard-pressed to find friends who are not avid football fans. Alabamians like to say, “In Alabama we don’t play football, we live football.” My friend was watching Alabama play Auburn on TV with his eight year-old son. In the final seconds of the game Auburn came from behind and beat Alabama. His son burst into tears, heartbroken over his team’s crushing loss in the last seconds of the game. He was nearly inconsolable but in great company—grown men have become so upset over a gut-wrenching Alabama loss that they have thrown up. Despite my friend’s allegiance to the Crimson Tide, he saw this as a teachable moment. He put his arms around his son and calmly explained, “We love football, but it’s only a game. We have to man up when our team loses. There are a lot more important things in life than a football game. Let’s keep it in perspective.” He then prayed with his son. Several months later, my friend’s son’s top-ranked baseball team lost a close game. The team was devastated, but my friend saw his son going around to his teammates, encouraging them and telling them to “Man up. Remember it’s only a game. We’ll get ’em next time.”
Sports give people something to live for—they feed our quest for glory and transcendence—yet somehow we have to learn how to put the cultural phenomenon of sports in its place. Writer David Goetz suggests that to give inappropriate significance to sports is ultimately foolish: “The game is good, even holy. It’s stupid only when it becomes my immortality symbol. When the game becomes about me.” Sadly, for many of us, sports have become an immortality symbol. They have taken on sacred importance, defining a person’s self-worth, even a nation’s collective identity.
Those who enjoy sports the most are those who understand their immense value in the moral, physical, and spiritual scheme of God’s created order, those who can say, “It’s only a game” without being dismissive. Calvin College’s Brian Bolt writes, “People play sports primarily for the love of the game, the love of the competition, the love of doing something well, and the love of the community in which they participate. When we do sports well, we nurture this love as a spectacular gift and remind ourselves of the giver of all good things.” Sports have their place in a theology of play, right up there with playing the violin, writing a poem, or painting a picture. We have a God-given capacity to play, to compete, to press our physical limits, to excel in endurance, and to discipline our bodies for physical performance.
A Call for Discernment
Shirl James Hoffman challenges Christians “to think critically about sports” and “to explore seriously how the sporting culture intersects” with the Christian life. He tells the story of psychiatrist Arnold Mandell who spent a season with the San Diego Chargers. Mandell eventually resigned his position “after witnessing the incredible carnage up close and personal from the sidelines. At the last game he attended, a drunken spectator had fallen thirty feet from an upper tier seat; as this man lay jerking on the ground, Mandell thought: ‘[But] the players, they are doing that to each other all the time . . .broken necks and broken legs and broken ribs and fractured this and fractured that and concussions and unconsciousness. But they are in uniform and psychologically segmented off.’” Hoffman sees a wide chasm separating a Christian perspective on sports and the popular “grotesque distortion of sports” which he describes as “narcissistic, materialistic, self-interested, violent, sensational, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, militaristic.” Regardless of how much we might love sports, we cannot turn a blind eye to their dehumanizing impact.
Discernment is made more difficult when we are determined to find the silver lining in every aspect of sports no matter how contrary they may be to Christian practice. If we have to spend time debating the Christian legitimacy of cage fighting, for example, we may never get to the issues that matter most—the valuable role sports play in human flourishing; the thrill of competition and the joy of comradery; the positive impact of sports on physical, emotional, and spiritual discipline; the ways in which sports can reflect the will and way of Christ. We can safely say, I think, that the rationale for two men getting into a caged arena with the expressed purpose of beating each other to a pulp before a crazed and intoxicated crowd doesn’t come from Jesus. Cage fighting is to sports what pornography is to marriage. The effort to find redeeming value in cage fighting strikes me as lunacy. The Christian who hesitates to say no to cage fighting on grounds that it may have a cathartic effect on controlling male violence seems blind to the very basic Christian rationale for sports. Are there no limits for acceptable behavior that honors God? Is there anything in the realm of sports that requires Christians to utter a categorical no?
Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). This simple one-liner underscores the life-changing impact of the gospel of grace for each and every believer. Discipleship is the costly, daily commitment of the ordinary believer. We are meant to resist compartmentalizing our faith in Christ into separate categories, as if food, work, money, sex, and sports belong to the realm of personal choice whereas prayer, worship, Bible reading, and evangelism belong to God. Jesus teaches his followers that everything belongs to the spiritual disciplines and that everything ought to be done in obedience to the will of God. As the Apostle Paul says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Fuller Theological Seminary’s Chap Clark has devoted much of his career to studying the effect of sports on teenagers. He concludes that by the time students get to high school “the level of expectation and the pressure to perform make their participation an all-consuming commitment.” Clark is especially concerned that sports have become a substitute for relating to our young people in meaningful, character-building ways. Competitive sports rob young people “of the human desire to play for play’s sake and even to compete with class and honor.” Clark challenges the notion that sports build character: “True character is built when one is rewarded for hard work, when one is willing to sacrifice for a friend or teammate, when one experiences the instilled value that proclaims the love of sport and not the lust of competition.” Instead of instilling Christian virtues in our students, the sports culture has inculcated “nothing other than arrogance, self-centeredness, and a performance ethic that is destructive to healthy, communally connected development.”
Christian families are bowing to these costly demands. They are willing to make great sacrifices in time, money, and energy, but in the end, they are giving up their children to the all-consuming phenomenon of sports. Eight-year-olds are pulled out of Sunday morning worship to play baseball games. Swim meets are held on Good Friday. Tournaments are played on Easter Sunday. Travel ball and sports camps take top priority over family time. When the Apostle Paul says, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), he is speaking of the powerful positive influence of the believer on culture, but I’m afraid we have been naive when it comes to the negative social and spiritual impact sports have had on our children, our families, our churches, and our mission.
As parents, coaches, and players, we ought to understand—and not make up for ourselves—what it means to glorify God. To glorify God doesn’t mean spending our week pumping iron or leaving our hearts out on the field on game day—God wants our hearts. To glorify God does not mean pointing to the sky or taking a knee after we’ve scored a touchdown. Nor does it mean giving a sound bite for Jesus after the game. God doesn’t need publicity; God wants our witness. The Westminster Confession reads, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” and if we really want to know how to glorify God, the Sermon on the Mount is a great place to begin.
In critiquing the classic film Chariots of Fire, Dominic Erdozain of King’s College London observes four distinct positions that offer important nuance to how we participate in sports. For Jennie, the protagonist Eric Liddell’s devout sister, an hour spent sporting is an hour spent not praying. Sports are just games to Jennie, frivolous passing time with no redeeming purpose. In contrast, Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge University, admits to his girlfriend that he doesn’t just love running—he’s addicted to it. He sums up his view with this line: “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; four feet wide, with ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.” For Harold Abrahams the game is everything, whereas for Eric Liddell the game is a tool. Erdozain suggests that Liddell captures the ambiguity of Christians who acknowledge God’s larger purposes beyond sports but nevertheless find in sports a method for evangelism and a special means to glorify God. As Liddell says to his sister, “It’s not just fun. To win is to honor him.”
Erdozain finds “the film’s attempt to spiritualize the intoxication of competition” as particularly problematic. This is where the fourth position, that of Lord Lindsey and his “blend of intensity without ultimacy,” is so compelling. Lindsey can give himself to the game with “unencumbered delight” while not piling all of his hopes and expectations on the outcome. He is all in with a passion for competing, but he is never defined by the competition. His intensity is not wrapped up in glorifying either sports or national athletic pride. When Liddell learns that his 100-meter race will be run on Sunday, he refuses to run because of his deeply held convictions about honoring the Sabbath; Lord Lindsey comes to the rescue. He gladly exchanges his 400-meter race to be run on Thursday for Liddell’s Sunday race. Some have suggested that Lindsey agrees to this switch because through his wealth and aristocratic social status he is spared the indifference of Jennie Liddell, the delusion of Harold Abrahams, and the spiritualizing devotion of Eric Liddell. That is, Lindsey can afford to be playful and selfless, to tackle the less famous race, because of his wealth and status. That may be so, and yet Lindsey’s freedom, reasons Erdozain, “is no greater than that of a Christian whose cosmic certainty liberates her for that easy and unselfconscious enjoyment of the world that C. S. Lewis considered the mark of true humility: the ungrasping security that enables her ‘to enjoy life so easily.’”
This blend of “intensity without ultimacy” captures a theology of play grounded in creation and redemption. Having been made in God’s image and redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, everything about sports pales in significance. Salvation and self-worth are rooted in what God in Christ has done for us. This frees sports to be what they were intended to be: good clean fun, challenging recreation, joyful competition, extramural pastime. This is the freedom that caring parents and coaches should seek to nurture in their children and student athletes. The Christian’s holy indifference toward sports, and toward all those passions that compete for first place in our lives, is rooted in an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. We are free to enjoy sports without turning them into idols that demand sacrifices reserved for God alone.
Jesus was in the habit of driving his truth home in radical ways. One of the boldest lines he ever spoke contrasted devotion to him with devotion to family. He says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). You know where this is going—if we modify that comparison ever so slightly, we get the Tuscaloosa pastor saying on Sunday morning, “If you are truly serious about following Lord Jesus Christ, you will hate Alabama football.”
Let’s be clear. The love of family is an integral part of costly discipleship. What Jesus means by his radical comparison is that family must never become an excuse for not following him, and often following Jesus means loving our family; through our family we have the opportunity for loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and our neighbor as ourself. Is the love of sports an integral part of cross-bearing discipleship? Yes, indeed. What Jesus rejects is the temptation to make too much of sports, to turn sports into gods placed alongside Christ. When sports become competitors against the Lord for our devotion and worship, we need to hear Jesus’s radical word and repent. Sports can provide significant opportunities to serve the Lord Jesus with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself. Sports were never meant to excuse us from following Christ. When a passion for Christ exceeds a passion for sports, the place of worship, service, and family is never diminished, the athlete’s body is never sacrificed, the opposing team is always honored, and God is glorified in the way the athlete and spectator reflect Christ.