I was pleased with this year's Superbowl. It was a good game, the (slight) underdog won out, and, most importantly, the team that I can't bring myself to ever cheer for--the Indianapolis Colts--lost. While my wife Rachel was also pulling for the Saints, her interest seemed like it was driven by a more noble motivation--the emotional uplifting of a downtrodden city. The truth is, she's never quite understood my revulsion against certain teams; she tells me that "hate" is probably too strong a word to use against them, and that I shouldn't be calling the New York Yankees evil. And in a way, she's probably right. But, as Pascal said so eloquently, "the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of," and my heart doesn't like the Colts. (Or the Jets. Or the Yankees. Or the Lakers.) All in all, it's actually been quite a bad year in that respect--the Lakers and Yankees both won their respective championships, and the Colts and Jets were the last teams standing atop the AFC. The Saints' victory was the only trace of redemption for this misbegotten year in sports. But, as Rachel reminds me, it's worth asking why these feelings exist, or if they should exist at all. Is it okay for me to delight in Peyton Manning's tragic shortfalling?
So, with the Superbowl come and gone, it's a good time to take stock of where our American sports-frenzy fits into the Christian life. It's not an easy issue, as demonstrated by the recent flurry of debate in Christianity Today on the subject (http://www.christianitytoday.com/). There are staunch Christian defenders of sport, lauding its virtues of teamwork, persistence, and discipline, and there are also detractors who would point to our devotion to sports as idolatry. But, as is often the case, the truth is probably a bit more complex than a simple black-and-white perspective on sports. As some of the issues involved in this debate have been on my mind for awhile, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the subject. First I'll take a look at several cultural "niches" that sports fill--i.e., what functions sports serve in our wider culture; and then I'll deal with some of the objections commonly made against the practice of professional sports. (Note: since the beginning of my first section rambles on for a bit, I'll put it up as its own post first and then come back with some further reflections on sports in a few days).
Sport as Regional Patriotism and Family Loyalty
First, we'll look at the reason for my sports-hatred of certain teams. (If you're a sports fan, it probably seems like common sense that you end up hating certain teams. But for those outside of the bounds of true "fandom," it looks odd, and perhaps even unChristian--so I think it's worth exploring). Let's begin by asking why we cheer for certain teams. For most fans, there's a very good reason: we cheer for teams that represent our home areas. Or, in some cases, we cheer for teams that those we love cheer for (our fathers, brothers, friends, and so on). In this sense, our love for certain teams is a reflection and extension of a broader, deeper love. I cheer for the New England Patriots, the Boston Red Sox, and the Boston Celtics because they represent the area I call home, the places I love. They are the nearest professional sports teams to my home state of Maine, as well as the teams that I "inherited" from my family, and so they've become my own in a special way. If I had grown up in Indiana, I would love and cheer for the Colts (even though I shudder to think of it). I have a scattering of a few other teams that I pull for, if for some reason my New England teams are out of the picture: the San Antonio Spurs (for my time in southern Texas as a boy), the Colorado Rockies, Denver Broncos, and Denver Nuggets (for my recent seminary-years), and, sometimes, the Minnesota Vikings (for some long-standing connections that my family has with Minnesota). It's not that these teams excel in certain virtues that the others lack; I love them because they represent places that I love. In this sense, sports fandom is a form of regional patriotism. It is a love of home and an expression of affinity with those who share that home. It can be, in its best form, a way to "love thy neighbor." Although the passion that gets associated with one's fandom often overshadows all this, if we trace it back far enough, we will usually find that one's sports-loves began as loves for home and family. And in this age of high mobility and the loss of local culture and local particularity, regional sports give us one last way to express our love of home. It represents, in some way, a delight in our roots.
And this, interestingly, is where my sports-hates come from. My hates are contingent upon my loves; they do not exist independently. I dislike the Colts and Jets because they have been long-standing foes of my Patriots. I dislike the Yankees because they are the rivals of my Red Sox. And I dislike the Lakers because they have traditionally been the great adversary of my Celtics. So in some sense, it's valid to say that these "hates" are actually expressions of my love. If not for the Patriots, I probably wouldn't care about the Colts one way or the other.
But the question still remains--is that a valid reason to cheer against the Colts in the Superbowl, when the Patriots are already long out of the picture? A critic might extend the argument: "If sports fandom is a reflection of regional patriotism, then does your national patriotism mean that you spend your time hoping for the downfall of China, the USA's current economic rival?" Not really. But I don't think it's a fair comparison, and here's why: while nations actually represent real people in the everyday condition of their lives, sports are largely disconnected from "real life." My cheering against the Colts will do no harm to anyone, nor does it wish any actual detriment to anyone's life, not even the Colts' players. So is it OK to cheer against the Colts? I think so, because sports are, for all the passion and emotion we fuel them with, simply a symbol, an icon. If I actually hoped for physical harm on Peyton Manning, that would be a different matter. But sports are a playground of the human condition, and perhaps--in some sense--a school for how the deepest loves in our lives should function.
And this is the point that I really want to hammer home: our sports-loves working as a reflection of how all our real loves should operate. The deepest loves in our lives are forms of covenant-loyalty, and if we are loyal to one side then we are against any opposing side. I ought to hate the devil and hope for his demise, because that is an extension of my love for God. Or take, for instance, the marriage-relationship--my love for Rachel should entirely exclude any improper affection for another woman. Think of it this way: if Rachel is the New England Patriots, then the Colts--her greatest rival in this context--represent any possibility of my infidelity. Because of my love for Rachel, I should be completely against that rival (the possibility of infidelity) in any situation. Thus it is that if I love the Patriots, I should be against their rival (the Colts or Jets) in any situation. Likewise, my love for my country should mean that I oppose the greatest rival of my country in any situation (and as a Christian, I don't believe that that rival is any other country--since countries represent people, and we're called to love all people--but rather a trend of cultural and moral backsliding). If I were ambivalent about the cultural/moral malaise of the 21st century, then that would mean that I didn't love America much. If I were ambivalent about the prospects of adultery for me in the future, then that would mean that I didn't love Rachel much. And if I were ambivalent about the Colts, then that would mean that my loyalty to the Patriots is not worth much. Thus, for the sake of my team and my homeland, I relish the demise of the Colts (with appropriate apologies to those of my friends who love the Colts.)
(And, as I said above, I'll write a few more thoughts on the subject of sports next week. Since it consumes so much of our time and money in our culture, it's worth asking the hard questions about its place in our lives.)
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.