And now for the final installment of my much-acclaimed, prize-winning series "Thoughts on Sports." The case being made, against certain critics of pro sports within American Christianity on the one hand, and against pro-sports fanatics on the other, is that sports have an important cultural role to play in our society, but that we always need to be aware of the inherent cultural-influence dangers associated with them. In this article, we'll look at addressing some of the common objections that are made against the practice of pro sports.
Objection #1: Sports heroes get idolized in inappropriate ways
All too true. While it's natural for sports heroes to get idolized because they fill the cultural niche of mythology/legend for us, it is still inappropriate. Why should I devote so much of my attention and affection to someone whose one great skill is an ability to throw a ball accurately? It's impressive, but hardly laudable. We are constantly reminded, over and over again by the events on our news channels, that great athletes are not always great people. Every once in a while, you run into an athlete who also has a laudable character. And good for them. But the fact remains--I have a ton of people with laudable characters in my church and in my town, so why do those few athletes merit extra-special attention for their good deeds? I would even argue that in the case of those few "good" athletes, it's still better not to set too much admiration on them, because the milieu they live in is so full of temptations that they are probably more likely to disappoint us than any other group of people (except maybe politicians). And here's the main point I want to get across: why on earth do we celebrate and idolize physical prowess, and pay almost no attention to spiritual prowess? Why is it that men who obsessively devote their lives to building freakish amounts of muscle gain more acclaim than those who devote their lives to constant, passionate prayer? Why is it that physical fanaticism is applauded, and spiritual fanaticism is seen as revolting and absurd? The true heroes are the ones no one knows about, the old ladies who are prayer warriors all day long, the missionaries giving their lives to gain one inch of ground in a hard-hearted land, the monks who study God's word until it becomes their every thought. There was once a day when it was the other way around--when people from all over would flock out to the desert to see the "spiritual athletes" who had given their lives to the service of God in prayer. But no more. Now, churches and Christian conferences drool over the prospect of finding an athlete who is also a Christian to speak in their services. Athletes may at times be good people, but let's give the honor where it's really due--let's pin up full-size posters of Benedict and Francis on our walls instead of LeBron James and Peyton Manning. And maybe--here's a radical idea--it might even be worth trying to take spiritual discipline and exercise as seriously as we take physical exercise in our own lives. You don't need to play ball to be a hero--just learn how to pray.
Objection #2: Players' salaries are so gaudy as to be a repulsive mockery of cultural values
This is true, to a degree. It is downright ridiculous how much you can earn for being good at playing a ball game. Although sports fill an important cultural niche, is it so important that our athletes ought to be paid far more than the president of our country? Probably not. Regardless of what we think of the president, I think we could all agree that our country would get along better without an athlete or two than without a president.
However, there are a few points that need to be made here. Usually when this objection is brought up, it's in a sense of revulsion for the players themselves. But we need to remember that it's not the players' fault (though they can be inordinately greedy at times)--it's really our fault and our neighbors' fault. Athletes earn so much money because we pay them so much money. Because sports are marketed as entertainment, the athletes earn their share of what the audience will pay to see them play--and that turns out to be a lot. I bet that if I was a statistician, I could give throw out some hefty numbers at this point to prove that the money we pay to professional sports could easily solve world hunger. Thankfully, some sanity is beginning to come back into the sports world thanks to the recent financial crunch, and several of the professional leagues are arming up for some number-crunching battles between athletes and owners. Apparently some Americans aren't as comfortable as they used to be in paying thousands of dollars for gameday seats. All that to say--it's not the players' fault, and if we want their salaries to come down, then we need something akin to a full cultural revolution on the level of the American individual's personal priorities. Until that time, the best we can do is to applaud those athletes (and there are lots of them) who use their money to do tremendous good for their communities and the world.
Objection #3: Don't sports promote violence?
Yes and no. Some sports (football, hockey, boxing, etc.) do promote a certain level of violence. But in most cases, it's not a violence of hatred or aggression so much as a tactical sort of violence. It's no more than the sort of violence that boys naturally engage in. But it can run to unhealthy extremes--for example, when football shows run montages of brutal hits and tackles just for shock value. Some sports--like professional wrestling or MMA or UFC--also seem to me to cross the line. Early Christian tradition had a long history of avoiding "the games" because the violence being practiced in the arena was degrading to the great truth that human beings are made in the image of God. This takes careful discernment--there are natural thrills to be had in viewing and practicing violence, even in a "harmless" game format--but we need to be asking ourselves whether such things honor the body as the temple of God.
Objection #4: What about the Sabbath?
Unfortunately, very few people in our society practice the Sabbath at all. Most professional athletes, because of their schedule, can't use Sunday as a Sabbath-day. They have to wait for a "day off," whenever that may come. If I were pastoring a professional athlete, though, I would recommend that the principle behind the Sabbath-commandment be followed. It need not be on Sunday (my Sabbath isn't, either), but the important thing is to set aside time to rest, to reflect, and to be in the presence of God. And for all of us Christian sports-watchers out there, I would speak a word of caution: it's far too easy for us to spend our Sabbath-time watching non-stop sports. There are so many sporting events offered up for our entertainment that a whole Saturday or Sunday can go by in front of a TV screen. And that's a waste. It's fine to watch some sports as a way to relax and unwind, but if you're not using your Sabbath as a time to re-charge spiritually, then you're missing one of the greatest blessings God has given us. Take some time to pray, to read, to go on a reflective walk in the woods. If we took the Sabbath seriously, I think we would be people who are much more spiritually "in tune" to what God is doing and saying, to us and to our world.
Objection #5: Don't sports distract us from real life?
Yes, they can. And that's why we need to be careful. They have their place, as I argued in my earlier posts. But we need to be discerning. Following our favorite sports teams can consume our lives. We need to set boundaries, particularly in regard to how we spend our time. Sports are fine as entertainment, but we rarely get anything edifying out of them. And if all we do is watch sports and read about sports, then we could be missing out on learning and reading about stuff that matters, stuff that could change our lives. If we just put some boundaries in place so that our sports-affection doesn't run over into idolatry, and if we take some time to focus on things that can build up our souls, then we will be better people in the end for it.
So in short--love your sports-teams with passionate loyalty, but be wise about who they really are and what they really mean. Let sports be a signpost that turns your attention toward the things that really matter. Appreciate sports for what they are, but don't let them steal your heart from its deeper loves.
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.