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Sports, Idolatry, and Created Heroes

I am a sports fan. I have been since I was a child. I come by it naturally as my father has always been a big sports fan.

I remember watching games on television as a kid. I also remember when I actually became more enamored with the game than the uniforms or the team logos (though, I still love uniforms and team logos. I guess I'm one who "gets it" according to Paul Lukas and Uni-Watch. I am also thankful for the work of Chris Creamer. I love his site.)

Over the years, like other fans, I have developed a liking for certain sports, teams, leagues, and athletes. Some are based on where I lived as a child and the fan-base that surrounded me. In some cases, these were the teams that we were able to get on television in our region or were those teams and sports followed by family members.

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Photo credit: Jim Larrison on Visualhunt / CC BY

Like many American sports fans, I have favorites in the big four leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL,) while I have begun to follow teams in some of the smaller leagues growing in popularity as well (mainly MLS.)

Not only did I grow up watching sports, I played as well. I played soccer (one season - we lost every game except the one I didn't make it to, so that ended my soccer career,) baseball, and basketball. Being one of the tallest kids in junior high and high school (topping out at 6'7") I leaned into basketball after some urging by the coach. While my skill level was a bit behind my peers for years, as the coach said "You're tall and I can't teach height. I can teach basketball, so you're on the team." I loved the sport, but mostly I loved being part of a team and representing my schools. Playing in high school was great, but the years I played in college truly helped me to grow in areas off the court. It was only two years of being on the team, so I learned the ups and downs of making a team, being let go, and working through adversity.

Sports as Idolatry

At some point, every kid playing basketball in the driveway or throwing a football in the front yard dreams of playing on the biggest stage in the world, for that team he cheered for growing up. Some do make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority do not. For these (of whom I am one) we go to games and buy tickets or watch our favorite teams or athletes on television and land into the category of fan.

Here in the South, sports has been called religion. It's often said "tongue-in-cheek" but we know there is truth to that, especially on Saturdays during college football season.

Can sports become an idol? Sure it can. Anything can. Barnabas Piper was featured on the Sports Spectrum podcast this week and was asked that question. He stated...

It can very easily be idolatry in that way where it is the thing people depend on to fill in the gaps in other areas of their lives. They fight with their spouse and turn to watching football. They had a miserable week at work and turn to, you know, playing softball. They...do whatever...and it becomes a crutch or an idol often. You see it in them.

I think that's where vitriol comes from.

When we depend too much on something that we don't have any control over or ... it's not an ultimate thing. Sports are not ultimate. They're a gift from God. They're tons of fun, but they're not an ultimate thing.

When we put too much dependence on that, we're just setting ourselves up for misery, for disappointment, and so...then, all that hope we put on it just gets crushed. It seems to be a pattern across sports. It doesn't matter what the sport is, what the level is. When you see the Little League dads throwing haymakers at their kid's game because a fourteen-year-old made a bad strike call...there's just a level of insanity.

I believe Piper is spot on. Most every sane, adult sports fan would agree. But, we often slide into this idolatrous mode where our fandom becomes more important than it ever should be. 

I asked a friend who serves as a chaplain and mentor to many athletes about some of the dynamics these athletes face. I began to see things that should be obvious to all of us as fans, but often get ignored. These are things as Christians we may even miss as we watch our favorite uniforms compete during weekend games. 

Creating and Destroying Sports "Heroes"

These are not points shared by the chaplain, but things that have come to mind that I believe should be remembered as we cheer on our teams and favorite athletes, in no particular order:

  • For the most part, these sports "heroes" are very young. This is especially true for rookies. While there are some exceptions, and some long-time veterans on these professional teams, most of the premiere athletes on our favorite teams are in their young twenties. I am now at an age where my young twenties are little more than history lessons. What I know is this - I am glad social media did not exist when I was in my late teens and early twenties. If it did, my statements about life would still be posted online somewhere from a twenty-year-old's perspective. I know there are some very wise and insightful young men and women out there, but just knowing who I was back then...I'm glad there's not much of a record. I was immature. I was young. I was growing up and learning. So too are many of these young athletes. 
  • "They're all millionaires. They're set for life." It may seem that way, but it's not true. Some are multi-millionaires. Some have shoe contracts and logos and have their images plastered everywhere, but there are many more professional athletes who may be a few rungs down on the bench, making the rookie minimum (which is substantial in some leagues, but is simply an annual contract.) Be careful to judge someone by the stuff they accumulate, especially in cases where their surrounding support do not bring wisdom to the table. 
  • "They're getting paid to play a game, so they should just be quiet and play!" Uh...I've heard this. You likely have as well. It may be a game, but do not forget, at the professional level it is a business. There is a union. There are team owners. There are many dollars being negotiated. Players have a shelf-life. Even Tom Brady will not play forever. While some athletes tend to say things that make us cringe, or become the opposite of fans of them, remember the previous bullet points and also remember that not every twenty or thirty-something has a microphone shoved into their face regularly with pointed questions designed to elicit controversial remarks. There are likely many who have said things only to go home where their spouse says "Honey...really? You shouldn't have said that." Okay, that's what happens in pastors' homes, but I imagine it happens in athletes' homes as well.
  • When it comes to professional and collegiate athletes, most have experienced a lifetime of playing sports where they were the best on the team. They were celebrated in high school and on their travel teams. They were placed on pedestals and told they were the best. In some cases, some people have used this idol-making process to create revenue streams for their respective teams, doing little more than using the athlete for the good of the brand. 
  • When the run is over...many are forgotten and struggle to find their way. I believe the severity of this reality increases at every level of play. I was excited to finally become a starter on my high school basketball team. I was pumped when the small college in my town offered me a scholarship to play for them. Two years later I was traumatized when my scholarship was removed, a better player was signed, and I was told I would no longer be on the team. I wasn't even playing at the NCAA D-I level, but even then, my identity which has been so wrapped up in my sport was shaken. I don't think I even watched basketball for four years after that. I cannot imagine the emotions and fear that comes when the professional athlete who has a good contract with his team, an agent who helps negotiate such, is then brought into the coach's office to be told that his/her services will no longer be needed. It cannot be easy. Some may make the transition easier than others, but what about those who do not? Identity wrapped up in what you do (playing a game in these cases) is gone when what you do becomes what you used to do. 
  • Fans forget that these people are not just imaginary players on a video game or just someone chosen for a fantasy league. These are men and women, made in the image of God, who for a short season of their lives, played a game for fun and the entertainment of of those who bought tickets and cheered for the logo on the uniform. 

The sports-saturated culture we live in creates sports "heroes." I use the quotes because I struggle with using that term to describe athletes, but it is used so often, it seems to resonate with most. Therefore, when our sports "heroes" are doing well, standing high upon the pedestal we create for them, we are at peace.

Until the next week, when the "hero" has a bad game. Worse yet, what if the "hero" is injured? What if he/she cannot ever play at the high level again? 

I'm guilty of just moving on and cheering for the next in line. Why? Because I've been a fan of certain teams for years and the players and personnel always change. I will likely always be that fan. In fact, that's pretty normal.

However, I am convicted that the players who entertained me for years while wearing the uniform I cheer for, are not two-dimensional men and women, but people just like me (well, okay not just like me. They're actual athletes. I'm a former athlete who never made it to their level, with a strong emphasis on "former.") They are like me in that they are image-bearers of God. They have things in life that bring them joy. They have fears, too. They wonder who they truly are and many have been seeking that for years. Some had a higher level of confidence in their identity as long as they wore the uniform, but now? Now, they wonder.

That's why it is so vital that these men and women hear the truth of the gospel. It's needed for all, not just them, so don't misread what I'm writing. Yet, in this case in a culture that creates these sports idols, the church needs to be proactive in seeking to help those who help them during the most difficult times of life. Maybe it's a chaplain? Maybe it's a coach?

What If Christian Fans...

Maybe it begins with prayer?

While some may not see the value, can you imagine what it would be like for a professional or collegiate athlete who was celebrated for years in his town, but due to recent reports or maybe some poorly advised choices, is now being raked over the coals daily in the blogs, articles, radio programs, and television media? What if they received a card or message from a fan who "gets it" saying something like "I don't know exactly what the pressure you feel is like, but I want you to know that God does. It must be hard to be in your situation right now. Please know that while I am a fan of the team, I have beliefs and a faith that is much bigger and more important than wins and losses. Therefore, know that I am praying for you and your family."  What if that fan actually did pray? More than once?

This would not be some sappy self-focused message intent on receiving an autograph or free tickets to the game, but a true prayer for these young men and women who play games for our entertainment. Prayer that they would know the God who bestows identity, not based on sports performance, but on submission to Him, repentance of sin, and surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Maybe, just maybe, those we celebrate would begin to understand a game plan for life that goes beyond the playing field. And, we as fans, could be a catalyst for a God-sized story to occur.

BTW - I still like when my teams win. I still get upset when they do not. I'm still a fan of sports. However, I'm a follower and child of God. That changes everything.

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