For over twenty years, I have been in love with sports. Maybe it began when my cousins, Joe and Chris, invited me down from reading books in my room to root for the Bears against Aunt Norma and Uncle Bob’s beloved Vikings when I was nine years old. I don’t even remember the experience of watching the game or what transpired afterward, but somehow the allure of vicarious competition and athletic idolatry got its hooks into me.
Year by year, the hooks only got deeper. Within a few years I was watching SportsCenter every morning, afternoon, and evening (even the repeat episodes!), watching every Cubs game on WGN, watching football for well over 10 hours a weekend, to say nothing of the endless time I spent pouring over statistics, reading journals like the Sporting News, and buying (or having my parents buy) sports apparel, merchandise, and posters of my favorite athletes to put up on my walls, like graven images set up to pay homage to my gods.
Then, when I was 17, I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and gave my life to Jesus Christ. My worldview and desires were supernaturally altered, and I finally “saw” why God is so worthy of ALL my worship and ALL my praise. My initial fire for God extinguished my appetite for sports – the joy of watching my favorite teams win didn’t come close to the depths of joy I was experiencing in God. But old habits still lingered, like the smell of a corpse in a trunk.
Over the years, depending on my closeness to God, I would sometimes revert back to caring more about how my favorite sports teams performed than I did about the lost and suffering. I would have a stronger emotional reaction to my team’s loss than to the fact that many close to me didn’t know Christ, or that over a third of the world lives in extreme, hopeless poverty. I would spend more time following my favorite teams on the internet than praying for others or being a life-giving influence in my community and the world. Times like these alternated with times when I finally felt as though my joy in God was eliminating my emotional bondage to sports, for good.
While I knew my sports habit was one that kept me away from God too much, hardly any of my spiritual leaders challenged me on the issue. In much of the Christian community, sports are seen as “neutral,” or “an escape,” or harmless recreation, or some kind of bonding experience for a community, especially men. While there is some truth to all these claims, I believe the church as a whole has been too soft and accomodating to sports fandom that is clearly a distracting and spiritually cancerous form of idolatry.
Now, I certainly don’t believe that sports are evil or bad in themselves. But when they become a vicarious replacement for the (far more substantive, meaningful, and life-giving) mission our lives are supposed to be on, the issue is serious. Sports addicts become a pathetic, sad shell of the person they were created to be. An emotional or even spirtually idolatrous bondage to sports is a life-draining sickness. And our nation is sick.
I don’t know exactly how much money was spent last year on sporting events, sports stadiums, sports merchandise, or anything else related to sports idolatry, and I don’t even want to know. It would probably make me physically ill. Extreme poverty world-wide could be ended virtually instantly with the money our nation wastes exalting flawed, mortal man’s ability to handle an inflated ball.
At its very root, sports are medication for our society (particularly men), a society full of people that, generally speaking, have no driving mission or purpose. Deep within the heart of man is the desire to fight, to battle, to conquer the forces of darkness in our world and experience the joy and satisfaction of a noble, hard-fought, team victory alongside those we love. But instead of fighting real battles against real enemies (poverty, oppression, abuse, the devil), we invent fake battles against fake enemies (sports) and regulate them with rules so that our comfort and safety can be assured and so that these fake battles can be vicariously enjoyed by the bored masses.
Is there a place in the world for sports, where it would not detract so much from nobler goals? I honestly don’t know, and that’s not a question I’m attempting to answer with this article. What I am trying to say is (and I’m saying this to myself as much as to anyone else out there reading this) that if you’re more wrapped up in sports than you are in the world’s salvation, your heart is sick and in need of healing. You need to reevaluate, repent, and rearrange your life around the teachings of the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. The satisfaction you find on His mission will far exceed the shallow and vain satisfaction sports has given you in return for your time, money, and allegiance.
There’s a scene near the end of the movie Fever Pitch in which the main character (played by Jimmy Fallon), whose love for a sports team often compromises his love for his fiancee (and anyone else, I’d imagine), is told by a small child a simple truth: your favorite sports team doesn’t love you back. But people (and God) can. What a disturbing testimony to the waywardness of the human heart and the deceiving power of the world and the devil, that people would ever choose to devote themselves to something that doesn’t love them back MORE than to Someone who loves them the most.