Christian Worldview

Sport Is Dead, and We Killed It



Sport is dead, and we killed it.

How can I—in the midst of the professional baseball and soccer seasons, with the basketball and hockey championships underway, and football training camps right around the corner—utter such heresy in sports-crazed America? How can I pour dirt on a worldwide industry that can dictate social policy and that is worth as much as $620 billion?

Perhaps you think I overstate. Perhaps you wouldn’t if you considered a few facts.

Our passion for sport is nothing new. The Chinese celebrated gymnastics 4,000 years ago. The Egyptians, according to the hieroglyphics they left behind, enjoyed swimming, javelin-throwing, the high jump, and wrestling. The Greeks, who invented the Olympic Games, valued competition and the pursuit of physical perfection. The Romans, of course, entertained the masses with gladiatorial combat.

Christians have wrestled, if you will, with the meaning and propriety of sport for centuries. The Apostle Paul compared Christian discipleship favorably with athletic training:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Similarly, the book of Hebrews likens the Christian life to a footrace in an arena packed with spectators:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Yet there has always been a tension between the serious claims of the gospel and the leisure and fun associated with sport.

Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman” who famously said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure,” lost a shot at Olympic gold for refusing to run on Sunday. Today, in America at least, we have hundreds of thousands of churches—and yet the first day of the week is more associated with the National Football League than with churchgoing. For many in our nation—even many Christians—the holiest day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, when even the commercials are studied as solemnly as the entrails of a chicken.

Shirl James Hoffman writes that “evangelicals . . . have been quick to harness sports to personal and institutional agendas. Less than a century ago, major segments of the evangelical community considered sports a cancer on the spiritual life; today their denominational progeny lead the parade to stadiums.”

Certainly many ministries such as Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Missionary Athletes International have faithfully and effectively used sport as a gateway to the gospel. Many athletes have been powerful if sometimes imperfect spokesmen and women for Christ in the midst of their pursuits.

Yet sport is more than a worldly means to a spiritual end. In itself, sport can teach us what it means to be human. The discipline, play, self-sacrifice, strategizing, risk, competition, teamwork, and sportsmanship so often required are good in themselves, and better when offered back to God. As John White notes, “The myriad of goods reflected in and derived from sport are part of the richness of our humanity. When athletes contest with one another, they revel in the very complex act of being human.”

At its best, sport reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It allows us to pursue physical perfection and, ultimately, momentary transcendence over entropy and our natural and inevitable mortality. Watching premier athletes at the height of their powers provides a transitory glimpse of what overcoming the world looks like on the physical plane.

Although not athletically gifted myself, I can still remember an astonishing hit during a volleyball game when I was in elementary school, a birdie putt on the local par-three golf course by the beach, a perfect touchdown pass rifled through a tangle of defenders and into the arms of a sprinting teammate during a casual afternoon on the lawn outside my dorm. We’ve all seen videos of the kid who sank a half-court shot or something similar. Such moments in sport hint that one day our broken world will indeed be made right.

Yet such moments are on their way to extinction, because our culture has exchanged the truth of sport for a lie. Today, through changes in worldview concerning what it means to be human and what life is all about, sport is dying. Here are some of the issues killing sport:

Egalitarianism: Fearing to hurt someone’s feelings or self-esteem, we now de-emphasize competition. Everyone can get a participation trophy, at least on the amateur level. Some youth leagues no longer keep score (though the kids still do). Such an ethic is inimical to sport, which depends on competition and the sorting of winners and losers. Can you imagine professional sports with quotas for participation or rules that discourage score-keeping? Our youth leagues can.

Pragmatism: To many people, however, “winning” remains paramount. Al Davis, who said, “Just win, baby,” is their prophet. Athletes are excused every sin as long as they defeat all competitors, leading to routine bending of the rules, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Such an ethic leads to ever more rules to keep the games “fair.” Physical displays of gloating are encouraged among players, “as long as they can back it up.” No one says anymore, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” Schools, even some religious ones, will overlook any brutality, even child sexual abuse, as long as the athlete or coach can conquer others on the field. Fans will forgive almost any behavior as long as the right jersey—their team’s—is being worn.

Money: Listen to any sports-talk station, and you are as likely to hear long-winded discussions of salary caps and player contracts approaching a quarter of a billion dollars as you are to hear analysis of what actually happened during games. In a society increasingly conscious of growing income inequality, sports fans are surprisingly content with the mega-millions made by their athlete idols—even when such material excess makes it too expensive to take their kids to the occasional game. Cities and teams feel continual pressure to build bigger and better facilities to compete. A financial downturn could wreak havoc with the industry that increasingly caters mostly to the wealthy.

Fear: There has always been an element of risk in sport. Today’s obsession with player safety threatens to transform athletic competition into something unrecognizable to prior generations. The National Football League, in its laudable desire to prevent brain injury, has made many hard hits illegal with a plethora of rule changes. Many parents, in consideration of the risks, have decided to keep their kids out of football, calling the future of the game into question.

Political correctness: The industry is increasingly captive to political correctness, with the flagship network, ESPN, the prime example. ESPN openly punishes employees who share non-approved views on race, sexuality, the dignity of human life, and other issues. The culture’s sudden and baffling confusion over what it means to be male and female—exemplified by the transgender issue—could unravel sport completely. After all, if our “gender” is determined not by our biology but by how we feel, then the rationale for separate leagues for men and women vanishes. Indeed, some school districts already allow biological boys to compete with girls. It could certainly mean the end of women’s sports.

Yes, as noble and valuable as sport can be, it is not immune to the thought viruses infecting the rest of the culture. If it’s not actually dead yet, it’s close enough that we had better think quickly about how to rescue it.

But I’m not optimistic. For, as the legendary Casey Stengel once said, “Most ball games are lost, not won.”


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