Sports: An American idol?

By Mark Smith, Mukilteo Presbyterian | Feb 15, 2012

Our culture is saturated with sports.  A whole section of the daily newspaper and entire weeklies are dedicated to reporting on them. Cable channels broadcast games 24/7/365.

Sports fuel our nation's economy; companies spend millions for commercials during the Super Bowl and use athletes to sell products. Community organizations use sports stars to promote character.

Our language is littered with sports metaphors and pop culture instantaneously adopts the latest athletic choreography – from high fives to chest bumps to Tebowing.

It would appear that sports are the ultimate secular religion in our culture and the Super Bowl is its high holy day.  

Madonna the other day was talking about how excited she was to be performing during half time, which she referred to as “The Holy of Holies.”

There are a lot of parallels between sports and religion when you think about it.

Sports fans gather in grand “cathedrals” (stadiums) to worship. There are special ceremonies, rituals, and vestments. There are songs and chants. There is a strong sense of group identity – a sense of unity.

They break bread together (tailgating). There are moments of transcendence – of holiness and awe – when the team does something really spectacular.  The crowd cheers in praise or bows in agony as if responding to a deity.  

And there are miracles to celebrate – as for instance when games are won at the end with a “Hail Mary” pass.

Each of the major sports have their special shrines – the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the NFL hall in Canton, where relics are preserved and saints are celebrated.  These are places of pilgrimage.  

And every sports has its pantheon of gods: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in baseball; Michael Jordan and Bill Russell in basketball; Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali in boxing; Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown in football; Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in golf; Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr in hockey.  

And there are “fallen angels” – those former “saints” who have fallen from grace:  Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno (sadly), Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Bobby Knight, O.J. Simpson.

I am a huge sports fan – I love my Huskies, Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders. Sports are a wonderful gift of God and are to be greatly enjoyed.  But is it possible to love sports too much?  

This is the problem with an idol, which is something we worship and give the central place in our lives. Idols are generally very good things that we allow to become too important in our lives to the exclusion of the things that matter most.

For some, sports have indeed become the main locus of meaning and purpose of their lives.  It is interesting that the word “fan” comes from the Latin word fanaticus, meaning, and “inspired by a deity, frenzied” Fanaticus, in turn, comes from the Latin word for temple fanum.

A fan who worships too much in the temple of sports can become a fanatic to the point where one loses all balance in life.

In the movie “Bull Durham,” the narrator, Annie Savoy, declares at the start of the film, “I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds my soul day in and day out is the church of baseball.”

Really? Baseball is wonderful, but can it really feed our soul?  Can it ultimately fulfill our need for purpose and meaning and hope in life?

For those of us who are sports fans, I think we do have to ask ourselves at what point our love for the game becomes too much, too distracting, too consuming, to the point that it interferes with other aspects of life and keeps us from attending to more important, spiritual matters.

The fact of the matter is that sports, whether we are engaging in them as a participant or a spectator, can keep us so busy and so entertained that we fail to deal with the spiritual needs our hearts really yearn for and need.  

When every Sunday morning Christians take their kids to soccer matches, Little League games and hockey matches, we are neglecting matters of the soul and God gets edged out of family life.  

Physical activity is wonderful and important; it contributes to health and builds character to be sure. But what we really need is God at the center, for only God can give us what we need for this life and the next.  

I think of the counsel that the Apostle Paul gave Timothy:  “Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.”
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