The Power of Sports

On a crisp, wet October weekend in 1998, I packed up my car and headed out from Nashville, TN, where I was in college, and headed north to Columbus, OH to crash with my high school buddy, Marc Tobias, to attend my very first Ohio State football game.  Marc had an extra ticket for that weekend’s big game against the newest Buckeye rival – Penn State University.  I can remember my excitement building as I drove the last few miles up I-71 North, passing a car decked out in Penn State colors while I held up my stuffed Brutus the Buckeye as I passed him.

My first game experience was incredible.  Ohio State was ranked #1, and Penn State was #7 – quite a showdown for my first game!  My friend had scored us seats that were near the fifty yard line and only ten rows behind Ohio State’s bench.  I remember that it was so loud every time Penn State had the ball that I couldn’t hear my friend talk.  Anyone who grows up a huge sports fan always remembers going to their first game.  For Ohio State fans it’s the pomp and circumstance of the band, ESPN Game Day had just started traveling around, and they were in Columbus for the weekend, we even high-fived well known Ohio State fan, Richard Lewis after a Buckeyes touchdown.

There were so many things to remember from that weekend, but one memory that has embellished itself into my mental scrapbook was having to wait for the players and coaches to pass by at half time, and seeing the legendary coach Joe Paterno pass within five feet of me.  He may not have been “our” coach, but everyone I knew respected this man and all that he stood for – seeing him walk so closely past me – especially on game day – was pretty surreal.

I mentioned that the game was in 1998.  Ohio State won the game, but today we learned that even if Penn State had won the game – it would have been forfeited, along with the other 112 games that were forfeited today.  Apparently, as I was cutting my teeth on what I considered the best experience of sports – getting to see my team with 100,000 screaming others all wearing scarlett and gray, at the very same time, an unspeakable reality was making its way through the upper levels of Penn State’s offices – a reality that would not be deal with for, incredibly, fourteen more years.

As I listened to the press conference on my way to the office this morning, I knew I would probably always remember where I was when I heard the incredible punishment dealt to Penn State – loss  of scholarships, a huge $60 million dollar fine, bowl bans, in addition to other punitive measures.  Media outlets have been abuzz all day today covering every angle of the punishments.  This case has been particularly captivating largely due to having so many angles of implications.

I’m not a Penn State fan, and while I shared my only connection to Joe Paterno above, I am more deeply connected to this story than I want to admit.  It is a sports story – but it is so much more – as has been said and re-said for the past several weeks.  The thing we must realize is sports stories are always more than sports stories.  Our sports tell us something about ourselves.  They are mirrors into our culture and mirrors into ourselves – safe ways that we can deal with the more challenging aspects of life.

Sports, when they are good – are really good.  Sports, as we’ve learned, when they are bad – they are really, really bad.  I found the following comments from NCAA president, Mark Emmert, particularly noteworthy as I listened to the news conference today:

“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sport is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge.  The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at any costs.”

I will have to save the implicit irony of these words coming from an NCAA president who is helping oversee the transition to an NCAA football postseason format that will begin an unprecedented bidding war in collegiate sports for another day.  Taking the words at their face value – these are some of the more poignant words I’ve heard relating to sports in awhile.

Theologically, I consider sports to be a power.  In the New Testament Paul writes often of powers and principalities.  Stanley Grenz calls them “structures of existence.”  It’s the “man,” the “system,” the thing that is always before us and around us, but never quite tangible or accessible.  In large part, they give order to society – that’s what they were created to do.  However, they have become corrupt just like all other aspects of creation.

Sports are good.  Even great.  They provide distraction from the difficulties of life.  They give practice and preparation for life.  But, like all other powers, they become oppressive.  As I have attempted to teach and lead my son in all the good that sports can be, I have found myself, (already – he’s only seven!) having to address the topics of steroids, lying coaches (remember, we’re Ohio State fans), baseball players who lie about their names and ages (this weird story), the economics of why players we have cheered for have to play for another team (thanks LeBron, thanks Yankees, thanks . . . well you get the point), and now . . . this horrific story that’s kind of in a league all of its own.

As we wrestle with this Penn State case, it seems to me that it is a good chance for us all to wrestle with the role sports plays in our lives and in the lives of our families.  Few things are as ubiquitous as sports.  That alone makes critical discussion of this topic warranted.

Jesus once taught his disciples that God didn’t make man for the Sabbath, but Sabbath was created for man’s enjoyment – for his rest and pleasure.  Unfortunately, the teachers of the law made observing the Sabbath a burden.  I often wonder if the same logic shouldn’t apply to sports.  Sports were created for society’s enjoyment.  When sports stop being fun, when they stop providing the healthy distraction and positive break that they were intended to be, we have become slaves to our own creation.  The only way something as tragic as what happened on Penn State’s campus for all those years is that somewhere along the line, probably at many places along the line, people were serving sports rather than allowing sports to serve them.

I’m not a Penn State fan – you can’t be if you’re an Ohio State fan.  But I like Penn State.  It has always been a game I look forward to every year.  I like their fans – their passion.  They are brothers in the Big Ten Conference.  It will be difficult to see them deal with what no doubt will come in the next five to ten years.  However, it is also an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for their fans to come and fill one of the largest stadiums in the country with fans who come and cheer on student athletes in their teens and twenties who play not because they will win anything, but because they love the sport, they respect the game, and they get to have fun.  Perhaps Penn State fans can lead us all toward a healthier place of sports in our society.

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Desperately Needed: A Theology of Sports

I recently finished reading Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports to help me begin preparation for the final project of my Theology and Pop Culture class.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken a more critical look at the place sports has played in my life.  Undoubtedly, there are countless assets sports has provided in my development (I think of friendship with teammates, learning team work and working together, work ethic and discipline, and holistic health just off the top of my head), but in reality, sports has remained one of the largest unexamined parts of my life, speaking theologically.  I’ve treated it almost as if it is somehow morally “neutral.”  I think, by and large, that is the way most Christians see it – neutral or morally ambiguous.  Christians are called by groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the YMCA, and others to work hard and play fair.  But is that all there is?

Shirl Hoffman’s book sets out to treat sports seriously through the lenses of theology.   It makes for an usual hybrid read, full of fascinating anecdotes from the sports world mixed with theologically academic concepts.  Hoffman’s work largely breaks new ground in the area of sports and theology.  He states regularly through the book that this is an area Christians must begin to treat with more theological rigor.  In his treatment of the history of Christians and sports, Hoffman traces the initial reluctance to all things sports, into an eventual blind acceptance of them which is, arguably, at an all time high as seen by “faith nights” at professional sporting events, professional athlete testimonies, regular religious imagery in sports . . . and on and on.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be putting together a series of videos and accompanying material that will hopefully help churches begin to reflect on both the positive aspects of sports as well as the potential negative side affects of sports.  We must begin to subject athletics to the same theological rigor that we would all other aspects of our lives.  Below is a list of the kinds of questions I seldom if ever hear Christians wrestle with that I believe we must start:

– Is competition inherently good, evil, or benign?

– What is the place of the opponent in athletic contests?

– Would Jesus let you win a one-on-one basketball game?  Or would he be any good?

– Is it sacrilegious to pray for the outcome of sporting events?  Does God care about the outcome?

– Is God really a Yankees and Cowboys fans?  Surely he would root for the Indians!

– Is it a healthy thing for Christians to admire “successful” athletes?  Why is it the only stories that get told are those who have won championships or have overcome great adversity (ie. “stories of inspiration”)?  How do we reconcile this with the biblical witness?

Hopefully, I can put something together that will help address these types of questions and move our conversation of sports forward.