Confession time. I love sports. I have for my entire life. I would use “being a Philly boy” as an excuse. . . but that would just be an excuse. I’ve loved to play. I’ve loved to watch. I’ve loved to coach. And to be brutally honest, I have always struggled with loving sports way too much. There have been times when I’ve taken God’s good gift of sport, play, and spectating and made them something they shouldn’t be. There have been moments, periods, and seasons where they’ve mattered way too much to me. They have, from time to time, become “ultimate things.” There have been times when the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat have consumed my time, my thoughts, and my allegiance Yes, I’m painfully aware of how guilty I’ve been of idolizing sport over the course of my entire life.
While it’s certainly no justification for my own idolatrous bent, I’m certainly not alone. I live in a culture where we collectively do the same. And in the church, we’re not all that different. I’m often heard to say that “the closest thing to hell on earth is church league basketball and softball.” If you’ve played or watched either, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Sports do matter. Sports matter to God. I don’t believe that he cares who wins, but I do believe that he desires to be glorified through our engagement with sport as we struggle to integrate our faith into every nook and cranny of our play, sports’ parenting, and spectating. But I wonder if even though sports do matter to God, do sports matter to us too much? This is the kind of question we need to be constantly asking ourselves – individually, in the church, and as a culture- in a world where sports is king.
Last night, I watched the NFL Draft coverage on ESPN. As I watched, I was thinking about my journey through Gregg Easterbrook’s fascinating look into the world of football, The King of Sports, earlier this year. Easterbrook writes about what we can clearly see if we choose to step back and just look at ourselves for a while. . . that we love this stuff way too much, and it’s hurting us in so many different ways. And as I watched, I realized that the NFL Draft and it’s significance in our culture is quite significant. Think about it. . . how much pre-draft coverage have we been offered in the months and weeks leading up to this weekend? And how many media outlets have provided that coverage? Each year brings an unprecedented amount of coverage, time, and attention. How many mock drafts have there been? It’s become a truly big deal. Radio City Music Hall? Come on.
I also couldn’t help but notice how much we can learn about cultural shifts from the players themselves. For example, for years I’ve been fascinated and sometimes frightened by the evolution (devolution?) of endzone touchdown celebrations. Players used to cross the goal line and get right back to business. Now, arrogance rules as a touchdown is purely the prelude to an even bigger show. Somebody needs to do a study on how endzone celebrations have changed and what that says about us. I was struck last night by the video clips of the players themselves. As analysts subjected us to bursts of microscopic minutia, we watched highlight clips and waist-up video blasts of the players looking at the camera – check that – posturing for the video camera, while spinning and tossing that gray NFL Draft football. Is it significant that the player head shots of years past have morphed into opportunities for the arrogant posturing and posing that we see today?
Like all cultural artifacts, the NFL draft is both a map showing how life should be, and a mirror showing us what our lives have become. These young players are both products of and promoters of our accepted views on sport. Yes, there are players and families who value and exhibit humility. But is that now the exception or the rule? Think about Johnny Manziel’s march on stage while flashing a coy smile and money signs. . . it says a lot. . . about both Johnny Manziel and me.
No, I’m not at the point where I’m going to walk away and stop enjoying God’s good gift of sport. And I realized last night, once again, that I can never be at the point where I stop seeking God’s good will for how I should enjoy – and keep in perspective – his good gift of sport. The NFL Draft shows us who we are. But is that who we should be?