When Does Sports Become Idolatry?

by Dave Miller on January 8, 2013 · 37 comments

Evidently, there was a little football game last night. One overpaid, under-educated team defeated another overpaid, under-educated team for a mythical national championship. (Sorry, still bitter about the two most evil forces in college sports playing in the BCS game).  Twitter was atwitter and Facebook was booked solid with comments about the game – mostly the effusions of glee and self-adulation from Bama and SEC fans (sorry, another uncontrollable shot, undermining the point I want to make).

Americans love their sports. Athletes get paid extraordinary amounts of money because of our love-affair with sports. We pay hundreds of dollars for tickets to go to games, pay $75 for a $12 t-shirt with our team’s logo on it, rant about referees, and fill social media with our praise or curses concerning our teams’ play.

I am a sports fan. There is a certain 27-time World Series champion team from the Bronx that I like a little bit. My Durango has one sticker on it, a 2009 Yankees championship window sticker. Don’t know how long I will have to wait to add another. My office at the church has a Yankee mouse pad, a Yankee light switch cover, various Yankee paraphernalia and wall hangings, and a shelf full of books about Yankees from the past. I’m a fan.

That leads me to ask a question.

When does a love of sports become idolatry?

When does my obsession with the Yankees become an unhealthy idol? When does the exultation of Bama fans or SEC fans (or fans of any other team) become an ungodly obsession?  When does rooting for or cheering against become a sin?

I think it is a question we need to ask ourselves. It is a subject that God has dealt with me about more than once. Let me tell you three stories that demonstrate my lifelong struggle with sports and idolatry.

Story 1: I was a high school sophomore and I made the JV basketball team – the proudest moment of my life to that point. I was sitting in church, probably day-dreaming about basketball, when I sensed that still-small voice of the Holy Spirit calling me to honor Christ by laying down my idol. I knew that I needed to quit the basketball team because it was too much of a passion in my heart. I said to the Lord, “I can’t do it. If you want me off the team, you are going to have to take me off the team.”

Really dumb.

A few days later, I was at practice doing the the three man weave when I tripped over Bob Jones (not that one) and put my left arm down to brace my fall. I remember the doctor’s observation. “I don’t know how you could have broken only one of the bones in your arm.” One was all it took.

God is a jealous God – jealous for his glory and jealous against anything that competes for his rightful place in our hearts.

God will not accept second place in our hearts and he will not share first place.

Interesting fact: the cast came off my arm the same week the basketball season ended.  Coincidence? You make the call.

Story 2: I was in my last year of seminary at SWBTS. I was taking 37 hours over two semesters so I could graduate in May of 1981. After leaving the academically challenging program at Dallas Seminary, my course load at SWBTS left me lots of time to run, and I was part of the “Seminary Striders” – our unofficial running club. Running had become the new passion of my heart.

I finished my first marathon (3 hours, 55 minutes) in December of 1980 and was working on my bringing down my time. My goal at the time was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was working on speed races. In April of 1981, I ran in a 4 mile race one Saturday and broke my PR by a significant amount. I was so excited. That Sunday, the Spirit again began to show me how much of an idol running was becoming for me. Again, I heard that still-small voice in my soul calling me to lay down my idol of running.

Again, I was stupid. Again, I told the Lord something like this. “I can’t give up running. If you want me out of running, you are going to have to take me out of running.” Oops, again!

I ran 11 miles on Monday morning and then went over to the Rec center at the seminary to play a couple of hours of basketball.  I went up for a rebound and came down on another man’s foot. Ligaments and tendons tearing were my reminder that God was “El-Qanna” – the Jealous God. He would not be shoved aside for my obsession with running.

Story 3: It was the Year of Great Evil, 2004. After 86 years of glorious frustration for the baseball team from Boston, they came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to “reverse the curse.” I liked the curse!

I turned over to game 4 of the World Series (which I generally refused to watch out of protest) and found the Red Sox comfortably ahead and ready to celebrate their championship. The camera was panning the crowd which was demonstrating a wild glee, the pent-up frustrations of over 8 decades of disappointment and frustration being released in that moment.

And I fumed. I thought to myself, “I hate these people with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.” I really did!  Once again, the Holy Spirit mugged me. “How dare you? How dare you hate people God sent his Son to die for just because they cheer for a different team than you do?”

I actually spent the last moments of the “Year of Great Evil” repenting of my sins.

So, here are the facts as I see them.

  • Sports can be a source of distraction and even idolatry among us. It’s happened to me and I don’t think I am alone in this. I think America is rife with sporting idolatry.
  • God is jealous for his glory and refuses to share his rightful place as First Passion with anyone or anything else. An uncontrolled love of Sports can arouse his jealousy.
  • Sports is not sinful, it is that obsessive love of sports that is the problem.

Believing these things, it is important to reflect on when sports is a pleasurable diversion and when it becomes an ungodly obsession, even a blasphemous idolatry. Here’s my thoughts.

1) Where is your heart? 

In all three of the stories above, I had a similar problem. My heart had become centered and focused on basketball, or running or baseball, instead of on Jesus and his kingdom.

Christ does not want to be just our highest passion. Imagine if I told my wife, “Of all my women, you are my favorite.” Would she accept that?  Do we expect God to accept that kind of fidelity. Remember, God calls us to love him with ALL of our hearts and souls and minds.

Fitting an unhindered love of Christ with being a sports fan can be a tricky thing.

2) Are you “redeeming the time?”

I do not believe there is anything wrong with rest and relaxation. Time spent watching a game, or playing a game or watching a movie, is not, de facto, wasted time.

But when we add up the hours we spend watching sports, or the things we leave undone while we obsess about sports, sometimes an unhealthy trend surfaces. If I am spending time on sports (or any other hobby) while I leave other important tasks undone, it becomes a problem.

3) Do I display Christlikeness?

Have you seen that new ESPN commercial about the two soccer fans (rugby?) in England. They each assume that the other is a lowlife human being because of their favorite teams. Ridiculous, but all too familiar.

Do I disdain fans of other teams? Do I display arrogance and unkindness as I cheer for my team? If I cannot exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit while I am cheering for my favorite team, there is an issue.

4) Do I derive my self-image from sports? 

Our identity is in Christ, and when we derive our identity from anyone or anything else, we insult Christ.

Why do dads (and perhaps a few moms) go nuts coaching Little League or youth basketball? Because we all too often derive our personal status and identity from the success of the team we coach. The same is true of the teams we cheer for. Am I a better person because my team won the game? Am I diminished somehow when my team loses?

That just ain’t right!

5) Do we divide over sports?

Has your sports fanaticism (“fan” is just an abbreviation of fanatic) ever caused division between you and another person? Has a friendship been affected because of sports loyalties?

There are a few valid reasons for division spelled out in the Bible. Which team someone cheers for is not one of them.

Those are some of my thoughts. What say you? I enjoy sports and am passionate about them. But I think we need to be careful, though. There is a line between enjoying sports and falling prey to sports idolatry. Where do you think that line is?

 

1 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I’d rather hear from those who love sports and seek to find that balance between cheering and obsessing!

Those of you who (sanctimoniously, sometimes) don’t like sports may not be helpful in this thread!

2 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm

And please, no creepy comments about AJ McCarron’s girlfriend!

3 Greg Harvey January 8, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Didn’t know Brent posted here??

4 theoldadam January 8, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Idolatry is what we do. That is just a fact.

Whatever it is that becomes our prime focus, over and above the Living God, is idolatry. Sports is surely one of our idols and I have been guilty as much as the next guy.

5 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Yep.

6 Mark Mitchell January 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I have to wonder if being bitter about another NCAA conference that is stronger than the others is not a result of idolatry.

7 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Lemme guess. Another SEC guy?

8 Mark January 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I can’t say precisely when sports becomes idolatry, but from recent Facebook and twitter feeds I’d say often.

9 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

+1

10 Greg Harvey January 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I loved your blog. Mostly because you started with your own idolatry in order to illustrate what you meant. Left no stone unturned by telling three stories on yourself. And then you asked really good questions which I think is important because there isn’t a stock answer to idolatry because it isn’t a stock sin. It comes in–so to speak–manifold colors.

For many men sports provide a common language that allows us to socialize together as men. I don’t think we should jettison that commonality uncarefully, but your blog actually helps us tease apart the difference between when it is a helpful focus and when it has crossed the boundary to obsession (and therefore to idolatry.)

I’ll also offer that even though my school is now a member of the SEC, I don’t personally believe that it is due to being in the SEC that we finished 11-2 or have the Heisman winner or came in #5 in the media and coaches’ polls. But it certainly didn’t HURT. And I’ll say this for the SEC: the idea that it is a league where rivals can “curse” each other on shared game days and “bless” each other when the other team is representing the league is surprisingly fun.

Which leads back to the idea that sports in its best incarnation is a shared experience that many men have enjoyed and now women–my wife is a HUGE fan of the Rangers and the Aggies now in spite of growing up in the midwest–are enjoying, too. It might even be a conversation opener in witnessing situations handled well (Cowboys fans witnessing to Redskins fans might be contraindicated…)

11 Greg Harvey January 8, 2013 at 3:33 pm

BTW: a unique form of theodicy might be this: why did God let my (fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-sports-team) lose?? That suggests to me that theodicy is just idolatry where we turn God into the idol we want him to be…which is to say we stuff him in the nearest convenient box.

12 cb scott January 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Dave,

I read your post with intense interest and heartfelt concern for your well-being. I surely hope you continue to strive to resist the temptation to yield to the worship of the Yankees. I am sure it is beneficial to you that the BUZZARD-EYES have never been, nor ever will be, worthy of your being tempted to worship them as a FOOTBALL NATION.

Obviously, I am fortunate to have been born and sometimes lived in a state wherein no one is ever tempted to worship a Sport. However, I have noticed in recent years that there are several people who moved to Alabama from places like Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina who have fallen hard into the idolatrous worship of basketball. It is just sickening and so, so, sad. What a waste.

Anyway Dave, you hang in there. I am sure you will get through this rough time in your life.

Sincerely,
Your dear friend and card carrying member of the Flagship of the SEC, the dominate Conference of the FOOTBALL UNIVERSE, the SABANATION.

cb

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: ROLL TIDE ROLL!!!!

13 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm

You are a mess. A total mess!

14 parsonsmike January 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

I have to admit, Alabama is the best 1 loss team in the country,

15 Ben Coleman January 9, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I still think’s it’s much easier to roll Clorox.

16 Ben Coleman January 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm

And is it relevant that druggies have taken to stealing Tide lately?

17 volfan007 January 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm

This post was definitely written by an Iowa Hawkeye! :)

Seriously, some people do take it to the level of idolatry in our world, today. I believe it becomes an idol whenever it causes a person to sin… truly hate other people; miss Church on a continual basis to play 50-100 games while playing “travel ball,” or to go 50 games a year at the University 255 miles from home; or, it causes us to act ugly to the refs and players of the opposing teams; etc.

But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with loving sports, and loving a team…and really getting into it….doing whatever we do with all of our hearts….

David

18 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Vol is a liberal commie pinko (all meant in Christian love, of course).

19 volfan007 January 8, 2013 at 4:39 pm

:)

20 Jess Alford January 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Dave,

Great post, and it is needed. I am a Louisville Cardinal fan in a big way.
I can see how basketball can become an idol if you follow the Cardinals.

I cannot see how being a Yankee fan would ever be idolatry, because they need every fan they can get.

I’ve had members of my church miss services because UK was playing
during that time. Now that is idolatry, not basketball.

Dave, I just had to pick on you a little bit.

21 Andrew January 8, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Growing up in Missouri I will never understand all the hubub about college football. St Louis Cardinals was king and still is king. I agree 2004 was the year of great evil. When I was in college in Tennessee I literally saw people whose whole lives revolved around their football team. It was their I learned I decided I was never going to allow myself to become so obssessed with my sports team that my life was completely dictated by the way they played. Sports absolutely was an idol in my life in high school but the Lord broke me and taught me he is the only Lord and deserves all my worship.

22 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm

The sport doesn’t matter, I guess. There are a lot of people in other nations who go absolutely crazy for soccer.

23 Adam G. in NC January 8, 2013 at 4:54 pm

there is no football in heaven. LOL (diabolically)

24 Bill Mac January 8, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Or country music.

25 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 5:39 pm

But I’ve been to the Field of Dreams, and there IS baseball.

26 volfan007 January 8, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Turn, all of you, who are not on the Orange side. Come to the Orange. You know you want to. Leave the red and green and blue and all other inferior colors. Choose the orange. Choose the orange now. Lift up your eyes to good, ole Rocky Top. Dont delay. Dont hesitate. Climb to the heights. Lift up your eyes to the hills. Run…run to the orange. Choose it. Choose it. Choose it now. All will be better, once you have.

David

27 Jess Alford January 8, 2013 at 8:36 pm

What, and watch men’s basketball? David, you should take this post more serious.

28 Jess Alford January 8, 2013 at 8:40 pm

volfan007

You’re off your medication again aren’t you?

29 Adam G. in NC January 8, 2013 at 6:52 pm

This should be required reading before posting anything on here.

30 Dave Miller January 8, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Adam, I have found that there is little I can do to corral certain folks and their sports-related comments. I’m not naming names, though (cough, Vol, cough, CB) because that would be untoward.

31 Adam G. in NC January 9, 2013 at 1:03 am

I understand. I’m from N.C., at least a few basketball/tobacco road quips now and again. Throw a dog a bone.

32 volfan007 January 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

Have you any of you come to the Orange Side, yet? If not, come today…now…dont wait. Choose it. Choose it now.

David :)

33 Dale Pugh January 9, 2013 at 11:34 am

I’ll stick with the Quack Attack, thanks.

34 cb scott January 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm

For those who refuse the Orange Side, clinging to the Quack Attack, beware lest the Elephant Stomp find you wanting next January.

35 Dale Pugh January 9, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I look forward to the challenge. Alas, Saban may be moving on to the NFL while Kelly remains at UO. Too bad for you! Muy bueno for us!

36 Tony P January 9, 2013 at 8:26 pm

What a timely word! Thank you Dave.

On Sunday, Washington QB Robert Griffin III left the game with a knee injury. In the Washington, DC, area, he has been referred to as “Black Jesus” for his accomplishments this season. I live near Baltimore and do not root for Washington for a variety of reasons. On Monday, a picture circulated on Facebook depicting RGIII’s name with the “G” replaced by a wheelchair symbol. I posted it to my newsfeed. Perhaps not my finest moment, but I found it creative and funny. A lifelong friend of almost 30 years sent me an expletive laden email scolding me for making fun of her favorite player. Over an athlete. That she doesn’t know and has never even seen play live. When I point out her idolatry, not to mention the foul language, I get called “self righteous” and “holier than thou”.

I enjoy football and baseball. I root for my Ravens and Orioles. But I refuse to give either sport or team enough energy and power to set the tone for my mood or my day. Anyone who does is not only an idolator, but in my opinion has psychological issues that require counseling.

37 Ben Coleman January 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm

As one basically apathetic about sports (I know the rules of most common sports (except cricket – it has rules? why spoil it with rules?) and can enjoy watching with others who want to watch, but rarely (if ever) plan to watch sports), it’s tempting to pile into the subject of Sports Idolatry. Instead, I’ll just note that the example of Eric Liddell would seem to indicate that it is indeed possible to whole-heartedly participate in a sport, not only without making the sport an idol, but to the Glory of God. It’s all about Who comes First.

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