My dad was preaching in a southern city many years ago, in a city that hosted a rather well known rivalry game, the day after the game. I won’t name the game, but he did eat his cereal that morning out of an iron bowl. My dad is a huge sports fan and he delights in teasing and joking with people. The pastor of the church pulled him aside that morning with a serious look and said, “Lew, please listen to me. Do not joke about the game today. Half of the people will be gloating and half of them will be angry. You cannot joke from the pulpit about that football game.”
Dad was befuddled. Most of my bad habits in sports I came by honestly. When people say to me, “You are a chip off the old block,” it usually has not been a compliment! He is no stranger to sports fanaticism. But he was horrified that day. “Those people can’t be Christians,” he said, only half kidding. “They already have a god.”
I’m not trying to pick a fight with SEC football fans today. But can we not admit that our fanaticism about sports often goes beyond fun and crosses into fanaticism and yes, idolatry? Idolatry! When we elevate a team to a place of honor rivaling our passion for Christ, there is no other word than idolatry for what that has become.
Saturday, I saw one of the weirdest games I’ve ever watched. Michigan had beaten Michigan State in a rivalry game. All they had to do was punt the ball deep into MSU territory where the Spartans would run a final play destined to fail. Big win for the Big Blue. A bad snap, a fumble, a wild throw and a 37 yard run-back later, the Spartans were celebrating the most amazing win I’ve ever seen, with the exception perhaps of the “Kick 6” win for Auburn over Alabama.
I was enjoying jokes about the game until I heard that the social media terror brigade had gone into full ISIS mode on the Michigan punter – you’d think they were discernment bloggers and he was soft on Calvinism. There’s a fine line between fans and fanatics. These fanatics suggested that he should go back to Australia, transfer to another school, and some even suggested he kill himself. Suicide! Because he dropped a snap, panicked, and cost Michigan a big game, he should die? It is clear from reading Blake O’Neill’s twitter account is that the majority of the Michigan community is ashamed of these twitter haters and is rallying around the punter. On the other hand, these crazies are not exactly a fringe group. We tend to go a little nuts when it comes to sports in this land, especially football.
I speak as an expert on this. I’ve been a participant in and a fan(atic)about sports since I was a little boy. One of my earliest memories is watching my dad go crazy when Mickey Mantle hit a homerun in the World Series. He grew up listening to the great Yankee teams on the 30s on the radio from his home in eastern Pennsylvania. He raised me to love the New York Yankees.
I still change the channel if discussions turn to the “Great Evil of 2004” – eleven years and it still hurts. It was worst moment of my sports fandom (worse even than the 9th inning of game 7 of the 2001 World Series). After the comeback against the Yankees I boycotted the World Series, where the St. Louis Cardinals did not even make a good-faith effort against the Red Sox. But I did turn over at one point to check the game – I think it was as the Sox were finishing off the no-account Cardinals. They panned to a group of Boston fans who were wildly celebrating.
Two things happened to me at that moment – one of the flesh and one of the Spirit. As I watched the Red Sox fans cheering this disturbance in the force, this unnatural perversion of propriety, I was filled with a violent hatred. “I despise these people,” I thought. I really did. Every single one of those no-good, commie-loving, Boston-supporting yahoos inspired a deep loathing in my heart. That is when the Spirit of God began to stomp on my heart and out-yell my hate for the Red Sox. I was overwhelmed with the absurdity, the stupidity – no, I need to call it what is was, the sinfulness – of hating people because they rooted for a team that is at the top of my “no-cheer” list.
You are a pastor, Dave. You stand in the pulpit Sunday by Sunday and preach God’s word. You are the president of a state convention (I was back then). And you despise Boston Red Sox fans? Seriously? You hold a violent hate in your heart because of the baseball team people cheer for? How ridiculous is that? “What would Jesus do?” Not that!
It was something of a turning point for me. I still love the Yankees and hate the Red Sox. I still cheer against the New England Communists, the Deflator, and Coach Voldemort. I still revel in a Big 10 victory over the SEC in the football playoffs and get a moment of glee every time an SEC team loses in football, an ACC team loses in basketball, or Alabama, Duke, North Carolina, or Kentucky loses at anything!
I am still Lew Miller’s son, after all. There’s that old proverb about the apple and the tree, right?
But it’s different. I’ve come to realize that what I was does not please God and is not what I need to be. I do not sanctify my sports idolatry and call it good clean fun. I call it what it is and when it comes on, I resist it in the power of Christ. It is of my flesh and is not pleasing to Christ.
There is a fine line that we must walk, a line so fine it is difficult to define. I do not think that cheering for one team over the other is inherently sinful. I don’t even think (though I’m less sure here) that cheering against a team is sinful on its face. But it is my judgmental judgment judging others judgingly that I’m not the only one with a sports idolatry problem. I think that we as American Christians sidle up to the line and cross over it pretty regularly.
Theoretically, it’s an easy line to draw in the sand. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, the passion of our lives. He is our identity, the one who defines and directs our lives, and anything that rivals our passion for him, consumes our hearts in an excessive way, or forms our identity apart from Christ is an idol. But taking that into reality is much more difficult. When does my dislike for the Deflator become sinful? When does cheering against Alabama and its coach Nick Sauron go too far? That’s the hard part. Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit who will convict us if we are listening and willing to hear his voice of correction.
Here are a few (weak and general) reflections on how to draw that line.
Drawing the Line between Fan and Fanatic
Most of these are drawn from my personal experience. I could, should, and may write a book!
- When our minds and hearts are focused on the sport, the team, or anything else, we are crossing the line.
Colossians 3:1-2 tells us to focus on minds and hearts on heavenly things, on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Entertainment, diversion, relaxation – these are not inherently sinful, but when they become the dominant focus of our minds they cross that line.
During my seminary years I was also an increasingly competitive road racer and marathon runner. I was never world class but my times were coming down and my competitive juices were flowing. I would be sitting in seminary classes to study God’s word and prepare for ministry and all I could think about was my next training run or race. I believe that El Qanna, the Jealous God, was not happy with my fixation on running.
In the late 90s the Yankees were in the Series pretty much every year. One Sunday night we were having our regular evening service while the good guys in Pinstripes were playing in the Series. As I made final preparations, and as we “sang praise to God” my mind was on one thing. How we my guys doing in the game?
That’s when the Spirit worked me over again. I was about to deliver the powerful word of God to the people of God and my mind was on BASEBALL. It may be okay to love baseball, but it’s not okay to love baseball so much that you are thinking about baseball when you should be worshiping God.
When our affections are inappropriate toward a sport or a team, we may have crossed that line.
- When we draw our identity from sports – our success, our team’s success, etc – we are crossing the line.
I am a redeemed sinner, loved by God, purchased by Christ, indwelled by the Spirit, destined for heaven, cleansed by the blood, being made like Christ, and called to serve the purposes of God in this world. That is my identity.
I should never draw my primary identity from human factors. I am glad I’m American, but much harm is done when Christians confuse their loyalty to their earthly and heavenly kingdoms. And it is both sinful and silly when we draw our identity from our regional sports affiliation. Why does it matter so much to people whether SEC teams are better than Big 10 or vice versa, or whether the B-12 is superior to the Pac-12? Why does that regional superiority matter so much? Some of us draw way too much of our identity, our personhood, our (I hate this word) self-esteem, from our teams, our regional pride, and other such human factors.
When I was young, I was driven to be excessively competitive in basketball, soccer, baseball, and just about every other sport that I played. Competitive zeal, in small amounts, may lead to excellence. In my life it often led to sin. I defined myself by my ability to win, to defeat the other person. Losing wasn’t just a game, it was an assault on my self-image. That carried over into the way I cheered for teams as an adult.
When I draw my identity from anything but Christ, I’m in danger of crossing that line. I am who I am in Christ, not in the Yankees, in winning, in the Big 10, the Hawkeyes, or anything else.
- When we degrade those who cheer for other teams, we are crossing the line.
This is a tough one, because half of the fun of sports is good-natured teasing! The problem is that good natured teasing often goes too far. C’mon, people, how much fun was it last year when the SEC (West) stunk up the joint in the big bowl games? Best bowl season in decades!
But when does that ridicule cross the line? Again, I wish I had some easy rubric that answered all the questions. I don’t. I would make the following observations.
- When your “teasing” over sports crosses that line into belittling, into questioning the worth of another because of his or her preference of teams, you’ve crossed that line.
- When you judge a person’s worth by the sports preference, you’ve crossed the line.
- When you act or imply some kind of superiority for you, your region, your team, your fans, etc, you’ve crossed the lines. If your team beats my team, what does that really mean in the grand scheme?
- When we treat sports like they really matter, we are crossing the line.
This is hard for me to admit, but the Yankees are just a sports team. Whether they win or lose, it just doesn’t matter. The Super Bowl is just a game. World Cup soccer? It’s a game folks. Just a game. We have imbued sports with an aura of importance they just don’t have and it is idolatrous. It just doesn’t matter. Whether Auburn or Alabama wins the Iron Bowl is ridiculously unimportant. The Super Bowl? Trivial. World Series? Bah humbug.
Walking that line is tough. I don’t believe we have to become anti-sports to honor God. But we do need to be constantly checking our spirits. There is much that matters in this world. Who wins the big game on Saturday or Sunday is not among those. It’s a diversion, but it’s not important.
This will never be easy in entertainment-saturated America. I’m not trying to come out anti-sports or be a wet-blanket, though with my recent track record, it could happen. We just need to be careful to constantly check our spirits to make sure that we are keeping Jesus where he belongs and and sports where they belong.
Having said that, would someone please beat Voldemort, the Deflator, and the New England Communists?