In my previous post my alien friend challenged the notion that sports are inherently valuable. My actual view is not quite as extreme as that of this unrelenting extraterrestrial (who enlightened me on many other subjects, I should add). I do believe that athletic competition has value in many respects, even if this value is always, or usually, instrumental in nature. In this post and several others to follow, I will count some of the ways that sports are valuable. In so doing, I will ground my reasons in biblical values. So my analysis will constitute a sort of Christian theology of sports.
1. Professional athletes provide clear examples of excellence. Whatever your own vocation might be, whether you’re a teacher, carpenter, dentist, social worker, accountant, or auto mechanic, you will only excel if properly inspired to a high level of performance. Professional athletes in particular inspire us to excel at whatever we do. For one thing, the fact that someone is a pro baseball, tennis, or basketball player tells us that he or she is one out of a million. Consider how even those baseball players that we criticize as among the worst in Major League Baseball are still in the top percentile compared to all baseball players in the world. And so it goes for all professional athletes. When we follow professional sports, we regularly expose ourselves to excellence, and this is all the more pronounced among the superstars, whose feats on the field or court often leave us shaking our heads in amazement.
In Philippians 4:8 the Apostle Paul tells us, “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” I take this to be a strong endorsement to appreciate many things in the world of sports, since there is so much excellence to be found there. Dwelling upon excellence of any kind is inspiring, motivating us also to aim high and require of ourselves similar self-mastery. Paul implicitly recommends this in 1 Corinthians 9 where he compares spiritual discipline to athletic competition. And elsewhere he recognizes the significance of sports at least as a powerful analogy for “training for godliness” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7). This point should not be lost on us Americans, who glibly declare “no pain, no gain” when it comes to becoming better physical specimens but balk at the idea of hard work in the spiritual life. Let’s admit it—prayer, Bible study, fasting, and the other disciplines of the faith are hard work. But the payoffs are great. Athletic competition provides a wonderful image of this truth, as Paul explains. If only for this reason, sports have value for the spiritually devout.