Thus far I have extolled the benefits of sports, but it would be remiss of me not to note a few caveats: First, athletic competition is not an end in itself. Notice that each of the benefits I mentioned underscore this fact, for the moral, aesthetic, and social values of athletic competition and spectatorship are each good because of higher ends, such as personal character formation, the betterment of society, and acquaintance with God’s glory. To return to Paul’s remarks in 1 Timothy 4, the value of physical training should be understood in light of the value of godliness. This is central to a Christian perspective on sports and is a crucial antidote to the obsession with sports which is a growing plague in our culture.
To put this point positively, involvement in sports, as an athlete and as a spectator, is healthy part of a well-balanced Christian life. The Christian mind must be fed from all cultural quarters, from the arts and sciences to civic engagement and domestic politesse. Four-square cultural nutrition also includes sports, just as exercise—yes, even being an amateur athlete—is necessary for optimum physical health. But we must, in the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, avoid all extremes. And focusing all of your spare time on sports by watching ESPN non-stop or playing fantasy leagues to the detriment of your work and vital relationships is just wrong. And as a former Sports Center junkie, I speak from experience.
Because sports are so entertaining, they can become a distraction from the things that are most important. Whether you are an athlete yourself or mainly a fan, there is always the temptation to overdo it, to allow your participation in or spectatorship of sports to consume you and cause imbalance in your life. Beware of this distinctively American vice. Just because it isn’t regarded as vicious in our culture doesn’t mean it can’t be a serious problem.
My second caveat would not have been necessary a generation or so ago. But, sadly, today it is: Winning is not the only thing that matters. You are familiar with the old adage that what matters is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. This dictum sounds quaint to us these days, a relic of a more relaxed and refined time. But it is deeply rooted in a Christian worldview which recognizes the proper role of athletics as a means to moral-social ends such as building character and enriching relationships.
Today’s American sports culture no longer accepts the old adage, and perhaps this is itself symptomatic of the demise of Christian values generally in our culture. Today the catch phrases are “Just win baby” and the Lombardi-ism “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” We find these expressions amusing and may even pretend to endorse them ourselves. But they are anti-Christian in so far as they place pride and vanity above the true ends of athletic competition—physical health, character formation, and social enrichment.
Here some will object, “If winning is not important, then why do we keep score when we play sports?” In response, I would note that I did not say that winning is unimportant. I do think it is one gauge that can be used to assess how well one competes. And to this extent, winning is a valuable motivator. Indeed this is why keeping score is a motivator. We play harder when we keep score. This shows that most of us do play to win.
But do most of us play to win just so that we can have objective proof that we are playing well? We all want to be excellent at what we do, including sports. And to win suggests that we are meeting that goal. I admit that this motive is noble and idealistic, but it’s not a realistic answer for many, perhaps most, of us. If we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that we can be quite happy when we win even if we don’t play well, and we can be deeply disappointed when we lose even if we did play well. This shows that we are motivated by something more than just playing well.
So what does motivate us to win and not just play well? I’m afraid in many cases what we play for is just the right to be able to say “I won.” And if we are ever satisfied just to have won when we didn’t play well, this is proof enough that all we wanted was to be able to declare “I won.” Well, obviously, this is a vain and prideful motive for playing hard. To be able to tell others that you won is a braggart’s motivation and a sign of small mind, not Christian maturity. But it’s no surprise that this prideful motive is so common, even in Christian circles, because it has been embraced wholeheartedly by the American sports culture.
Sports and Shalom
Christian community aims ultimately at peace or, in theological terms, Shalom. This is a feature of our purpose as a Christian society in the eschaton. God promises to reward us with rest. (cf. Heb. 4:10-11) Because of this, theologians properly recognize the significance of leisure, as a pointer to Shalom. In recent years more writers have addressed this topic explicitly, which is a much needed foil to our workaholic culture.
Sports are a worthy leisure time activity for spectators. And to kick back and relax by watching a game can be itself a gesture toward our future Shalom. I say it “can be” because sometimes we take our games too seriously and turn our spectatorship into something quite the opposite of peace. We are all familiar with the tragic news stories of riots at soccer games, brawls between parents at little league contests, and the drunken rowdyism at football games. These are sad confirmations that in this fallen world sin has managed to corrupt even leisure and relaxation. Indeed, human depravity has left no activity untarnished by sin.
But the good news of the gospel is that Christ is a thorough redeemer. He has come to transform human nature itself and thus to redeem all of our undertakings, including our work as well as our leisure. By the power of the Spirit we can demonstrate how to be balanced and virtuous athletes and sports fans. And we can demonstrate grace even in athletic competition. That God has blessed us, even in this fallen world, with the privilege to engage in and observe athletic competition is an aspect of his common grace. We Christians should respond in kind by being gracious in competition and when rooting for our teams. Even in such apparently small ways, we can live redemptively.