Games People Play

Many of my clearest memories from growing up involve sports.  I am a middle-aged man but I still remember the time I recorded three consecutive outs at third base playing t-ball.  I have a very clear memory of exactly when and how I hit a double in high school off an all-county pitcher, easily the best hit of my life.  I remember too the crucial error I made in a key game against Kennedy High my junior year, and the fact that I struck out three times in my last game as a senior.

“The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

I suspect that I am hardly alone having such vivid memories of sport.*  But such memories come not just from playing “on stage” (if you count playing in front of 50 people a stage), but also the pickup games of football or basketball with neighborhood friends.  Naturally I grew up watching local sports teams and at times had my moods rise and fall with their success or failure.  But recently I have thought about the impact of sports and the culture around sports more as an observer.  Concussions in the NFL, the high salaries and high ticket prices, the surrounding sports culture with athletes, fans, and parents — all of this has had me reconsider our fascination with sport.

Good Game by Shirl Hoffman has many strengths.  At times it delves into anecdotes and could be more scholarly in approach.792100  But all in all the book gets one off to a good start in thinking about sport from a Christian perspective.  We certainly have to start somewhere, because in many ways our churches have been entirely co-opted by the sports culture.

As Hoffman points out, however, the connection between sports and religion is rooted in the most ancient of cultures.  Athletic contests in the ancient world had strong connections to gods and came accompanied with sacrifices.  This should not surprise those who played sports.  Anyone who has caught a fly ball, thrown the perfect pass, etc. knows the thrill of uniting mind, body, and spirit.  Great athletic feats can provide a sense of peace and simultaneous elation that hopefully comes, as God allows, in worship.  Athletics at their best can represent a kind of dance that mirrors the “circle dance “of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Perhaps formal religion and sport need not go together, but we cannot deny the religious undertones of athletic achievement.

In its early years the Church faced the problem of how to separate sports from their pagan contexts, just as they did other areas of life.  No absolute unanimity in the historical record exists but it appears that Church leadership consistently condemned Roman athletics for their brutality, but also for their spectacle.  The games didn’t just impact those who fought  or raced, but also the fans who fell prey to meaningless hatreds.  Christians should not disturb their souls with such pointless cares.  In saying this the Church did not downplay the significance of athletics.  On the contrary, they fully recognized their power to mold and shape a culture.

To understand the full context of the Church’s condemnation, we have to understand the goal of the Christian life.  The Christian should strive to attain an inner stillness of heart, a union with God.  Such a person fully united to God will not be shaken by the things of the world, though certainly they deal with the world.  Such a place of contentment comes only with effort and striving after it however, and we should certainly not go out of our way to disturb it. Many of the great saints testify to how easily we can forfeit such a grace.  Getting angry because of a bad call by a referee, or because a team with a certain color jersey lost a game, will inevitably disturb and distort our hearts.  The glory and adulation given to athletes even in the ancient world would certainly not aid in a person’s quest for humility.  Hypothetically, one might be perfectly humble as throng’s of spectators chanted your name, but their point seemed to be, why put yourself in that situation to begin with?  The reverse stood as well.  The one who strikes out or who misses the last shot may be hounded with a different kind of attention.  Both kinds hurt the soul.

However, the Church had no consistent condemnation of informal games.  Exercise had its place, as did amusement, and combining the two in moderation could bring benefits.  But laced throughout almost all literature on the subject comes warnings to be careful.

As the church grew in scope and influence, it began to have a chance not merely to react against their pagan environs but to formulate a positive platform for sport.  Hoffman argues that right around the time when St. Francis gave us back nature and St. Thomas reason, the Church had “a moment” ca. 1250-1450 when sports could have been recaptured.  Games happened on Church holidays in communal contexts, and maintained an informal atmosphere about them.  Sports had their place within a larger religious context.  But then the games grew too violent.  Add to that, the Reformation had various Protestant groups trying not to be Catholic.  And so they eschewed the celebrations and amusement on holy days and condemned all accompanying events (which included sports at times) as “Catholic.”

Here I think Hoffman overstates the case somewhat.  He himself acknowledges the Church’s failure, despite centuries of condemnation, to eliminate knightly tournaments.  Such tournaments often were not deadly but certainly contained much violence and injury.  Nothing they tried seemed to work.  Finally by the late 1500’s the Church adopted the tack of, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and issued favorable statements about tournaments along the lines of how tournaments could train soldiers to fight the infidel.  This naturally only added to their list of failures to influence athletic culture, reminding me of Homer Simpson’s comment to his daughter, “But Lisa, if I become part of the mob I can steer it in new and helpful directions.”

So yes, we have problems delineating the relationships between sports and faith, but these problems have always existed.  However, Hoffman rightly points out that today we have a much worse problem, because a) Sport dominates our culture  much more profoundly now than in the past, and b) The evangelical church in general has made no attempt to offer any critique, and has in some ways joined the mob.

Evidence for the idea that sports has become our de facto religion abounds.  Parents will rearrange schedules and make huge sacrifices of time and money so their kids can play sports, but will rarely make even a fraction of those sacrifices for church activities.  Weekends have now become the proprietary ground for athletics.  A veneer of, “this will build character” seeps into our justification for this, but evidence that sports builds character is exceedingly skimpy, and plenty exists that it in fact, does just the opposite.**  As Jay Leno quipped, “I see in the news that even more athletes are in trouble with the law.  Imagine the state of things if sports did not build character.”

Aside from this, no one has yet justified theologically how competition can flow from a Christian ethic that teaches to put others before oneself.  Some have tried by stating that competition must be built into the nature of creation itself, because it appears that culturally and economically we need competition to thrive.^  But this assumes that the most fundamental aspects of our life in Christ would be impossible to practice even if sin had never entered the world.

What much of the church has actually bought into, Hoffman argues, is a version of Christianity that Frank Deford called “Sportsianity.”  It emphasizes the martial virtues, where, “accomplishment and struggle are favored over mystery, joy, and spiritual insight. One member of a sports ministry organization pointed to Mike Singletary, former star for the Chicago Bears, who ‘broke 13 helmets on the football field, and he will tell you that he plays football to the best of his ability because Christ wants him to.'”

Whatever we do, we should do for the glory of God.  But this does not mean that we can do whatever we like.  Indeed, the only way to justify such thinking is to equate sports with war.  If we justify sports this way, I cannot find a  justification for dedicating childhoods and an early adulthood to pretending that these games have significance.   At least the knights who fought in tournaments would actually later fight in wars.  Indeed, the Church has experienced a similar tension with war and sport in its history.  The general testimony of the Church has been that Christians may fight in just wars to defend the weak or prevent the aggressive spread of evil.  As we have seen with tournaments, at times Christians justified sports for just this reason — recall the Duke of Wellington’s comment that the Battle of Waterloo was won on school athletic fields.  But this assumes, however, that we impute all kinds of horrible things to the team with the different color jersey.

Anyone who has watched their child play competitively knows how easily such insane and bizarre thoughts creep into our heads.  The other coach/player becomes “evil.”  Observe most any athletic competition for children 10 and over and see pagan tribalism reborn.  We can argue that this is merely a dress-rehearsal for real life, war, or what have you, but the feelings become quite real, the impact on the soul quite damaging.

Hoffman points out that when Christians today borrow sports rhetoric they do so as followers, not leaders.  They remain consistently co-opted by the sports culture.  And this should make us question what exactly happens to us when we play and watch sports.  Why is it that certain impulses seem to take over, and why should we put ourselves in this position?  Are we co-opted because of the weakness of our witness, or, is the power of sport simply too great a temptation for even strong Christians?

Hoffman’s book leaves many questions unanswered, but he raises important questions, and one can see many possible connections to other areas of life.  Just recently Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary, aided in no small measure by evangelicals.  “Trump is a fighter,” Mark Burns, pastor of the Greenville, S.C.-based Christian Television Network, told Fox News. “He is the one to fight for Christianity and for our conservative values we hold dear.”

What values is the man talking about?  I have no idea.  How can it be that we should “fight for Christianity?”  I have no idea.  But I suspect that one link has to do with the fact that parts of the American church have been co-opted entirely by “Sportsianity.”


If you have further interest, check out my podcast on sports and culture with Steve and Marc at the link below:

*I realize though that I may have been a bit odd growing up.  As a white suburban kid I looked for heroes in the NBA and instead of Michael Jordan or local great Jeff Malone, for some reason I latched onto Detlef Schrempf.  A friend of mine from high school recently sent me a basketball card of Schrempf as a gift, where he is being guarded by, quite appropriately it seems,  Brad Lohaus.  Two white titans in action!

**Hoffman cites the testimony of athletes in different sports who describe the trance-like state they enter into to compete.  In this state, they reduce their opponents to something sub-human in order to “destroy” them.  Running-back Freeman McNeil was criticized by his coach when he broke down crying on the sidelines as a result of a block he made that injured an opposing player.  His coach said, “I understand his feeling, but that’s the way the game goes.  Obviously what happened [McNeil allowing his grief to impact his play] wasn’t good, and he realizes that.  Ultimately McNeil apologized to the team for not “staying focused” and not “being a leader.”

Perhaps no one minded when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg and got upset because no one doubted his ferocity.

^In Vol 2 of his A Study of History, Toynbee points out that for civilization to thrive, geography must present a challenge to its inhabitants.  In other words, if the geography is too good, the soil too rich, etc. there is no call for a response from the inhabitants, who then stagnate at a low level of development.