Idolatry of Sports

I was going to write this blog over a month ago during all of the college football conference realignment talks, but I am actually glad I waited. I’m glad I got to see LeBron James’ debacle on TV last night, and I’m glad I have been able to read the reaction to his decision today. It has solidified in my mind what is going on with America and our obsession with sports. Next week I plan on writing a follow up blog on this subject (just because I love making friends) and talking about another angle or two on this subject, but I wanted to address our addiction to sports this week.

I have been a “sports lover” for as long as I can remember. If you know me well at all, you know that I am way too competitive (which is not my best quality to say the least). The competitive nature in me lends itself well to the world of sports. So I naturally love playing, watching and analyzing sports of all kinds. But in the last few years I have been confronted with the ugly fact that we actually worship sports in America. If you believe in the Bible at all, then you probably believe heart is an “idol factory” constantly creating things other than God to worship. And there is no greater example of this than how we treat sports in our world today. The funny thing is, some people are starting to subconsciously realize that we have become “worshippers of sports” whether they know it or not.

For the last few decades, words like “pure” and “love” and “beauty” have been used to describe various sporting events. More recently, words like “greed” and “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” are more commonly associated with athletes and sports. Some people are even starting to ask, “Why in the world are we letting our lives revolve around these awful people?” I’m not saying all athletes are awful people, but I am saying the normal mode of operation in sports today has taken a turn for the worse, which includes athletes, owners, coaches, managers, etc. There is little to no self-realization within the modern day pro athlete. They believe the rules don’t apply to them. And the truth is, the rules often don’t. We have put them on such a pedestal that it is not unnatural to call them by names such as “King James” or “His Airness.”

And don’t think for a second that this is only on the professional level. Long gone is the argument that college sports are “purer” and that they are more about “the love of the game.” Please. Look no further than the recently conference realignment talks to see how greed is the foundation of college athletics, too. What about High School? Isn’t it about teaching kids life lessons through competition? Not any more in most cases. More kids than ever are transferring districts to be on better sports teams. More kids than ever are taking performance-enhancing supplements to gain a competitive edge. More kids than ever only think about becoming a better athlete to get a scholarship than becoming a better person.

And to be completely honest, I ignored the ugly side of sports and the fact that we worship sports until recently. It wasn’t until I preached a sermon a few weeks ago on the Gospel that I truly started to seriously evaluate this idol in my own life. I made the statement in the sermon that the Gospel is always “upside-down,” and said that Jesus preaches that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” (See Matthew 19:30, Matthew 20:16 and Mark 9:35 to just name a few references) I made the offhand comment that you should try living this out when it comes to sports, and I got the standard jokes about Baylor football after this comment.

But as I’ve thought about it more and more, I realized that I had sectioned off an area of my life that I thought God wasn’t concerned with, and that area was sports. But I don’t think it is just me that has fallen into this trap. I sheepishly confessed a few weeks ago to my accountability partners that I thought my love of sports was getting out of hand, and I felt like a moron for saying such a thing. How could this be any sort of a real sin? But if you don’t believe that this is a true spiritual problem for many people in our country (especially men), let me just ask you a few questions that I would ask you to answer honestly:

  • How does your passion for your favorite team compare to your passion for God and sharing the Gospel?
  • If someone were to show a clip of you at a large sporting event next to a clip of you at church, which would we say you are more into?
  • Is it easier for you to memorize batting averages or how much a linebacker can bench press than it is to memorize a measly line of Scripture?
  • How much time comparatively do you spend watching and reading about sports online compared to reading about and acting out your faith?
  • Do you think that Jesus’ teachings should be considered at all when it comes to competition and athletics?

Are sports inherently evil? Absolutely not. Neither is sex, money, or alcohol. But anytime we begin to worship these pleasures as idols outside of their intended purpose, we quickly become broken hearted idolaters left at the altar of our love for something other than God. My friend Taylor forwarded me an article that Will Leitch wrote in New York magazine on LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland which said, “The fear is that we’ve truly seen the ugly, dark heart of sports, and we won’t be able to come back. It feels extremely stupid to be a sports fan. It feels pointless. None of this felt harmless tonight. And we allowed this to happen. Perhaps this is what we deserve. Perhaps this will be good for us, all of us.”

And what Will said in his article is right. Hearts that worship anything other than God will always be broken. You will always be left feel empty, shallow and stupid when you throw your life into something that is not eternal. Will is also right in that the outrage you have probably felt towards something in the sporting world in the last year is good for all of us. It’s good for us to take a step back and to evaluate if sports have become an idol in our own hearts.

5 thoughts on “Idolatry of Sports”

  1. I think that perhaps one of the best examples of this cult of sports can be seen in the commercial that’s been playing throughout the World Cup. You know the one: camera slowly zooms in on a guys eyes while a British voiceover talks about how quickly things can change; pan out to show American fans cheering after their team has scored a goal in the World Cup. The language used is explicitly religious in nature (one of the final lines is, “to turn a nation of unbelievers into the converted”). As the World Cup has progressed, that commercial has made me more and more uncomfortable. It’s partly because of this sports idolatry and partly because of the devaluation of the language of religion and Christianity (a different, though not completely unrelated, subject). What I find equally disturbing is the idea that many people simply accept the phrases used in the commercial without actually hearing what the game is being compared to (and I hope I’m wrong about that).

  2. Interesting post. And interesting response from Michael. I too found the ESPN commercial disturbing/interesting and I believe they used the phrase quite intentionally. But here’s an interesting thought–what would a parody of that commercial show, were we to change it to Christianity? Volunteers conducting a service project? Three-year olds being taught bible stories? Helping the homeless? I’m convicted that I should be even more devoted than ESPN to converting folks to something truly worthwhile (and I’m a huge soccer fan!)

  3. Great article. I was searching for a good article in light of this situation, and the new situation with the WORSHIP of Lebron James and professional athletes, and entertainers. If this all isn’t idol worship, then nothing is.

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