Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is Football Spiritually Important?

Having asked for suggestions for this week’s post, I received a very interesting one from Daniel, 17, of Atlanta, Georgia. He asks, “Is football spiritually important?”*

This is a question near to my heart. Those who know me well know I am a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I also am aware of many devoted Christians who are highly critical of football and its fans. Therefore, the answer depends on whom you ask. I may not be able to give a convincing one. Probably, anyone will walk away with the same perspective he had when he started reading. But this is a good discussion to have, and I want to thank Daniel for starting me on it.

The Dangers of Football

You already know where I am going to end up on this, but let me start with the negatives, anyway. The one most people think of at the moment is the physical danger. That deserves consideration, even from a spiritual perspective. Everything we have, including our bodies, are given to us by God. We hold them in stewardship, so we have a responsibility to care for them. That is also true for parents in regard to their children. Therefore, the health risks of football need to be seriously considered by anyone thinking of playing, or of letting their children play.

That has to do with playing football. However, the primary issues involving spirituality are usually about watching football. It is the question of devotion.

I used the word “fan” earlier, and as you know, it is short for “fanatic.” What you may not know is the etymology of that word. It derives from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “possessed by a god.” A fanatic was a person so devoted to the gods of Rome that he was consumed by them, babbling and flailing about under their influence. And he would do anything for them. Fanaticism is a lunatic love.

Some Christians feel that football fans have this sort of devotion to their chosen teams. The sport essentially becomes their god. It is something they follow slavishly, focus on singularly, and to which they sacrifice significantly.

This is a serious charge, given what the Bible teaches. In Exodus 20:3 the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” And Jesus says in Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is the clear witness of Scripture that we are to be wholly devoted to God, and anything we allow to be more important than Him has become an idol.

Fandom can go to extremes at any level of the sport. In my personal opinion, college football fans are often worse in this sense than those of the NFL. However, NFL football is particularly open to charges of splitting devotion because its games take place on Sundays. It has been noted, most recently in the movie Concussion, that football owns a day of the week that used to belong to the church.

Clearly, then, football can be understood as a competitor for God. A day once meant for gathering with family to worship the Lord is now often spent gathering with strangers in a parking lot to “worship” the team. People will miss church to watch a game, but not the other way around. The sport takes them away from the Savior.

Lastly, some point out that football is a useless diversion. This critique is often used in conjunction with the idea of football as idolatry. It is just a distraction that offers no value to life. You get nothing out of it. To be a fan is to waste your time.

The Defense of Football

Well, I feel I have summed up the spiritual case against football fairly well, if I do say so myself. Now, let me explain why I am still a fan and what I think it has to offer.

First, there are other goods in this world than religious ones. Or to put it another way, all good things come from God. If we enjoy football, it stands to reason there is something salutary in it. As with most other things in this fallen world, it may be buried deep or perverted from its proper end somehow. Still, the good is there and we should try to understand it.

Second, I would agree that many people have an unhealthy attachment to their teams. They should be encouraged to see how they are crossing the line. However, there are already limits to that attachment. For one, I do not know anyone who would kill, much less die, for the Steelers. Also, whatever they spend on them, whether for tickets, TV, or merchandise, it is not really an offering. Fans are expecting something in return. It is still an exchange of goods such as exists with any other product. And finally, fans are far more critical of their teams than any zealot is of his god. Remember, for all their faults, a “fan” is only half a “fanatic.”

Third, football is not an intrinsic evil. It needs to be stated that it is not wrong in and of itself. Few things are. More often, it is the uses to which a thing is put. And if something can be put to bad ends, it can usually be put to good ones, too.

(That is why, by the way, I consider gambling to be a separate issue. It is not part of football itself. People can, and do, gamble over everything. And of course, it is destructive. But it doesn’t follow directly from whatever sport or game you might choose. Rather, it is imposed on them.)

The Benefits of Football

Finally, and most importantly, are the actual goods of football. For the most part, they are things that point elsewhere. It teaches camaraderie, and the value of belonging to a community larger than yourself. That is true whether you are part of the team or just a fan of it. And while being a fan may not have the same depth as teamwork creates, there is something special about being able to identify a kindred spirit a thousand miles from home, simply because you both wear the same symbol.

Football teaches the importance of rules, and therefore of justice (there are few things like a bad call for stirring up righteous indignation). It helps us understand the value of discipline and timing. Through it, we can enjoy the thrill of victory and learn graciousness in defeat. It does these things, by the way, in an environment where the stakes are quite low. The lessons are learned relatively painlessly, but can be drawn from when more serious matters arise.

Also, football is something that shows us the value of enjoying a thing simply for its own sake. I said earlier that football is sometimes considered evil because it is a waste of time. However, I think that is a part of its beauty. Some things are to be enjoyed simply because they are enjoyable, not because we seek to gain anything concrete from them. It would be a drab world without art, music, and football.

Perhaps that is the key point, and the key comparison. Consider the words of Jesus again, this time from Luke 15:10, where He said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Why? They don’t get anything out of it, right? But they still rejoice, because they know it is a part of the great struggle between good and evil, they know the light is victorious over the darkness, and they know each new saint is, in a sense, another touchdown as God runs up the score. Football gives us an insight into that.

Last Word

So, Daniel, with all that said, I do not know if I have answered your question. It all depends on what each person decides for himself. On the one hand, maybe football doesn’t really matter in the long run. If someone is not a fan, then certainly he is not going to see the point of it. But I think it does matter, because it shows us other things that matter, too. Football isn’t all-important. It has value, though. So long as we don’t love it too much, it really can make us better. We just have to take what it gives us and put it to use for the One who truly deserves all our devotion.

*Daniel’s brother, Stephen, 15, also asks, “Why did the Steelers lose?!?!” You’ll find a lot of answers for that one. Bad field position all day; not scoring touchdowns in the redzone; missing pieces like Le’Veon Bell, Deangelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Kelvin Beachum, and especially Antonio Brown; and of course, Fitzgerald Toussaint’s costly fumble.

But for my money, the answer is clear. It’s all Stephen’s fault.

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