The Super Bowl Temple article posted a few weeks ago inspired comments from a number of readers about the place of sports in the life of a Christian. I asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Rich Holdeman, to write on the topic because of his background as a hockey player at Yale University and later as the head coach of the Indiana University hockey team. He has graciously agreed, and I am grateful. His article follows. Dr. Holdeman is presently the pastor of the Bloomington, Indiana, Reformed Presbyterian Church and is a lecturer in cell biology at Indiana University.
Note: in the original article on the Super Bowl, the sub-point on idolatry generated the bulk of the comments from readers. The following article addresses that topic specifically. Many readers have expressed interest in an article on sports and the use of the Lord’s Day. Dr. Holdeman has agreed to address that topic in a forthcoming post.
– James Faris
Maybe it is because sports have such a wonderful upside, that they present such a strong temptation to idolatry. As Tim Keller writes in his book, Counterfeit Gods, “…the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things.” The problem is not sports; the problem is our proclivity for making sports ultimate things. There would be little temptation to idolize sports and competition if there were not something truly attractive there. One need look no further than the current Jeremy Lin story, which has captivated the imaginations of many sports enthusiasts around the world. An unheralded bench warmer, who was sleeping on his brother’s couch and probably days away from being cut, got the opportunity to start at point guard for the New York Knicks. Since he began starting for the underperforming Knicks, they are 7-1 and Lin, a Taiwanese American and professing Christian, who played college ball at Harvard, has averaged over 25 points a game and has become the sports story of the year. Sports provide a forum for demonstrating courage, honor, selflessness, perseverance, patience, mental and physical toughness, teamwork, self sacrifice, and a host of other excellent qualities. There are many good reasons for liking to watch and participate in sports.
The problem with so many of us, however, is we can easily become addicted to sports. Actually, I believe we become addicted to winning. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to watch any sporting event without choosing a team for which to root? My daughters will walk into a room and see that I am watching a game and immediately ask, “Who do we want to win?” Whether we are playing or watching, we enter into the competition and deep down we all know why we compete – to win. In virtually every sport that I watch I have someone to cheer for: Manchester United in the Premier League, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL, the St Louis Cardinals in MLB, whoever is playing against the Miami Heat in the NBA, Indiana University in any college sport, the Schleck brothers in the Tour de France, whatever NFL team has a Manning on it, and the list goes on. When my team wins, I am up, and when my team loses, I don’t feel so good. One of my friends told me that his young son had finally solved this problem by announcing that he always cheers for whatever team is in the lead at any particular moment during a competition. He can cheer and always win – even if he has to change sides throughout the game!
I think a good indication that our desire to win or a particular sport or sports team has become an idol for us is when our lives become tied to the ups and downs of our teams. Idols always need to be fed and they tend to increasingly ask you to pay a higher and higher price. How much time do you spend watching or playing sports? What are you willing to sacrifice for your sport? What effect does participating in or watching sports have on you? What happens to your mood after a loss? I have seen firsthand how the desire to win can lead to sinful compromise before, during, and after competition. I recently saw an interview of Tim Tebow in which the interviewer expressed admiration for Tebow’s faith but deep concern that Tebow could say something to the effect that winning was not everything.
I played competitive sports through college. At various times in my life I have competed in organized soccer, baseball, football, basketball, track, ice hockey, roller hockey, tennis, racquetball, distance running, and inner tube water polo (I was all-league). I was a college soccer and ice hockey player. I was the assistant coach of the top prep school hockey team in the country (at that time). I coached a college ice hockey team (non-varsity) for 13 seasons and retired with a record of 251-116-20. I love sports, and I especially love winning. But I also know that I have faced a constant battle to keep sports from becoming an idol in my life. As all idols do, sports eventually failed me, and it was at that point in my life that God brought me to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. My conversion while I was in college freed me in many ways from the bondage of trying to find meaning and purpose through success in sports. But the struggle to keep sports in their proper place has continued.
During my years as a college hockey coach, I tried to honor God in the way I conducted myself. I think, by His grace, I had some success in that. But I can also look back and see how my desire to win often tempted me to make compromises that were not good. Anyone coaching a sport at a high level faces incredible pressures. Overwork, neglect of family, treating players like tools instead of people, anger (at players, officials, opponents, or simply at losing), pride, fear, and many other temptations were constantly knocking at my door. I have been retired from coaching now for six years. I look back on those years as some of the most rewarding but also some of the most taxing of my life. I frankly do not know how anyone can coach at the major college or professional levels today without having to make dangerous compromises. How can a Christian serve God faithfully in the family, the church, and the community while working 80+ hour weeks during large chunks of the year? There simply are not enough hours in the day.
When you watch or play sports, appreciate them for what they are – games that allow us to enjoy ourselves and even to pursue excellence if we have special gifts. We are called to do whatever we do as unto the Lord. If your participation in sports is leading you to compromise in some way, you must consider whether or not it has become an idol in your life. Paul says it very succinctly: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). The encouraging thing is that he says this in the context of reminding us of what enables us to do just that – the faithfulness of our God who does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. As servants of Christ, let’s show the world how to play and watch without compromise so that Jesus will truly be honored in us.