Like most Christian men I know, I have a love/hate relationship with sports. I’ve played sports–in high school, in college, and on the side–and I’ve been a fan of sports my whole life. I love it when my teams wins. I feel pangs of sorrow when they lose. I love the conversational fodder sports has provided thousands of times for me and my brother and my dad. I love the way sports gives me something to talk about with the majority of men in my church, many boys, and a not few women and girls.

And yet, I recognize sports talk is only the shallow end of the pool. More than that, I am fearful of the place sports can occupy in my heart. As a pastor, I want the folks in my congregation to give their lives for something more meaningful than youth soccer leagues and the triumphs of fandom. I am not blind to the idolatries of sport and the failings of sport stars. But, still, I am a huge sports fan.

So it was with interest that I read the Christianity Today cover article on “Sports Fanatics.” In this lengthy essay, Shirl James Hoffman, an emeritus professor of kinesiology at UNC-Greensboro, sets out to prove “how Christians have succumbed to the sports culture–and what might be done about it.” I was hoping for an article that took a fair look at the world of sports–the good, the bad, and the ugly. What I got was something like this, but not quite: an argument that, on the one hand, affirms sports as “derivatives of the God-given play impulse,” and, on the other hand, argues that Christians should get rid of football and take up swimming.

Tracing the Argument

Hoffman insists he is not anti-sports. (I’ll take a look at his pro-sports argument later.) But most of the essay is a not so-subtle jab at our fascination with sports.  Here’s Hoffman’s basic argument:

1. Americans are obsessed with sports. They fly flags from their houses and some even get buried in coffins decorated with their team’s colors. In 2006, Americans spent over $17 billion on tickets to sports contests and $90 billion on sporting goods. We are sports freaks. Now, I could add that Americans also spend $41 billion per year on their pets (there are 300 million of us, so it doesn’t take long for the dollars to add up). But, nevertheless, I fully agree that Americans like their sports, and many Americans like them too much. If Hoffman had simply challenged the idolatry of sports in our culture, I would have applauded. Sports as religion is diabolical.

2. Evangelicals are joined at the hip with sports culture. Churches have gyms. Pastors use sports analogies. Local baseball teams have faith and family nights. Professional teams have chaplains. Christian athletes are outspoken promoters of the faith. And on and on. I’m not sure what this list proves, other than that evangelicals like sports and some sports starts are evangelicals. But I’ll concede the point: evangelicals are tied in closely with the sports world.

3. Sports can bring out the worst in us. Hoffman cites several examples: cheating scandals, performance enhancing drugs, in-game brawls, out of control parents/fans, Christian schools sacrificing principle for sports prowess. Of course, all of these things happen, and all of them are bad. But there’s nothing revelatory here. Even the casual fan knows of these problems. And virtually every Christian, I imagine, recognizes these are problems. So what has Hoffman really proved? He’s demonstrated that there are sinners in sports and that sports cultures tempts us in bad ways. Can’t the same arguments be made about any profession–business, art, music, academia, pastoral ministry?

The Coup de Grace?

The real crux of the piece is Hoffman’s suggestion that the values of sports culture are inconsistent with Christian values.  He writes:

Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians have for centuries understood as the embodiment of the gospel. They are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable arguments for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative–with its emphasis on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination–while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle.

In basketball no one likes a cherry picker–someone who refuses to play defense, but instead stands under his own basket just hoping to get a pass from the other end and score an easy bucket. What goes for sports, goes for cherry-picking arguments about sports too. Hasn’t Hoffman simply highlighted everything that can be bad about sports, without paying any attention to what can be good? What about the story of the coach in Georgia who forfeited his team’s state title because they accidentally played one minute of one game with an academically ineligible player? What about the Tim Tebows of the world who lead with courage and set an example of principled character? What about coaches like Tony Dungy who emphasize serving the community even more than winning? What about a guy like Isaiah Dalman for the Spartans who was Mr. Basketball in Minnesota but, for the good of the team, has joyfully and without complaint accepted his role as a minimal bench player? What about the values of honesty, hard work, cooperation, fair play, and team-first that characterize hundreds of teams and thousands of players? What about the college coaches who take rough kids from rough places and genuinely care about making them responsible men and not just champions? The list could go on and on. If you are looking for all that’s depraved in sports, you don’t have to look hard. But there’s plenty that’s consistent with Christian virtue too, if you are willing to see it.

At bottom, it’s hard not to conclude that Hoffman is upset with sports because sports emphasizes hard virtues instead of soft virtues. After urging Christians to play sports for the glory of God, Hoffman bemoans the fact that in today’s sports world, “such visions of glorifying God are almost always linked to athletic production. God is glorified through demonstrations of grit, muscularity, strategic calculation, and victory, notions that seem more derivative of the coach’s office that of the Bible.” Huh? Grit and victory not part of the Bible? Many of the Old Testament heroes were renowned for their strength, courage, and cunning. And if you don’t trust the Old Testament–Hoffman thinks sports is too much Old Testament war and not enough Sermon on the Mount–you can turn to the New Testament and find numerous metaphors about training your body, running the race so as to win the prize, fighting the good fight, enduring suffering as a good soldier. And when you finish up the Bible in Revelation you’ll see that theme is nike (victory), how to be an overcomer. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of soft virtues to go around too. The Bible is a big book with many ways to describe godliness. But let’s not emasculate the Bible of its athletic and militaristic language just because Mark McGwire used steroids and Gilbert Arenas carries a gun.

Elsewhere, Hoffman suggests that “Sportianity” advocates a worldview at odds with Christianity. “The concrete trumps the symbolic; doing, achieving, and struggling are favored over mystery, joy, feeling, transport, and spiritual insight.” First of all, I’m not sure what this means. Second, since when do sports not emphasize joy and feeling? And third, you’ll find a lot more in the Bible about struggling and striving than you will about the wonders of ineffable mystery.

The other argument against sports, at least violent ones like football, is that as temples of the Holy Spirit we should not treat our bodies so harshly. Of course, there’s a grain of truth here. Players who sacrifices mobility at fifty for one more season at thirty act imprudently. But the “body as a temple” argument only goes so far. Injuries happen in “non-violent” sports just as they do in “violent” ones. Women runners and basketball players, for example, are especially susceptible to leg problems, and swimmers can see muscle mass turn to fat in later years. In all cases, athletes face hard decisions about how hard to push their bodies. In most cases, however, I would guess athletes do not face crippling injuries later in life. And, ironically, in their prime, athletes have more impressive “temples” than anyone else.

The Flip Side

As I said, Hoffman is not entirely adverse to sports. In fact, he wants to see them reach their full potential. To that end, we should be open to “the possibility that sports can be what Hugo Rahner called a rehearsal ‘of that Godward directed harmony of body and soul which we call heaven,’ an expression of ‘man’s hope for another life taking visible form in gesture,’ a ‘feeble imitation’ of true play, which will begin ‘only when this world has been left behind.’” In his conclusion, Hoffman urges Christians to view sports as “derivatives of the God-given play impulse–intended less to test our spiritual limits than as times and places to recover our spiritual centers of gravity and to rehearse spiritual truths, dim images of the real games that will begin when we leave this world behind.”

Sounds good, I think. The lofty prose makes for tricky reading, but I think this is the super-smart way of saying “God is playful and creative, and in heaven we will glorify God with our bodies. Play sports as a reflection of these realities.” If that’s what Hoffman means, I’m all for it. But honestly, the whole argument feels overblown, like a lot of fancy words trying to infuse sports with heavenly typology. Hoffman, it seems, wants sports to be in the realm of special grace, where I am happy to have them in the world of common grace. Sports are games. They’re fun. They can bring out the best in us and the worst, just like everything else in life. They are blessings. And they can be idols. If Hoffman had talked about that, I would be all over it. God knows we need conviction for deifying sports teams and sports stars.

But in the end, I don’t think a theology of sports needs to be terribly complicated. Sports is yet another avenue to live out rebellion or another way to glorify God. But the glory is not because the perfect backstroke gives us a glimpse of heavenly play and heavenly bodies. Rather, because the backstroker, or point guard, or slot receiver, is humble, honest, and works hard unto the Lord. Let’s not make things more difficult than they have to be. Sports can be a waste of time, a wasteland of vice, or an oasis of God-glorifying people and principles. It depends on what you make it.

And if there are winners and losers, that’s ok. Because, you know what, that’s sort of what life is like too.