The Ugly Legalism of Sports Worship

The Ugly Legalism of Sports Worship February 27, 2015

Do I worship sports? I hope not. I don’t think I do, but I’ll admit that my fiancé might have a more informed take on the question. I have been guilty of scheduling certain days around games and have been distracted by the restaurant’s ESPN-locked TV when I really shouldn’t have been. (I’m sorry, baby, what did you say we need to discuss?) And I suppose I’ve spent a best-not-to-mention amount of money on tickets, “Game Rewind” subscriptions, t-shirts and hoodies with only a logo’s difference between them and the blue light special, and various, disposable memorabilia. What can I say, though–it’s fun being a fan,.

But what happens when fandom becomes obsession, and obsession gives way to (a very sincere) form of worship? Trust me, I’m not one to sit around looking for fault lines in American sports culture. But whenever sports fans make wins and losses matters of life and death, fandom has morphed into fanatic faith.

ESPN reports this morning on Brandon Bostick, a tight end for the Green Bay Packers whose bobble played a crucial role in the Packers NFC playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Bostick was just recently released by the Packers who reportedly told him that his playoff fumble “had something to do with it.” To be released by a team after one ignoble moment is difficult enough, but Bostick told ESPN that it was fans on social media that made life hardest.

“I don’t know how many death threats I received [Bostick said], but there have been a lot. I still haven’t read most of the messages that people sent me, but I want to so I can deal with the consequences and use it as motivation. But it is physically impossible for me to read every troll’s comment; the volume is simply too much. So their comments sit there, untouched, maybe forever.”

This isn’t a rare experience for American athletes. The New York Daily News reported in 2013 on how NFL players are often swarmed on Twitter by vicious personal attacks for their performances. Many of the comments are death threats, some made with frightening detail. (Giants quarterback Eli Manning received a picture of a gun after some on-field struggles.) In 2012 Lakers player Steve Blake missed a final shot in a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A Twitter user messaged Blake shortly afterwards, “I hope your family is murdered.”

Sports worship isn’t confined to professional games either. Arguably the most glaring evidence of sports worship in our culture right now isn’t in huge stadiums filled with 60,000 screaming fans but in neighborhood fields and parks with a few dozen parents watching their children on a Saturday afternoon. Much has been written about the damaging effect that parental obsession over children’s success in sports can have, not just on the parent-child relationship but on the kid’s attitude towards recreation and sense of priorities. Even worse, parents who look to sports to validate their children’s social status are easily angered and too frequently given to violence. Just last month a father and son in Louisville were arrested for assaulting a high school coach, allegedly for an in-game incident.

All these cases of violent language and violent actions magnify the power of sports over our sense of peace and fulfillment. We may empathize with someone who loses their temper at personal mistreatment or betrayal of promise. But in sports, often deep anger is directed not at those who directly injure us but at those that merely get in the way of our triumph. This is the kind of passion for the “prize” that the Apostle Paul talks about when writing about the Christians’ struggle with spiritual powers (including personal sins, like anger) to become more like Jesus. People for whom sports is an emotional catharsis or personal vindication of existence are unlikely to see fellow competitors as anything other than neutral at best and hurdles at worst.

Thus, sports worship entails a merciless legalism. Legalism is the belief that our spiritual condition can be measured against our accomplishments. Those who perform well are blessed while those who fall short–ie, lose–are in danger of losing God. As a false deity, sports is a ruthless legalist; there are only winners and losers, those deserving of praise and those deserving of boos. The sacrifices that sports demands are excellence and victory, which must be achieved at high costs to ourselves and, if necessary, to others. Under the spell of this worship, people will make decisions that strain relationships, feed the ego, cultivate airs of superiority, or drive them to despair.

Disarming the legalism of sports worship requires the Gospel. Legalism loses its appeal if the thing promised–spiritual blessedness–can be attained without accomplishing all that it demands. And that’s precisely what the Gospel tells us is true–that being approved by God and reconciled to Him and others can happen outside of adherence to spiritual law. Losers can actually win because the game has been won on their behalf by Someone else. It’s that truth that frees us from the tyranny of performance and opens our lives up to the possibility of lasting peace in ourselves, real grace for others, and genuine appreciation for the way things like sports enable us to enjoy the world.

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