Understanding Our Obsession With Sports
This Sunday millions upon millions of people will be captivated by grown men trying to advance a ball down a field while other grown men try to violently impede their progress. When you think about it, the whole phenomenon of sports is a bit silly, and yet so many of us (myself included) find ourselves completely obsessed.
There has to be more going on here than the mere enjoyment of competition. I believe there is. I believe the experience of the sports fan is powerful because it resonates with some of our most fundamental longings as human beings
I could say so many things here, but like a good preacher I’ll only offer three—glory, identity, and community.
We humans were made for glory. There is a reason why we go to the mountains and oceans for vacation; we love to witness and experience grandeur. And this is certainly a part of the allure of sports.
Enormous stadiums, thunderous sounds, fireworks, cheerleaders, half-time shows, and these are just the extras. The main event is elite athletes showcasing what we can only do in our dreams; the whole experience is certainly a majestic spectacle.
But is this glory sustainable? Suppose I were to give you front row seats for Sunday’s Super-Bowl. Some of us would literally think we were in heaven. But is that version of heaven lasting? Suppose there was a Super Bowl every day and you had those same tickets every day. I wonder how many games it would take for you to get bored with this glory. I don’t think it would take too long. As glorious as it may be, the experience of the fan is an exhaustible glory that will leave us wanting for more.
We humans also long to identify with greatness. Perhaps we intrinsically know that we ourselves just aren’t that great, and so we seek to unite ourselves to an external greatness. This is what fans are doing when we wear the jersey of their team. This is why we speak of our team with first-person pronouns (we won!). What’s happening here is that we have identified ourselves with a team, they become our representatives so that when they are victorious it feels like we are as well.
And yet we must identify with their defeats as well. I’m a huge KY basketball fan, which is very satisfying because KY has the most wins in college basketball history. But even with all its greatness, KY has only ended a season with a victory 8 times. Think about that. Since the first season in 1903, my representative has failed me all but 8 times. And we’re the best! I couldn’t imagine how miserable it would be to identify with some of these other teams (couldn’t resist). Being a fan affords us the opportunity to identify with victory and greatness. But more often our team fails, and consequently we most often identify with failure.
Finally, we humans long for community. We were not made to live in isolation, but instead were meant to live together with others. Now how is community formed? Community is formed around a communal love—our shared love for something brings us together. And often sports are the greatest source of community in our society.
Love for a team transcends normal cultural boundaries like race, economics, and politics. On Sunday, strangers will fill the bars of America to talk about their team, celebrate victory together or agonize over defeat together, and for a few hours they will engage with each other as though they are lifetime friends, all because they share a common obsession for their team.
But how deep is this community? Sure we recite some cheers and give each other awkward high fives, but after the game we go back to our lives and forget about each other. Coach Cal likes to refer to KY basketball fans as a family. Really? What’s his definition of family? Should I be expecting some of his money as an inheritance? On Sunday the winning players are going say things like, “We love our fans.” Really? What’s their definition of love? Do they want to hang out some time? I’m not saying coaches and players are being disingenuous, I’m sure they have some degree of affinity for us fans, but come on, they don’t even know our names. If this is a family, it certainly is a shallow one.
Sports are a good thing and worthy of our enjoyment. And they are easy to enjoy because they uniquely resonate with some of our more basic longings—the longing for glory, identity, and community.
But sports were never intended to fully satisfy those longings, and sadly too many people in our culture are looking to sports for just that. Putting it bluntly, sports is a common idolatry in our culture. Too many are placing unfair expectations upon a silly game, and sports, like all idols, will inevitably fail us. We must choose more wisely.
Is there anything out there that can sustain our deepest longing and needs? Is there a glory that will never fade, an identity that will never fail, and a community that will never cease to love? I believe there is. In fact, I know there is.
What if sports were never intended to be the ultimate destination of our longings but were intended to stir our longings for something else? I think that is what the joys of life are supposed to do. They are foretastes of something greater. And the greater is God.
Only in God do we discover a glory that is inexhaustible—10,000 ages from now He will still amaze and excite us.
Only in God do we discover an identity that is unfailing—Jesus becomes our representative and identity, we bear His name, and through His cross and resurrection He is forever forever victorious on our behalf.
Only in God do we discover a community of endless depth—we become citizens of His Kingdom, members of His Church, sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father, sharing the inheritance of our older Brother Jesus.
Sports are a good thing and worthy of your love, but not your ultimate love. I hope you enjoy this Super Bowl Sunday, but I hope you enjoy it rightly. It is a joyful foretaste meant to stir your desires for something better, and God is better.