Why is America so sports crazy? What am I so sports crazy?
My eligibility to play on college athletic teams expired thirty years ago. I now have children older than the young men and women who are vying for national championships. Yet my interest in the outcome of those games — and, at times, my irrational responses to what I am seeing on the court and on the field — seem to be accelerating.
Why do millions of people experience happier days when their teams win, but feel sick to their stomachs after losses? Domestic abuse typically rises in metro areas whenever the local franchise chalks up an “L.” Sports stars aren’t only performers. They are “heroes.” The average annual salary for Major League Baseball players is greater than the lifetime earnings of tens of millions of American workers. Has our national sports fixation become a form of mental illness? ESPN advertises its NFL broadcasts with this slogan: “When you love it this much, nothing else matters.” For the diehard sports fan no alternative view is imaginable.
Unquestionably the socializing that is frequently associated with spectator sports can be a welcome antidote to relational isolation. Fascination with athletic competition keeps a lot of people talking around the water cooler. Whole communities come together to experience The Big Game. Apart from sports some family members would struggle to find common ground. Think of that poignant scene from City Slickers in which Daniel Stern’s middle-aged character reflects that when he and his dad couldn’t find anything to talk about, they could always talk about baseball. Three cheers for the myriad ways that sports bring people together.
Other associations with seasonal games aren’t nearly so redemptive. It’s hard to overlook the symbiosis of major sports with gambling, alcohol, sexual images, and violence.
Theories abound concerning the rise of Sports Nation. Perhaps sports are a form of representative combat. Hating the Yankees is a safe and socially acceptable way of thumbing our noses at the Big Apple for its bigger-than-life arrogance. Others suggest that sports-crazed people (men, in particular) become ravenous fans because their own lives seem so dull and lifeless. Their personal dreams are stillborn. Vicarious success is just a televised touchdown pass or grand slam away.
As a pastor I am convinced that our church’s “competition” is not the Lutherans, the Methodists or that independent mega-church that’s mushrooming down the street. Would-be disciples of Jesus are torn between attending worship or supporting their kids’ 11:00 a.m. Sunday soccer league. The population thins in our sanctuary every time the local NFL franchise, the Indianapolis Colts, take the field at midday Sunday. (To be fair, our pastoral counseling opportunities soar every January when the Colts flame out in the playoffs.)
But the real effect of sports-as-life-itself cannot be documented as easily as attendance figures. We live in a culture of distraction. Our fascination with Hollywood, escapist vacations, political scandals, and the trivial details of the lives of celebrities — do Brad and Angelina truly love each other? — is symptomatic of the fact that many of those in our pews are not even acquainted with life’s great questions.
Addiction to sports can be a serious challenge to spiritual formation — that lifelong endeavor that requires relentless seeking of God’s kingdom through such disciplines as silence, solitude, and study. Manic attention to spectator events steals irreplaceable time from marriages, friendships and parenting. Today’s average couple works one thousand more hours per year than in 1975. Do we really want to turn on the TV as constant background noise when we finally find time to be with each other? Is it normal for dads to know more about the struggles of their fantasy players than the stresses faced by their own kids?
OK, I’m convicted. My name is Glenn. I am an addict. I watch too many hours of SportsCenter. I shouldn’t know (or care) about Chad Pennington’s double rotator cuff surgery. The beauty of autumn days should not be compromised because my favorite team may blow the World Series. With God’s help I will spend fewer hours in front of the TV and more time attending to the precious people in my home. As a pastor I will not dodge the issue of sports addiction as a major spiritual compromise for many of my members. God deserves my attention above all.
After all, when God loves us this much, nothing else matters.
Glenn McDonald is pastor of Zionsville Church, Zionsville, Ind.