There was once a 5th grade boy driving home with his father after a devastating loss in the playoffs of YMCA basketball in Montgomery, Alabama. The father had seen his son cry after a loss many times before, and this was no different. Yet, the heart of his son was to be exposed during this moment when the son uttered to the father, “But dad, all I’ve got is basketball. If I don’t make it to the NBA then I’m nothing.” One might read that statement and think that it is merely a silly story told at family reunions, or the punchline at a wedding rehearsal dinner. Rather, that story is one that revealed the sinful nature of the boy more than anyone realized. I say that because that little boy was me. Since then, I have realized that I was not the only one who put my identity in sports. I certainly wasn’t the only athlete who did this, but I also saw several coaches, fans, and parents put their identity in sports or in the performance of another. The question that faces us today that, very unfortunately, we have not stopped to wrestle with, is this: Does the gospel of Jesus Christ have any say in the way we play, coach, and cheer on sports?
I once heard a very disappointing statement from a theologically solid pastor who said that God didn’t care about sports. Certainly this doesn’t fit well with Abraham Kuyper’s comment, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” If we truly believe God is the Creator of all and that the gospel is a gospel that redeems all things then we certainly would have to realize that the gospel radically and totally demands that we approach sports in light of its truths. One of these grand truths of the gospel is that because we have been united to Jesus, Jesus now becomes our identity.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
If the gospel tells us that we are dead to our old selves and now alive to Christ, and Christ alive in us, then how does that affect the way we play, coach, and support sports? It affects the way we play sports because it gives us a steady identity. After playing organized football for 13 years and several years coaching and training others, I have noticed that most players play football to establish their identity, rather than play from their identity. When the game is played from the standpoint of trying to earn your identity then the game will inevitably fail you. One of the best lessons I learned in the NFL is that virtually every player has their career ended for them rather than they choosing to end their career. I also learned that there will always be someone faster, stronger, quicker, smarter, more consistent, or more productive than you at some point. The common saying is that records are meant to be broken. If I play sports from a desire to earn my identity and righteousness then I will die a thousand deaths trying to keep up that performance. A loss will crush me. Being benched will throw me into depression. Being overlooked will make me want to quit. Consider the ESPN 30 for 30 film on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Harding had so much of her identity in sports that the sight of someone better than her drove her to hurt another.
The coaches, parents, and fans who approach sports with their identity tied up in their team’s or child’s performance will ultimately be crushed or crush someone else. Consider another ESPN 30 for 30 film on Marv and Todd Marinovich. Marv was so obsessed with his son’s performance that his son escaped into the college party life because of the fear to perform well enough for his father. Think also of the reactions of certain fans on a Sunday morning whenever their favorite team has lost the previous day. Think also of the coach who has turned to prostitutes or alcoholism because of the pressure to find his worth and value in his performance. The examples and illustrations are endless because the amount of people who are like this are everywhere – even in our church perhaps.
But if the gospel truly tells us who we are in Christ then we can approach sports differently. A loss doesn’t have to crush me, but I can play with reckless abandon – because even if I fail, I have lost nothing of ultimate worth. I can cheer hard for my team and wake up the next morning for Sunday worship with a joyful heart even if my team loses, because I know that in Christ I have all the significance that’s truly out there. I can allow my child to miss the sports games that conflict with church and worship because I know that in Christ alone there is life and that sports is only meant to help us learn more of Christ rather than compete against Christ.
Maybe the question we need to ask more than ever today is this: How far-reaching do I believe the gospel is? If the gospel has not affected the way you play, coach, watch, support, and help your children approach sports, then your view of God and your view of the gospel is too small and your idolatry of sports reigns in your heart. Praise God that we do not have a gospel that merely comes to us on Sundays, but also meets us on Fridays and Saturdays in the Fall. Praise God that Jesus Christ performed for us so that we wouldn’t have to find our righteousness in our success in sports. Praise God that Jesus Christ was rejected on the cross so that our failure and losses in sports can never lose our standing with God.