Can Christians Root For Immoral Athletes?

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“Can Christians root for athletes who do bad things?” On a recent Happy Rant podcast we discussed this question. Can a Christian feel good about rooting for guys like Jameis Winston, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and others? The question arose because the number of prominent star athletes getting themselves in legal hot water seems to have skyrocketed. In years past we might have been able to ignore an indiscretion or two, but now they confront us at every turn.

The question rises from more than just the prominence and frequency of athlete missteps. It stems from our acute awareness of them and insatiable appetite for information about them. Once upon a time tabloids were smutty news that scratched a guilty itch. Now we get tabloid news piped to our phone screens every minute. We don’t have to browse; we get notified. This pervasive awareness of celebrities, athlete or otherwise, completely changes the nature of our perceptions and interactions. We believe we “know” them intimately as people, so instead of just watching how they perform we judge them the way we would acquaintances or co-workers.

More than any other kind of entertainer, this applies to athletes which causes a unique conundrum. Sports are entertainment, plain and simple, just like movies, music, and books. Unlike those other forms of entertainment, though, athletes play themselves instead of playing a part or a role. Actors play other people, parts we quote and remember. Authors create characters and fade into the background. Musicians are like athletes in that they perform as themselves, but their sounds can be carried in one’s pocket, listened to in the car, and enjoyed without every seeing them. We can close our eyes and lose ourselves in the music and forget the musician playing it. Athletes don’t play a part or create a story for us to get lost in; they perform as themselves and nothing else. Their own names adorn their jerseys. When they take the field we simply see them. We may “know” other types of entertainers, but the delineation between performance and person separates us from their morals. That line for athletes is nearly rubbed out, so we must question our fandom.

But how must we question it? In every form of entertainment except sports we appreciate the performance or art form for its own merits. We hear the notes of heaven in a beautiful song. We marvel at the creativity of a story and relish the sublimity of an acting performance. Each one is evidence of God’s creativity imprinted on mankind. We are able to do these things often in spite of the performers moral failures. And we ought to be able to do the same in sports, to separate the on-field performance from the off-field activities. Some fans find this hard to do in good conscience; that’s understandable because it feels like ignoring something immoral. But it ought to be the goal.

When we learn to see the athlete and his or her performance as two separate things we gain two significant benefits. First, rather than trying to ignore a moral dilemma we can actually confront it better. Too often in deciding how to respond to an athlete’s off-field behavior their on-field exploits come into play. That’s nonsense; they are people, employees, and citizens and must be responded to as such. And we can only do this if we are able to recognize their humanity apart from their performance. The second benefit, though, is that we are able to enjoy sports more deeply. Instead of besmirching the exquisiteness of the games with off-field issues we can see it purely in the performances and competition. The game itself between those lines and for those halves or innings or sets or holes is unsoiled by what happens elsewhere. We root for the performance, not for the person. And when we make this distinction we are able to both root for athletes and abhor deplorable behavior without compromising beauty or justice.

The Beautiful, Bizarre, and Broken World Of Being A Sports Fan

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This post was written by my fellow Happy Ranter, Ted Kluck.

Why sports fandom?

This is a question I ask myself when I am seething with rage and exasperating my wife at a youth football game. Its a question a pastor friend who is a fellow Syracuse University football fan asked me after the Orange lost to Maryland recently. Is there anything even remotely redeeming and pleasing to the Lord about this? he asked, semi-rhetoricallyand then we talked about it for an hour because thats what we do. The this he was referring to was his own seething with rage and exasperating his wife moment after the Orange game.

On the surface there doesnt seem to be much thats redeeming about being in a bad mood after the team which you dont play on, dont coach, and otherwise have nothing to do with loses a football game that takes place two hundred miles away from your home. In fact, its embarrassing and the kind of thing we end up apologizing to our wives about later.

When I see the orange and blue on the field, I see my childhood, he explains. Im a fan of the teams I favor because of what I love. The team represents people, places, principles, and practices that Im devoted to. The team holds my devotion, so the team holds me.

Sports fandom doesnt make sense at all to people who dont care about sports, in much the same way that I dont care about musical theater (for example). I wouldnt cross the street to see a musical in the same way that, apart from me, my wife would never ever choose to watch a football game. That said, I still want her to understand it, and I want to understand it better myself. This is why we take the time to write about it and think about it.

Our Rooting Interests are a Reflection of Our Values

I explain to my friend that theres something cool about his decision to support the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Syracuse Orange football program (which is of course a very different animal than supporting the Syracuse Orange basketball program). In the same way that he pours himself out, completely anonymously, as the pastor of a small, needy congregation in a small town, he is similarly pouring himself out on behalf of teams that are under-the-radar and far from perfect. This brings its own particular kind of joy.

The guy who gets his MDiv and immediately looks for one of the 25 pastoral jobs at the local rich, thriving megachurch is probably the same kind of guy who roots for the New York Yankees. This is a low-risk, low-reward proposition. Being the Pastor for Young Adults Whose Names Start with the Letters A through D isnt in and of itself bad, nor is cheering for the Yankees. Its just different than cheering for a team that you perceive as needing you in some way (which is, in itself, completely irrational, but Ill get there).

A part of me still craves being with the big shots so that I can get attention, Cory writes. Yet Ive learned to love being with the ones who dont get attention. Even more I love seeing others love them.

A reason that I dont watch the Steelers with the rigor that I watch the football Orange is that the Steelers get plenty of attention, so mine is superfluous. But the Orange need me. They dont get respectincluding from their own sometime fansso they need what I can give them.

We Root for Who Our Dads Rooted For

I love my dad, Cory writes. I have to start here, because I wouldnt care about sports without my dad. As a child I liked sports in theory but struggled with uncoordination, excessive orderliness, fear of looking stupid and of getting hurt, and preference for the mind over the body. But my dad doggedly taught me to play and thence enjoy sports, ushering me into a world I never would have knownor shared with himotherwise.

My dad did too. My best sports memories all include him. This is all-encompassing and has less to do with fandom and more to do with just being with him. We went to games together (Indianapolis Colts, Indiana University, Ball State, Taylor, and Blackford High School). We lifted weights and threw routes together, training for my promising high school football career. We pushed my pickup truck up and down the street together, training for my abject failure of a college football career. This might sound crazy to most people, but for us it was nirvana. Dad grew up in Chicago, so I was, and am, a Bears fan.

Dad grew up in central Pennsylvania and was unswervingly loyal to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, Cory writes. Oddly, Dad wasnt loyal to Penn State. So when we moved to a suburb of Syracuse when I was seven he easily slid into rooting for the football and basketball Orangemen. Naturally, so did I. When I see my four teamsPirates, Steelers, Orange football and mens basketballI see my dad and the hours weve talked about them together.

We Love Perfecting What Needs It

I have a sickness, Cory writes. It is that I hate dwelling in imperfection and disorder. However, in most cases I hate dwelling in perfection even more, because perfect places strike me as inauthentic, pretentious, and exclusive. Worse, I feel like if I am not perfecting the imperfect then my life is meaningless. So I have to be in the settings that are most likely to drive me crazy. Like I saidsick.

Hence our affinity for Syracuse football. When we talk about the Orange during my morning commutes to teach at the small University whose sports I have no active interest in, we always talk about the team as though its OUR responsibility to fix it. As though it is our own unique insights that will fix the running game. As though Scott Shafer will somehow intuit our conversations and scrap the spread offense just because I hate watching all of the bubble screens.

A very strange thing happened to me, Cory writes. I was living away from Syracuse, and the worse the program got, the more attached to it I became. It was as if the more humiliated the team made me, the more firmly I committed to seeing it straightened out. This was while many fans dealt with the shame by pretending that the program didnt exist.

Here you need to understand a critical part of my madness. I actually believe that I, who spend almost no money on any of my teams, make them better merely by paying attention to them. This is why I am not entertained by watching recorded sporting events. I have to watch them live, because only if the outcome is not already decided can I help them win by watching them on a television hundreds of miles away. It doesnt matter that I know that this belief is total lunacyI operate by it anyway.

This is the irrational partwell, one of them. Weve both gone all-in on Syracuse football. I chose them because I liked their new hire (of a few years ago) Doug Marrone. I liked what he represented old-school, smash-mouth running games and a good defense. Discipline. I liked that the team was under-the-radar and that if they were to succeed, I would have gotten in on the ground floor. I have completely enjoyed their meteoric rise from absolute ineptitude to minor-bowl mediocrity. It has been a blast.

Whats the moral? Or is there one?

When I love my teams Im loving my self, because my teams represent and project what my self holds profoundly dearly, Cory writes. Thus my teams performance makes me proud of my self or ashamed of it.

This strikes us both as the craziest part of all. The fact that I have an inkling of pride or shame because of what a team does is, at worst, insane and, at best, just really stupid and immature. Its more understandable in a youth-sports context in that at least its my son out there and, at some level, how he performs could be a reflection on me. Still, it feels crazy.

The problem, Cory claims, is that idolatry is the practice of worshiping my idealized self-projection, the image that I partly am and partly wish I was, in order to replace the dependent image of God in me with an independent image of self. Sports fandom is a very easy way to do that.

When I freak out about my sons pee-wee teams performance (pause to reflect on how sad/shameful that is) I am worshiping my idealized self-projection. I partly am a guy who knows a lot about football. I partly am a guy who has played and coached it semi-well in a lot of different contexts for a lot of years. But perfection winning all the time and always being great is what I partly wish I embodied (but fell far short of) as a player.

However, to the extent that these aspects of my self that are projected in these teams are good and lovingly and providentially shaped by my Creator, because they are also aspects of him, then to cheer for my teams is to reflect his image in me, Cory continues. So at the moment that I am drawn into my teams triumphs and woes, how do I know whether I am worshiping the creature (self as god) or the Creator (God in self)?

We dont know, but we think the answer has something to do with love.

Five Incredibly Profound and Life Changing Lessons I Learned From the Super Bowl

Being sick and without an appetite can actually be beneficial for your health. Only at a Super Bowl party would you hear someone say, “I’ll have some of this buffalo chicken dip. Oh, and I’ll have some of these buffalo chicken wings. And, yummy, I’ll have some of those hot dogs that are wrapped in bacon and dipped in lard. Hey who brought the hamburgers with bratwurst on top?”

The Steelers were not the best team in football. Neither were the Packers, for that matter. For the most part, the Steelers controlled the game but just couldn’t close it out when they needed to. The Packers missed all kinds of opportunities, although they got what they needed to win. The best team in football was the Patriots, who, unfortunately for them, happened to catch the Jets on a bad day.

Players are not very creative when interviewed. “We really played as a team.” “We all came out here and gave 100%.” “We did what we had to do to win.” Just once I want to hear a player say something like, “Well, to be honest, the team had some wicked bad taco meat last night and every one of us was sick as a dog. It was like a dysentery plague. I didn’t think we were going to win but it turns out my lucky 8 ball was right after all.”

Announcers have an uncanny ability to talk about the same thing over and over again. If I hear one more announcer talk about this being a year of ‘redemption’ for Roethlisberger…well I don’t know what I’ll do. Something extreme and rash that I’ll probably regret for many years. Like light a foam cheese head on fire.

I’m grateful that my joy is in Jesus not ultimately in football. Notice I said ‘not ultimately’. I like football a whole lot, and I was dishing out my share of high fives and over-enthusiastic screams when Pittsburgh scored. But in the end they lost. Which stinks. And which makes me glad that Jesus is an unshakable joy.

The Humility of Lamar Odom

To my knowledge, Lamar Odom (power forward for the L.A. Lakers) is not a Christian. Yet he models a humility that should be the goal of every Christian athlete, and in reality, every Christian. Sports Illustrated recently ran an article about Odom which contained the following quotes:

The Los Angeles D-Fenders are the Lakers’ developmental-league affiliate; they practice in the same gym and play on the same court as the NBA players but reap few of the other benefits. “Most guys at that level [of Lamar Odom] don’t have time for us,” says guard Brandon Heath. “But L.O. is always telling us to come over to his house, offering to take us out to dinner.”

I love that humility! It reminds me of Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.”

The article continues:

Sharing has long been part of his game. Growing up, Odom’s idol was Magic, not Michael. He preferred to dish rather than dunk. “When we had college scouts come watch us, he wouldn’t shoot,” says Arbitello [a former teammate]. “He wanted to make everybody else look good.”

This attitude is the exact opposite of mine. I want to make myself look good. I want to be the high-flying, high-scoring, player of the game who impresses everyone. And not just in sports. In every other aspect of life as well. I want to be the guy that looks good, and I don’t get excited when someone else is praised. Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

Finally, Odom’s personal trainer says:

Lamar’s a pleaser. He wants to throw you an alley-oop and give you a pound on the way back down.

I want to be like Lamar. I want to celebrate and rejoice in the successes of others.

Super Bowl Number Six Baby!

My fingernails are chewed raw and my adrenal glands are shot. My heart still hasn’t composed itself. My eyes feel like burning from staring at the screen without blinking. Simply put, it was a hard fought game but I managed to pull it out. I yelled “miss it” at just the right times and told James Harrison to “never look back” when he intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown. I was NOT responsible for the fact that Casey Hampton was wearing what appeared to be a pee-wee football helmet.

So here’s a little tribute to the boyz (can I use a ‘z’?) in Black & Gold.

C.J. Mahaney on Sports

Today at Covenant Life Church C.J. Mahaney gave an outstanding message entitled “Don’t Waste Your Sports”. If you enjoy playing, watching, or talking sports, you need to listen to this message.

Get it HERE.