What IS Redemptive About Sports?

A while back a co-worker asked me “What is redemptive about sports?”

Could I be so lucky? I thought this was the kind of question I only asked myself so that I could write about it! Well, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to delve into this delicious subject.

One athlete from my formative years almost perfectly exemplifies why this question needs asking and answering: Randy Moss. Randy Moss has been an example of the most captivating displays sports has to offer and the most disgusting (just ask Joe Buck, he of the Emmy-pandering over-blown call at Moss pretending to moon fans in Green Bay). He was one of the most exciting, spectacular athletes ever to play football, but also one of the least likeable.

And it is that last sentence that sums up why the redemptiveness of sports needs to be explained. We know our athletes. We know them too well (or at least their public personas). The problem is that we confuse the athlete for the sport.

Music, sculpture, dance, poetry, painting, and other forms of art have elements of redemptive beauty and reflections of God’s glory pouring out of them. We are able to engage with them directly and personally. Mostly, we care little for the artist and deeply for the art. We know of artists’ failings – drugs, alcohol, sexual deviance – but we still appreciate their creations. Sports don’t work like this.

Randy Moss exhibited no less reflection of God’s glory and creative majesty than any artist. He was spectacular at his craft, gifted almost beyond belief. He did things regularly that no other player in the NFL has ever done even occasionally. He bent entire defenses his way and made the game easier for all his team mates.  When he wanted to be he was unguardable. And God made him to be like this!

But by most accounts Randy was a jerk. (Although recent accounts have unearthed another side to his personality like this 30 for 30 short film and this story of him keeping a promise to a fan.) And so are numerous other athletes. And we, as viewers, allow that to taint the beauty of the sport itself, the magnificence of supreme athletic feats. God made these athletes to reflect Him in their sports. God made us to see his magnificence reflected in their abilities and accomplishments.

When a player like Randy Moss squirts a referee with a water bottle or when LeBron James decides he will self-promote his talents to South Beach that is disgusting. But we cannot, we must not, allow it to deflect our eyes from seeing the majesty of God in their performance at their respective crafts. Their intention of self-glorification does not change their display of God-given abilities.

So what is redemptive about sports? At its most basic, the answer is the reflection of God’s majesty through created beings doing things in a sublime and spectacular fashion. Through sports we can see aspects of God’s amazingness that can’t be found anywhere else.

There is also an avenue for fellowship in rooting and enjoying, common interest, and genuine pleasure in participation. Strangers in bars become friends for a few hours. Neighbors open their yards and driveways for kids to play pickup football and basketball. Homes are open to friends and friends-of-friends to watch the big game together. New friends are made at the YMCA during rec league basketball games. These are opportunities to use the gifts God has given us, be they limited (like my basketball skills) or supreme. They are unique opportunities for relationships and ministry.

Sports are redemptive; just don’t let the athletes get in your way.

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life