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Many Christians think of sports as having little to no value. They see the time, money, devotion, and energy that many put into sports as time, money, devotion, and energy that could be better used for the sake of the kingdom of God. But can we think about sports, and be involved in them, in ways that build the kingdom? I believe that we can. To do this, however, will require that we approach sports in ways that are often countercultural.
Not only can we approach sports with a kingdom mindset, we must do so. The cultural influence of sports at all levels, including elite sports, is felt across the world. Anyone interested in doing cultural apologetics would do well to consider how to think about and participate in the world of sport, as a Christian. Many cultural apologists spend considerable time and effort understanding other influential aspects of culture, including movies, television, books, and politics. But sports are also a reflection of our culture, and an influence upon it, for better and for worse.
The excesses and moral failures of high-profile athletes are well-known. But many take the responsibility to do something positive very seriously. The recent World Cup victory by the US Women’s National Team was more than a mere victory on the field. It was also a platform for the athletes to make the case that they deserve the same pay as the less successful but much more generously paid US Men’s National Team.
Many people look to high-profile athletes as role models, including Christians. Tim Tebow is notorious for many reasons, but among them are his public demonstrations of faith in God. Tebow was often seen kneeling in prayer on the sideline before games.1 The controversy over Colin Kaepernick (and other NFL players) taking a knee — also motivated by faith in God, in Kaepernick’s case2 — during the National Anthem in protest of racial injustice still causes passionate responses, pro and con.
Many cultural issues arise in sports and are discussed by well-known athletes who use their platforms to do so. Whether it is equal pay for equal work, issues related to race and justice, politics, sexual ethics, abortion — and many others — numerous professional athletes make their views known via social media and other outlets, influencing the culture.3 Christians should not ignore this.
There is great potential for sports to contribute to human flourishing, as Christians understand it. Sports can build good character, including specifically Christian virtues like faith, hope, love, and humility. Even those who have little interest in sports would do well to develop a Christian understanding of sports at their best, as well as a thoughtful and helpful critique of the ways in which the actual world of sports falls short of the Christian ideal. Followers of Christ can bring light into the dark corners of the sporting world, and they can celebrate the parts of that world that are already shining examples of what human beings can do as they seek to glorify God in this realm of life. Let’s think about some ways to do just that.
Coaches and Parents Must Take the Long View. In his 2004 best-selling and award-winning book Season of Life, Jeffrey Marx chronicles a high school football season at the Gilman School, an all-boys school in Baltimore.4 At that time, the team was coached by Biff Poggi and former NFL player and Pro Bowler Joe Ehrmann. In the book, Marx recounts something he witnessed at practice one day:
“What’s our job as coaches?” cried Poggi.
“To love us!” hollered most of the boys.
“What’s your job as players?”
“To love each other!”
As one reviewer of his book put it, “Marx was stunned. He didn’t know whether to laugh or take notes. It wasn’t long before he learned this was a ritual at Gilman. It was, in fact, the foundation of the football program.”5
But don’t think that the focus did not include winning and the pursuit of excellence on the field. It did. Gilman won. In fact, they won a lot. Over a six-year period in which Poggi and Ehrmann ran the program, the Greyhounds had three undefeated seasons and achieved three number one rankings in the state. They also made the national top fifteen list in USA Today and had players who went on to play for prestigious college teams.
For Gilman, and competitive sports in general, winning matters. But it is not the only thing that matters. The present and future lives of young athletes matter as well. Their involvement in sports can serve them throughout their lives as members of a local church, in their chosen profession, and as friends, spouses, and parents. But, in order for this to happen, athletes, coaches, and parents must take the long view.
What does it mean to take the long view? When a parent asked the Gilman coach how the team was shaping up for the season, his reply was “Ask me in about 20 years. In about 20 years we’ll know what kind of husbands, what kind of fathers, what kind of citizens of their communities they turn out to be. That’s how we’ll know whether my time with these boys this season was a success or not.”6
One reviewer of Marx’s book emphasizes the need to take “the long view of parenting and coaching, of being involved in the lives of the children and youth in our community. It takes many bricks to make a wall, and many positive influences, little by little, to help shape our youth into model citizens of the future and to unlock the infinite potential inside each one of them. No amount of encouragement or act of kindness is wasted. You may not see it now, but have faith that you’ll see it pay off in 20 years.”7
There is a growing number of organizations trying to do this very thing. Some seek to help players develop not only in their sport, but in all of life. Groups like the Positive Coaching Alliance8 and I Love to Watch You Play9 offer great resources for coaches, parents, and players. Other organizations include the life of faith as a central part of what they do. Many seek to minister to athletes, but some, such as the Faith and Sport Institute at Baylor University10 go beyond that and offer resources for fully integrating sports and the Christian life, of making God the center of one’s life as a coach or player with a focus on cultivating and displaying Christian character in the context of sports.
To take the long view, then, means helping young athletes develop their bodies and souls in sports for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. It means that relationships are central. Sports can provide belonging, a sense of community, of being a part of something larger than ourselves. Players should be taught to value one another as persons. Coaches should care more about who an athlete is, and is becoming, than what he or she can do on the field. Both matter, of course, but love and respect for others, including teammates, opponents, coaches, officials, and fans, are crucial. With that foundation, coaches can push and seek to bring the best out of their players. Such an approach will help them flourish in both the short and long runs.
Christians Should Compete in a Christian Manner. All too often, Christian athletes and coaches seem to approach sports in the same way that everyone else does. Or, closer to home, too many Christian parents seek to live vicariously through their children on the field, put undue pressure on them to win or get a college scholarship, and demonstrate behavior toward officials, coaches, other fans, and their own children that is anything but Christian. This should not be. We should exemplify and point others to a different way in all of life, including sports. All of this might seem . However, too often followers of Christ uncritically accept many of the negative parts of sports culture. For example, over the years as a soccer coach my teams have played against teams from Christian schools who say a prayer together before the game but then compete in ways that are far from Christlike. They complain about every call, play dirty at times, and act disrespectfully to the referee and opponents. I’ve had athletes be disrespectful to me in the handshake line after a game against a Christian high school.
No one is perfect. I’ve had my share of moments over the years where I haven’t exemplified the Christlike character I strive to possess and live out. And younger athletes are still finding their way, growing physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. However, when Christians are known for praying before games but then playing the games in unsportsmanlike ways, that’s a serious problem. Christians should compete hard. We should pursue victory. But not at literally any cost. We should seek to win, but in the right way. A victory that is not honoring to God is, in a larger and more important sense, a loss. Winning matters. But so does integrity. Virtue matters. Loving others matters more. Glorifying God in all that we do matters most.
Sports and Spiritual Growth. The claim that sports build character is a common one. Others, however, are skeptical of this, and believe that sports reveal character. But there is no reason to accept only one of these options. Both can be true. In fact, both are true.
The stresses, challenges, and adversity present in sports can reveal who we really are. They can also provide opportunities for growth in our character, if we embrace them. For example, courage is a virtue that is highly valued in sports. There are also many opportunities to develop it. Courage is required when a team faces a difficult opponent. It can be developed as one risks public failure on the track, field, court, or in the pool. The ability to withstand adversity in these settings provides ample opportunities for cultivating and displaying courage.
Patience can also be developed in sports. There are many opportunities to show it with teammates, officials, parents, fans, and perhaps especially oneself. If we are intentional, if we make this a virtue that we value, we’ll begin to see and embrace opportunities for becoming more patient people.
Sports in general are not known as a place where humility flourishes. Nevertheless, this virtue is central to being a good teammate and coach. A humble person tends to put the interests of others ahead of her own (Phil. 2:1–11). So rather than pursuing individual glory, a basketball player might tell a coach that her teammate should take the last shot, rather than herself. Putting the team ahead of oneself is a way of being other-centered, of being truly humble. Celebrating the success of teammates in humility, rather than resenting them in envy, should also be emphasized.
Sports can also provide the opportunity to demonstrate and develop the central Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.11 In faith, we believe that God exists, and we also believe that God is trustworthy. In light of that, we entrust ourselves to God. This relationship, grounded in faith and the love of God, transforms us. What does this have to do with sports? In the human-to-human realm of sports, we can learn to entrust parts of ourselves, and things we value, to others. A player entrusts his desire for success to his teammates, relying on them to do their part and working to do his part for the overall good and success of the team. While there are no guarantees, of course, it’s not a stretch to see how being able to entrust oneself to other human beings in this way could strengthen one’s ability to entrust everything to God in faith.
Christians hope in God and His coming kingdom. They believe that the future is ultimately good, even in the face of suffering and sin, because God will make it so. It is often the case that our suffering compels us to put our hope more fully in God, rather than lesser goods. Our experiences in sport can do something similar. After suffering a loss, a Christian, while not dismissing the value of winning, might see that there are other more important things in life than just winning and losing. Or perhaps a long hoped-for and sought-after victory gives great initial joy, but that joy fades over time. This could lead one to consider better or more lasting sources of joy.
Finally, what about the virtue of love? We are to love God with our entire being, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). If we love God, we must also love others (1 John 4:20). The two are intrinsically connected. As we’ve seen, Joe Ehrmann and the coaches at Gilman exemplify love, extol love, and cultivate love in their players. For Ehrmann, the motivation behind making love central to the team is God’s love.
There will be many challenges, mistakes, and failures, but if we are intent on bringing our lives in sports under the rule of Christ, then the potential for sports to be a place where lives and hearts are transformed is great.
Sports for Love’s Sake. At the end of life, “What matters is how much you’ve loved, and been loved, by other people,” Joe Ehrmann wrote.12
As parents and coaches, we want to help young athletes not only win, but also excel on the field, to reach their potential as athletes. But we need to do more than that, we need to do what we can to help them grow in the capacity to love and be loved, and to devote their lives to a worthy cause, a cause bigger than themselves. Our hope and prayer is that they will see the worthiness of Christ and His kingdom, and to become people of character, people of faith, hope, and love, who serve God and people.
Coaches and parents have a lot of power to help sports be something that is not only physically beneficial to the athletes in our care, but also psychologically, morally, and spiritually. If we make this a priority, then we can be deeply grateful that we got to play an important part in the lives of our own children and the lives of those we coach.
Michael W. Austin is professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and a contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal. His most recent book is Humility and Human Flourishing (Oxford University Press, 2018) and his forthcoming book is God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith