Football season is upon us—a time, my family would likely say, when my obsession turns from reading and writing to sitting, hours on end, before the television set. Like lots of people, I have been a sports fan since I was a child. I was always too clumsy to be any good as an athlete, but I have been a rooter as far back as I can remember. In junior high, in high school, and in college, I was an inveterate watcher, in the crowd for as many different events—from lacrosse to swimming to tennis to track—as I could find a way to get to.
Yet even when I was young, there were aspects of sports rooting that bothered me: The booing when calls by referees and umpires go against the home team; heckling of opposing players, intended to keep them from doing their best; and the resort to profanity so ingenious that its inventors, were they but properly disciplined, could no doubt write tomes to rival Shakespeare.
Now that I am an adult and a Christian, raising children of my own, the more troubling occurrences in the sporting world worry me even more. And, as a Christian, I shudder both because of what I hear and because of what I see. I do not here refer to the off-field behavior of many athletes, which is frequently reprehensible. I am thinking, rather, of what we fans are exposed to in the arena.
One aspect of sports that has long bothered me is the way that players themselves are often trained to lie. Consider, for example, the baseball catcher who leaps to his feet to argue with the umpire when he knows perfectly well that the pitch was a ball and not a strike. Or the football receiver who jumps about like a madman, pretending to have scored a touchdown, when he is aware that the instant replay will demonstrate conclusively that he came down out of bounds.
Remarkably, when athletes engage in such shenanigans, the home crowd will reward them with cheers, and, if the call goes against the team, intimidate the officials with a loud chorus of boos. And this, very often, from perfectly rational citizens who would, on some other occasion, lambaste political leaders for lying, or punish their children for doing the same.
What is it that comes over us, this happy madness that joins the sports crowd together in misbehavior? Some social psychologists see the crowd as akin to a mob. It is an interesting truism of psychology that mobs often behave worse than their individual members would if off somewhere alone, or if in better company. Social scientists debate the causes, but nobody denies that groups (especially of men) tend to violate moral rules that their individual members would, on other occasions, endorse. It is no accident that the word usually heard next to "lynch" is "mob."
Bound by an old-fashioned religion
The audience at a sporting event, especially a passionate (and, in many stadiums, beer-soaked) one, can thus be viewed as a mob. Mobs tend to misbehave. Christians who are not well disciplined in the small matters of everyday behavior should try to avoid mobs. We should not, for example, take our children to stadiums full of raucous adults unless we have made clear to them, by word and example, how they are expected to comport themselves, even when others around them do worse. We should moreover be certain to steel them for what they are likely to hear and see. Others may boo, we should let our children understand, but we will not imitate them.
The notion of "let the best person win" is, I suppose, an old-fashioned one, but Christians are bound by an old-fashioned religion. Surely we sports fans best display our love of neighbor when we try to create in the stadium conditions in which the athlete with the greater skill and dedication is the one who will prevail, rather than adding to the opposing team the artificial impediment of our catcalls and jeers. True, there will always be a degree of home field advantage—we will always root harder for the team that has for so long commanded our affections—but there is a world of difference between buoying up one team and dragging down the other.
None of this is to say that Christians should not compete, and compete hard. The Apostle Paul often compares the Christian life to a race (for example, in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Gal. 2:2). In biblical times, sports competitions were common. If we have the talent and drive, we can and should compete. If we have the interest, we can and should root for our teams. But we should never let our affection for any particular team—or our desire for any particular victory—overwhelm our understanding of how God wants us to live.
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For more coverage of sports from a Christian perspective, see Sports Spectrum.
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