I find professional sports mostly boring. That may surprise you, since I've spent some space in this column showing how professional sports has those moments of transcendence: from the Kirk Gibson home run in the 1998 World Series to a routine but elegantly executed pass over the middle to the rhythm and story that are contained in every match-up.

But since starting this column I've tried to ratchet up the amount of time I spend with ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, The Chicago Tribunesports page, and various and sundry books that now cross my desk. But I usually cannot muster enough interest to stick with any of these media for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

The problems of profession sports are legion—selfishness of players, greed of owners, rudeness of fans, the marketing and merchandizing, the gambling, the groupies, the steroids, and on and on and on it goes. A fan has to be a master of denial to block all that out to deeply enjoy a game, as a game, anymore.

Play has not only gone out of the games, it has gone out of reporting on the games. Pick up the daily sports page or the weekly sports magazine and what you get are articles about who is on the trading block, who is angry at whom in the clubhouse, who just signed a gazillion dollar advertising deal, whose arm is sore and whose attitude needs adjustment, and, oh yes, a little bit of reporting on the games of the day. But even then, few reporters take the trouble to craft an engaging narrative to put you in the game, to help you feel the tension and nuance of the key moments of the contest. It's slapdash reporting with a large measure of gossip thrown in to keep the masses salivating. It's People: Sports Edition.

Since play is an expression of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath a glimpse of the coming Kingdom, one wonders whether the principalities and powers the apostle Paul speaks of have managed to turn play into mere gossip, business, and entertainment. If I were the devil and I saw play threatening a culture, I'd be scared to death that someone might start thinking transcendent thoughts. I'd do my very best to corrupt it all so that it was anything but play.

Ah, but I speculate.

Still, Christ has hardly left the planet in disgust. So where exactly can the true spirit of play—Sabbath play, play that points toward the Kingdom—be found today?

It can be found, I think, on the golf course, when four friends gather for their weekly nine or eighteen holes. The game includes a fair amount of ribbing ("You can't hit that shot!"), frustration ("I can't believe I hit that shot!"), and astonishment ("I can't believe you hit that shot!")—and bunches of "if only" stories when afterwards they share a beer in the clubhouse.

It can be found in a pick-up basketball game I played last Monday. My 23-year-old son joined me and another 20-something, and a handful of 40-50 somethings, and we all tried to teach each whose court it really belonged to! Though fiercely competitive, opponents regularly congratulated each other on stellar plays, while cursing their own inability to stop the person they'd just praised. We older guys were limping and gasping by the end of the night, but the glow of the evening stayed with me the whole next day.

It can be found in a slow-pitch softball outfielder, Mike, who turns 60 next week. He continues to play, as he has for decades, with 20- and 30-somethings—none of this 50-year-and-older leagues for him. Mike's arm is gone; he no longer feels the need to make spectacular diving catches—"that's a young man's game" he says. He has to stretch a lot before and after the games, and a bottle of Advil is his ready companion. But he still goes out and plays—and manages most nights to out hit the rest of his team (with that low, sweeping swing that, as accurately as a nine-iron, places the ball in shallow right). I admire him not only for his skill (he's earned more than his share of MVP awards at softball tournaments), but also because he's never taken himself or the game too seriously—though he's one of the most healthily competitive people on the softball diamond. He just plays with a quiet and steady passion. I'm biased, of course, because he is my older brother. But that doesn't change the fact that he exhibits as well as anyone I know the true spirit of play that I've been arguing for in these columns.

Article continues below

We are wise, therefore, to give measured allegiance to professional sports. No question that it is a pleasure to watch the finest athletes in the world compete with one another. But there is so much that has gone wrong in professional sports. It is no wonder that so many of us watch professionals always with a twinge of sadness, as if we remember that once the game was noble and good.

In the meantime, through sciatica, breathlessness, sore arms, and bad knees, we manage to find something noble and good at the local golf course or softball diamond or bowling alley. And I do believe we know more moments of joy than professional athletes, who so often find themselves trapped in a world of principalities and powers, while we get a Sabbath foretaste of the freedom and joy that knows no end.

* * * *

A few weeks ago I announced that I would be offering a column every other week. However, my duties as managing editor at Christianity Today are shifting, and it's going to be impossible for me to meet even that schedule. I still have a number of things I'd like to say about the underlying theological nature of modern sports, but I will have to continue doing so on an occasional basis. Nonetheless, I appreciate the many emails I've received about how this column has helped people think more deeply about sports.

Mark Galliis managing editor of Christianity Today.


Related Elsewhere:

Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

The Lovely Paradox of NFL Draft Day | It's an event of biblical proportions—and wisdom. (April 29, 2005)
Negotiating Sunday Sports | This culture war was lost long ago. Now what? (April 15, 2005)
The Prodigal Sports Fan | There is hope for the idolater. (April 08, 2005)
The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no end—thank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
Previous Play Ball Columns: