All the reasons that we love following sporting events become even more enticing when the game is played at the highest level of competition and on a global scale.
This month’s FIFA Women’s World Cup brings the excitement and emotions of tournament play, wrapped up in the paradoxical feeling of watching games in which we act as if everything is at stake for us when in reality, very little truly is.
The US Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) has taken center stage, advancing into the quarterfinals; three more victories and the USWNT will maintain its title of best women’s soccer team in the world. Even Americans who otherwise don’t follow soccer feel a sense of pride and patriotism watching our team dominate on the field.
The players wearing the American flag on their jerseys also have distinct views about the nation they represent—what they see as the values most important to take a stand for, draw attention to, and speak out about.
Twenty-eight members of the USWNT have joined in a lawsuit arguing that the US Soccer Federation is in violation of the Equal Pay Act, since the women’s team makes a fraction of the men’s team, even though they play more games and have drawn in more viewers in recent years.
Megan Rapinoe, considered the “heart and soul” of the US squad, does not participate in the national anthem, in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Additionally, the team has offered their support of LGBT rights, with many of the USWNT players and coaches themselves belonging to LGBT communities.
Overall, the USWNT has not been shy about sharing their views—they follow a long legacy of American athletes who use their platform to address major issues. Think Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Billie Jean King.
Ali was arrested in 1966 for his refusal to be drafted into the military. But by 1996, the United States Olympic Committee chose the legendary boxer as the honorific to light the torch that commenced the Atlanta Olympics.
Runners Carlos and Smith were kicked off the 1968 Olympic team in the middle of the games for their black power demonstration, returning home to death threats. A 23-foot statue of them in San Jose now commemorates their legacy.
In tennis, Billie Jean King pioneered the battles that the USWNT still fights today—equal pay for women and LGBT rights. Seen as a radical in the 1970s, King has since been awarded numerous honors and titles, including a 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the midst of their dominating play so far, the issues many members of this USWNT stand for can be polarizing. Many Americans, and especially Christians, have followed their convictions and picked their sides on these matters.
There can be a temptation for some to bristle at the notion of “politicizing” sports in our current moment, particularly if they disagree with the team’s stances. Can’t soccer just be soccer? Can’t we have an escape from all the debate?
To complain that the USWNT has politicized the World Cup (or that Colin Kaepernick has politicized the NFL, for instance) is understandable. But the truth is that sport, like everything else, happens in a political context.
Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus and his followers pay particular attention to the political and cultural forces around them. Knowing this context becomes crucial for how they ultimately engage others, minister to them, and proclaim the gospel to them.
As Christians studying the interaction between faith and sports, we see this arena as another area where God calls us—as players, coaches, fans, and viewers—to engage with prayer and discernment.
We see a dimension to sports that gives believers a unique opportunity for ministry and a way to better understand society. (We talk about the many forms this faithful side of sports can take—ethically, philosophically, sociologically—at the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity, which is being held this fall at Calvin College.)
Just as Christians use their platforms to reflect their deeply held beliefs, through word or deed or sideline prayer on bended knee, Megan Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates are speaking with conviction, too. Whether or not we agree, as fans and followers of Christ, we can pay attention and listen.
By acknowledging the moral convictions in sport, we are reminded that these competitors are people, not just entertainment commodities. When we watch, we see athletes—not theologians or politicians—who come onto the field in the fullness of their humanity.
Like Ali, Carlos, Smith, and King, they have the chance to speak from the largest platform they’ll ever experience, and we have the opportunity to consider our own beliefs and views as we respond.
Would we rather just watch soccer as soccer? Probably. And for the 90-plus minutes between whistles, we usually do.
Sport gives us a chance to enjoy the pure excitement of the action and competition and also, at times, consider the social, moral, and political issues that surround it. USWNT isn’t bringing politics into soccer; they’re asking us to not ignore the politics they’ve dealt with in soccer and American society in general.
When sport and faith intersect, we could withdraw or dismiss it outright, or we could see it as an opportunity to better understand and pray for the global sporting community—one rife with the animosity that so often comes from intense competition.
Watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup reminds us how much we love the game. But it might also stir deeper appreciation when we remember the political and social context that got us here—including Title IX and the history of women fighting for their place in sports. While sports narratives are mostly told through players and the media, it is up to us how we consume them.
So, join in the fun. Enjoy the action. And rather than trying to downplay the surrounding social, moral, and political issues surrounding the games—pray for godly discernment in how we respond.
Chad Carlson is a Kinesiology professor and the director of general education at Hope College. Brian Bolt is the Dean of Education and Head Men's Golf coach at Calvin College. They are co-directors of the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity this coming October
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.