Sports as Idolatry

 

There is something dangerous and wrong about the sports mania in contemporary society.

            The average citizen religiously attends sports events at the local arena or stadium, and spends many more hours each week watching professional sports on TV.  Our newspapers have entire sections devoted to sports news.

            Conversations during coffee breaks, or at any time for that matter, are dominated by sports talk, so much so that the person who does not know the names of all the players on all the major teams is forced to sit in bemused silence. 

            The heroes of our society are now sports personalities.  The exorbitant salaries they receive are an indication of who we consider to be most valuable persons today.

            Why all this emphasis on sports?  I suggest it is a symptom of a general sickness in our society.  It is an escape from emptiness and boredom.  The pervasive feeling of purposelessness can be seemingly overcome by watching someone very purposefully chasing a puck down the ice.

            Sports is also a vain attempt to overcome feelings of loneliness that plague us in our saner moments.  Being part of a big crowd in a huge arena gives one at least some sense of belonging.  Everyone is doing it.  Everyone is talking about it.  Therefore if I am part of it, I belong.

            Sports is the secular religion of contemporary society.  American theologian, Paul Tillich defined religion in terms of the ultimate concern of a person or a group of persons.  Sports would seem to be the ultimate concern of many today.  They depend on sports to give life meaning and purpose.  As Christians we believe that human beings are incurably religious.  If we do not worship the true God, we seek a false god.  Sports is today’s god and serves as a substitute for the true God.

            Sports is not only wrong because it is a false religion.  Professional sports encourages people to be spectators.  Hours of TV watching leave the mind atrophied and the body weak and flabby.  Children are neglected as parents spend hours in front of a TV set.  The crowd in a sports arena is susceptible to mob psychology.  Witness the frequent outbursts of mass hysteria and violence at sports events. 

            Children were meant to play games for enjoyment.  But instead, they are forced to join junior sports leagues where they are expected to compete, to wear uniforms like men in the big leagues, and to behave like stars.  Instead of sending them to summer camps we send children to soccer school or hockey school.

            Roy MacGregor, in a Macleans article correctly describes the situation thus:  “Children become gladiators, playing out NHL influences and parent’s frustrations rather than their own innocent dreams.”

            Many years ago I tried my hand at coaching a Tiny Mite soccer team, and the experience was most disturbing.  I heard children being ridiculed at games.  I heard parents putting pressure on their children to play hard, to win, even to “kill” a player on the opposite team.  I had to listen to parents shouting abuses at their own children. 

            It’s all part of the game.  But it’s cruel, terribly cruel.  I agree with Douglas Fisher, who in   a report on recreation for the Ontario Government described minor league hockey as a “barbaric” past-time.  Some children’s sports are indeed barbaric and cruel.  All this because sports is a god, and everything, including our children are sacrificed to this god.

            Jesus said we cannot serve two masters.  You cannot worship God and sports at the same time.  But that is precisely what many are trying to do today, including many Christians.  Christ calls us to separate ourselves from the world, especially its idols.

            This is not to say that we should spend no time in sports.  I am here only concerned with our excessive preoccupation with spectator sports, which I believe is a form of idolatry.  It is high time that the church address this sin of idolatry.

 (First published in “A Christian Mind” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 25, 1981, and here slightly revised and updated.)

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