[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 5 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Spectating Sports,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

I.

During LeBron James’s first stint in Cleveland, his image was glorified across an entire downtown building with the words “We Are All Witnesses” graven above his outstretched hands. The connection was clear: This was the second coming, the long-awaited advent of His Airness, Michael Jordan. The oversized poster, part of a massive Nike sponsorship, featured James’s signature move, tossing chalk into the air at the scorer’s table, and wearing number 23—all pages out of Jordan’s playbook.

The city of Cleveland responded with enormous support: Their king had come. Ticket prices skyrocketed, #23 jerseys flew off the shelves, and the wins began to pile up. But when James, branded in his teenage years by Sports Illustrated as “The Chosen One,” infamously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Cleveland revolted. Fans burned his jersey in the streets, and the team’s owner blasted James in an open letter, noting the player’s “cowardly betrayal,” as demonstrated by the “narcissistic, self-promotional” decision.

Four years later, of course, James decided to return and Cleveland woke up with the king. The team finally took down “the letter” from its official Web site, and fans happily bought hundreds of thousands of new #23 jerseys. Cleveland’s prodigal son came home, and all was forgiven.

Why did Cleveland feel so betrayed by James’s move to Miami, and so vindicated by his return? Why do we sports fans identify so deeply with our sports teams?

Sports spectating arguably provides the most tangible, culturally familiar form of participation in our culture and offers us association with a particular people in a particular place.The answer is simple: There are no such things as spectator sports, and we are more than witnesses. To borrow the phrase, we are all participants.

We identify with sports teams for four theological and anthropological reasons: (1) We are relational beings; (2) Our deepest satisfaction is found in our place of belonging; (3) We are desperate for the particularity that sport provides; and (4) Sports events follow the trajectory of all good stories and ultimately the Story beneath all stories.

II.

Why do so many of us fans have a visceral connection with our hometown franchises and childhood heroes, and such a vicarious sense of achievement through our teams’ victories? Why do we refer to our playoff chances and our quarterback?[1] And why, if our own children are involved, can we become nearly compulsive in our fandom? First, consider the biological basis or perspective: We are relational beings, created for connecting.

Christian psychologists suggest that the human soul is relational and permeable in essence.[2] We are hard-wired to need relationships and to take on or absorb the characteristics of others around us. We were created with a capacity for growing and developing throughout our lives, and each relationship and activity shapes the person we become.[3]

As good Christian theologians, we recognize this human capacity is a thread of the Divine image. God has eternally existed in the fellowship of His own triune nature—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in perfect communion with one another for all of time. If God is relational in His essence, and if we are created in His image, then it should follow that we are relational beings, created for connecting deeply with one another. One recent author remarked that we cannot be fully human apart from meaningful relationships.[4] And we can also see the great trauma caused by a lack of human interaction—isolation is the most powerful form of discipline used in prisons.

What does this mean for our sports fandom? Naturally, every one of us longs to connect deeply with one another. That connection can be formed through church membership, a book club, a running group, a shared magazine subscription, or a local sports team. And once that connection is made, our souls begin to be shaped by those relationships and activities.

It’s not about the game; it’s not about the team; it’s not about the score. It’s about a soul-level need to connect with others. Biologically speaking, we are all participants in life together.

III.

But it’s not enough to just connect to others through sport. Few sports fans have ever reflected on their love for sports being rooted in a need for human connection. We can also look at our culture’s love of sport through a psychological lens.

There’s a psychologist by the name of Roy F. Baumeister at Florida State.[5] In the late 50s, Baumeister was a PhD student at Princeton and became a leading advocate in the “self-esteem” movement. His hypothesis suggested that individuals were most fully satisfied, most fully alive, when they kept a high sense of self-esteem. His work was praised and became prominent in wider culture, and thousands of parents began to instill a large amount of self-esteem in their kids.

But by the late 70s, everything changed. Professor Baumeister’s two decades of research came to the conclusion that self-esteem had zero discernable positive effect on individuals’ lives. Presumably, the young children indoctrinated with constant approval had turned out to be just as anxious and disconnected as their peers. So what characteristic then, Baumeister apparently asked, correlates most positively with emotional satisfaction? In 1995, Baumeister published a substantial article that demonstrated that the healthiest, most satisfied individuals in life are those who have a place to belong.[6]

Interesting, isn’t it? Our deepest satisfaction comes, not from achieving personal autonomy, but from embracing belonging to a small group of people.[7] See, when we play in a golf scramble, watch March Madness, or chat with other parents at our kids’ soccer practice, we are developing “interpersonal attachments” to others that promote our human flourishing.

As Christians, we can be quick to affirm the root of our culture’s hobbies, especially those that directly connect our neighbors to one another and to a place where we can belong. We can point one another to the traces of the Divine in this need to connect and belong. And further, we can develop life-giving communities in our churches and ministries that cultivate this powerful life source. (Maybe there’s room for the Saturday rec leagues after all.)

IV.

Now let’s press this thesis one step further by looking at our participation in sports from a sociological perspective. Sports spectating arguably provides the most tangible, culturally familiar form of participation in our culture and offers us association with a particular people in a particular place.

Our culture has largely lost its sense of “particularity.” Too often, we claim participation in a community of strangers spread over social media or other non-physical spaces. While there’s nothing wrong with identifying with sports teams across geographic boundaries—as a Kansas City native, I will always be a Royals and Chiefs fan, even here in Kentucky—and we have a great opportunity to maintain friendships across geographic barriers. But is this really community?

Sports offer something for this sense of particularity: real people in a real place. The great poet and essayist Wendell Berry has written that there should be no concept of community apart from a particular people and a particular place.[8] He’s not arguing from an explicitly Christian worldview, but his writings are a much-needed corrective to our often-displaced Christianity. Spiritual mentoring takes place through mass media—books, videos, and conferences. Churches gather for worship and teaching online or on Sunday morning TV.

Yet down the street at the local Y, a small group of friends gather to workout. At the pub around the corner, neighbors are rooting for their hometown team. And tens of thousands of fans pour into arenas and stadiums to celebrate and participate in something bigger than themselves.[9] Despite all of our technological advances and potential for “mobility,” Berry argues that we have lost something far more important: stability.

As individuals and as a culture, sports spectating connects us to one another, meets our needs to belong, and offers us real community in a real place.

V.

There is one more critical reality where we see that sports fans are more than mere spectators. In the sports event itself, we recognize four primary movements of plot, so to speak: Potential, Conflict, Vindication, and Celebration. Before you assume you know exactly where this is going, hang on a moment. There’s something exhilarating here, sports fan or not.

When I was in college, at the University of Missouri, I attended about every football and men’s basketball event for four and a half years. At every home hoops game, we would all—all 14,000 of us—stand until the Tigers scored their first basket. There was a strong sense of potential: anything could happen. An upset, a blowout, a heartbreaking loss, a season-ending injury… anything was possible.

That’s part of the beauty and agony of sports, and it calls us back to the original goodness of Creation. In Eden, everything was good, the earth beamed with the Divine image, and mankind began with much freedom and potential. When I think of how God created everything, I like to picture the seas roaring with approval, the rivers clapping their hands, and the hills singing for joy, because that’s the response of creation to its Maker in Psalm 98. In creation, potential abounds, and it is so good.

Of course, the start of a sports event is nothing compared to the glories of creation ex nihilo.[10] But the joy and sheer possibility within each and every sporting event reminds us attentive fans of the original beauty, glories, and potential of creation. See how our affections are so quickly engaged!

Second, each sporting event can be thought of like a rising conflict in a novel, movie, or any other great story. Consider March Madness: over the past two weekends, 68 NCAA teams entered the tournament with hopes of brilliance, but already all but four have gone home. It’s sheer drama. Perhaps I’m pressing the analogy too far, but there is this sense within sports that nothing is as it should be. Of the 68 teams, only one will be truly satisfied, and the other 67 will be frustrated, disappointed losers.

And certainly sport is not as it should be. From Ray Rice to DeflateGate; from Tiger Woods’s failures to Oscar Pistorius’s trials; from the Penn State nightmare to PED’s gambling and cheating controversies, the purity of sports in our former generation has been, to quote the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums, “subsequently destroyed by two decades of failure, betrayal, and disaster.”

In other words, if you need evidence of man’s depravity, just turn on ESPN.[11] And remember, we are not innocent witnesses, watching and disapproving at a distance. Just like the audiences in that ancient Coliseum, we are all participants.

Yet how easily we American sports fans can forget all the drama, controversies, and scandals in the middle of a game. Why? We have a blissful sort of fan amnesia because every sports game offers the chance of vindication. Every player, every team, every city has its shot at complete redemption—and not just the initial potential fulfilled, but a glory so great that it makes all of the conflict worthwhile. No wonder Cleveland followed LeBron’s every movement with a messianic level of hope.

Lastly, and quite finally indeed, just as the vindication of God’s people in Scripture is followed by celebration, so we can see, in sport, a perfect window into the roots of human hope.

When the Royals made the playoffs after a 29-year hiatus, I gathered my friends in our family room for the Wild Card game against Oakland. Our beloved boys in blue pulled it out in extra innings, and then swept the Angels in three games, and then swept the Orioles in four games. Every victory was a celebration in itself, but making the World Series after such an epic drought—words can hardly explain the joy my hometown felt. This was our team! Our time had come; victory was ours. There was nothing left to do but simply enjoy the moment.[12]

Nothing brings a people together like celebration. From the end of a war to a championship parade, we can be unified in celebration because it is the final Home that all of us were made to enjoy. The years of longing, the agony of defeat and the constancy of conflict, the advent of a Chosen One and the ensuing celebration of His own people. The strands of the Divine Story in our sporting culture are so thick that they would be labeled overtly religious if imported into a Hollywood film.

VI.

Here, we sports fans get a daily reminder from the movements of potential, conflict, vindication, and celebration, and remember that “every story whispers his name.”[13]

It is no story that we merely read. We are biologically wired, sociologically oriented, and psychologically centered on this sense of belonging to a cause and community greater than ourselves. We were made to connect and to belong. We long for a particular people in a particular Place. Sport gives us a taste of what our souls long for.

Sport pulls on all of these soul fibers, though we rarely recognize the source of our wild fascination with athletic competition. In a sense, we were made for this. Our hearts and our bodies groan for something to believe in, for someone to follow, for somewhere to belong.

We cannot be mere spectators in either sport or glory. We are not all witnesses. We are all participants.

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Image: Nike

[1] I have a firm policy on the use of personal pronouns and sports teams. To use “my” or “our,” you must have a financial interest in the team or organization, such as a college student or alumni (since you paid tuition) or in your hometown if local taxes support the organization or the maintenance its arena/stadium. This leaves the average fan with two or three teams he/she can claim.

[2] See Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul.

[3] See Siegel’s The Developing Mind.

[4] Greg Forster, Joy for the World.

[5] Why do all psychology professors seem to have names like “Baumeister”? Do they receive them at graduation along with their diplomas, or when born, do they just realize they’ll have to get a PhD to make the most out of their name?

[6] Roy Baumeister, Mark Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as Fundamental Human Motivation.” Psychological Bulletin 1995.

[7] My fellow pastors are welcome to steal this illustration for membership classes and small group trainings.

[8] See Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.

[9] Sociologist Marc J. Duncelman has demonstrated the late 20th Century shifts in American society in his great book The Vanishing Neighbor. Apparently, sociologists must also have names like “Duncelman.”

[10] Too often, when a sporting event is mentioned as a sermon illustration, sport becomes a kind of easy knock. “You cheer, raise your hands, and shout at the football game,” the preacher indicts, “but here you sit on your hands and struggle to stay awake.” Now why do we pastors do that? Sure, it’s ridiculous when a grown man cries because, another grown man drops a football. But emotion, or desire, or what poets and older theologians have called “affection,” is the key. We cheer—even at the start of a game—because that is what we are meant to do, to enter the arena expecting to see greatness and glory. Should we enter church the same way? No, I would argue, it’s totally different! When the church gathers, we are doing so at God’s divine invitation and provision, which is something to celebrate, but we also do so with heavy hearts and broken lives. We gather in the midst of a broken world, and our souls ache with searing loss. We gather not only to celebrate, but also to lament. We sing but also, at least in traditional and liturgical churches, confess our sin together and pray for the sick and mourning. Given the full spectrum of pains and crises in a local congregation at any single point, it would be as odd to enter the sanctuary shouting and cheering as it would be to arrive at a Taylor Swift concert ready to confess sin and receive prayer.

[11] Or spend time around small children.

[12] Never mind that my Royals lost in Game 7 of the World Series. We basically won: down one with two outs in the bottom of the 9th with a runner past third. I know what the statistics say but I’m not convinced—Gordon would have scored, Mad-Bum would have been pulled, and the Royals would be world champs right now. This is the reality I prefer to live with.

[13] To borrow Sally Lloyd-Jones’s lovely phrase in The Jesus Storybook Bible.