The New Orleans Saints all but had their trip to the Super Bowl sealed when quarterback Drew Brees targeted wide-receiver Tomylee Lewis for an assumed first down in the red zone late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game. But before Lewis could make an attempt on catching that pass, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blatantly interfered, making helmet-to-helmet contact with the Saints receiver, resulting in an incomplete pass. After looking around for a flag with apparent guilt, Robey-Coleman celebrated when no penalty was called.
The Saints kicked the go-ahead field goal, only to later have Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein nail a 57-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, where the Saints eventually fell short of their Super Bowl dreams.
Saints fans inside the Superdome flung beer and hurled objects in disgust by the game’s end. Since then, there have been calls for the NFL commissioner to overturn the call and restart the game from that play, which he can do according to NFL rules. Even litigation has been filed on behalf of “Who Dat Nation,” suing commissioner Roger Goodell for mental anguish, emotional trauma, “loss of enjoyment of life,” and “distrust of the game which has become the National pastime.”
Any lover of sports can understand the disgruntled outpouring of rage from Saints fans across the nation. But some of those Saints fans are saints in the Christian sense, and that has me wondering: How should these saints—Christians specifically—respond to such a disappointing end of a promising season? How do we handle the malfeasance of officials employed to enforce the rules of the games we love? Does the gospel permit us to scream bloody-Mary when the outcome does not fall in our team’s favor? Should we set aside the commands of meekness, gentleness, and kindness for a moment to berate an official or the opposing team? Or are we to be silent, melancholy observers showing no emotion, win or lose?[God] desires for us to be holy when we compete, when we coach, and when we are entertained, because there is life in holiness.
First, I think it’s important to note that I am a high school coach and have been an avid fan of sports—particularly football—for as long as I can remember. Competition comes naturally, but over the years of cheering, playing, and coaching sports, I’ve had to learn, sometimes the hard way, to temper my competitiveness.
I’ve disallowed myself from playing video games because of how angry they’d make me. I’ve been ejected from a football game, and I’ve had technical fouls called on me from the bench while coaching basketball. I’ve cussed the television when the teams I’ve rooted for performed poorly. And I’ve wished some horrible things upon players I don’t like. So I write not from an ivory press box, but from the muddy turf of the field.
The Bible doesn’t give us specific instructions on how to be a sports fan. But it does outline how to be a good witness, and that applies even in our fandom. In my experience, when the Bible is brought into the mix with sports, we usually get a watered-down, calming sentiment meant to tame the flames of competitors for a moment of gospel solace. But the unfortunate usual result is that those competitors just learn how to separate “Christian stuff” from the good gift of sports. Coaches, players, and fans learn to “give all glory to God” after the wins, but belittle officials and players during the game. Even worse, they read devotions or pray during last-second kicks in hope for God to give them what they want.
People have always been this way throughout history, even God’s chosen children, the Israelites. Due to their sins and the sins of their leaders, the Israelites’ existence was threatened by the Philistines, as God promised (Deuteronomy 28:15, 25). In a last, desperate attempt to save themselves, they tried to use God for the outcome they wanted. They decided that they would bring the Ark of the Covenant—God’s symbol that He was with His children—to the battlefield for a favorable advantage (1 Samuel 4:3). But God was not going to be mocked nor used as an idol (Galatians 6:7–9). The Israelites failed in their attempt to save themselves and the Philistines captured the ark (1 Samuel 4:10–11).
But what does all this have to do with that horrible call in the Saints game? Or when Serena Williams lost her chance at securing a historic twenty-fourth Grand Slam win due to a controversial decision by a tennis official? Or when Kevin Durant was clearly out of bounds in a January basketball game against the Houston Rockets, which almost derailed the Rockets win? Or when the Houston Astros had a home-run taken off the board in game four of the ACLS Major League Baseball playoff series? Specifically, the Israelites story has nothing to do with any controversial sporting events. But the ancillary lesson can prove helpful for those with eyes to see and ears to hear what God is communicating to us through His Word.
When God calls us to Himself, He desires all of us. And He desires that we be holy as He is holy and put away our idols (1 Peter 1:16; 1 John 5:21). But this holiness is not circumstantial. Jesus didn’t die for holiness we can turn off for sporting events and then turn back on again at church. He desires for us to be holy when we compete, when we coach, and when we are entertained, because there is life in holiness.
The lesson the Israelites learned is that God is not one to be used at our disposal. He is to be honored, served, and worshiped. And what better way of doing that than by surrendering our desires to the Lord, regardless of the outcome? And because God is faithful, He doesn’t abandon us when we try using Him for our personal gain. Like Israel, He allows us to see what life—even the leisurely part of life—is like apart from Him, but He always returns to His people and recaptures their hearts (1 Samuel 6:1–3).
Perhaps our response should be one of thankfulness—a true, heart-level gratitude to participate in sports, in whatever capacity we are granted to be part of it. Our appreciation doesn’t take away the sting of the losses, especially the ones due to woefully poor officiating, nor does it cap the emotions of the effort we pour into the game, but it helps us place these games in a better perspective. Sports are secondary elements of our culture that we get to use to show a world desperate for hope, that there is something—someone—much more extraordinary than what a three-hour game or 21-week season can give us.
So yes, I think it’s possible to be a passionate sports fan (and participant) while upholding a Christian witness. I think it’s possible to passionately and vehemently cry out against unjust calls while respecting the human who made them. I think it’s possible to ask God for help in your game without using Him as an idol. But while all this is possible, not one of us will do it perfectly. And when we fail to act like the saints that we are, our next move—our only move—is to take a knee, to ask God for forgiveness, and to beg God for the grace to play again another day.