Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
The stories we tell ourselves about the quest for greatness in sports are often replete with virtues like passion, love of the game, determination, and perseverance—and I’m sure you can think of more. Rarely do we as fans, spectators, coaches, and athletes admit to the underlying factor that drives much of today’s competition: a lucrative payday. That’s what makes the Washington Post’s profile of professional golfer Harold Varner III so intriguing. The headline—”It’s about the damn money”—nearly says it all.
Varner is one of the many professional golfers caught in the rivalry between the Professional Golf Association and the politically controversial Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Association. From the beginning, one can see that Varner isn’t motivated by victories. Instead, he’s inspired by what winning can get him: money. But to paint him as a greedy capitalist only concerned with money distorts his story. Varner is like most of us who use our skills as a means to an end. However, that reveals another layer worth peeling back, especially for the Christian worker (e.g., athlete, coach): When is it okay to simply work for the payday?
“When you grow up poor, money isn’t associated with possessions or goals,” writes Kent Babb for the Post. “It’s measured in time… When it’s gone, or if there’s an unexpected expense, the clock resets and the anxiety returns.” This was Varner’s reality growing up. His family lived paycheck to paycheck, like many Americans. Sometimes the electricity went out because they were past due on bills. At other times, they had to find ways to stretch meals out for days or concoct “mayonnaise and sugar sandwiches” just to survive. But they made a way because of the resolve of Varner’s parents.
Over time, Harold Varner II found a better-paying job and took his son to the golf course where he would play with older, wealthier white men who saw potential in the younger Varner. Over the years, they invested in him, and he had the opportunity to play in golf tournaments and win prize money. “When he turned pro later,” Babb reports, “that’s how he still lived: free housing, economy flights, free food. He lived with his parents, kept his 2013 Honda CR-V, never checked his bank account to see if he could afford better. He just assumed he couldn’t.”
After winning a $1 million payday, Varner gained LIV’s attention. He turned down their initial offer, though, and pledged his loyalty to the PGA. However, LIV’s managing director, Majed al-Sorour, made a new offer estimated to be $15+ million. According to Varner, he signed to ensure a future for his son and wife. When the Post inquired about his signing, Varner admitted, “And isn’t that why we work? I mean, I don’t work to say I love what I do. That’s bulls- – – to me. You want your kid to have a f – – -ing chance.”
Varner also works (plays) to give younger athletes with a similar background an opportunity to play golf and win money like he has. Golf isn’t as accessible a sport as basketball or football. So Varner hosts his HV3 Invitational to give young golfers that chance. Of the 162 golfers that signed up for the most recent tournament, 46 received financial assistance. “It’s a capitalist’s approach to making golf a bit more socialist,” writes the Post.
From the Coach’s Box, Varner’s assessment of how we (and especially us Christians) approach work and play, or play as work in our predominantly capitalist society, is very nuanced. On the one hand, some Bible verses about work compel me to think about work solely as a means to worship God (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23–24). On the other hand, I also see verses that, like Varner’s story, emphasize how work is necessary to make ends meet (Proverbs 14:23, 2 Thessalonians 3:11–12).
Perhaps the question of whether it’s ever okay to simply play/work for money is not quite the dichotomy that we often make it out to be. Legally making money with our talents, gifts, skills, and abilities can simultaneously serve multiple purposes while ultimately glorifying our Father in Heaven. Working to ensure that we can care for ourselves, our families, and others glorifies God because, in doing so, we bear his likeness. We see this in the Creation narrative when God worked six days to create heaven and earth, a bountiful place of beauty and purpose for his children (Genesis 1:26, 31). Put simply, we can bear our Father’s image and likeness with our work, even if the goal is to secure a more lucrative outcome for our families and others while not necessarily “loving” our jobs in the modern sense (Luke 16:9–10).
Like anything in this world, we can misplace our goals and intentions and make them more ultimate than they ought to be (1 Timothy 6:10). We can take the quest to become more healthy, the goal to lead a team to a championship, or the chance to excel in the workplace, and turn it into a god in and of itself. But when we keep the proper perspective that work is an opportunity to love our family and serve our neighbors, working (or playing) for money isn’t bad.
With this perspective, Varner sums it up nicely: “Everyone says money doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t. It hasn’t made me happy. It’s made me capable.”