It’s that time of year again—the two week period between the AFC and NFC championship games and the big-daddy of all football match-ups, the Super Bowl. During this pause, you will read hot-takes, cool-takes, and even lukewarm-takes regarding the pending match-up. The media will construct a dramatic narrative, scandals will be uncovered or invented, press conferences will be held, and jerseys will be worn with pride. Your church will probably plan a Super Bowl party; members of your congregation will criticize that party. You’ll eat wings and make dip and—oh yeah, your friends will share Christian think-pieces regarding the morality of the Super Bowl and sports fanaticism in general. Words like “idolatry” and “Gomorrah” will dot those headlines. Face paint will be compared to tribalism.We can be single-mindedly concerned with Christ and his kingdom while eating seven-layer dip and crying during that beer commercial with the dog.
It’s a busy two weeks.
I used to feel guilty after reading pieces that criticized sports fandom. On the surface, the idea is a simple one: Sports fans are so fanatical. What if we cheered half as much for Jesus as we did for [Your Team Name Here]? (Because, you know…the resurrected Christ needs us to root him on.) What if I cared half as much about the unreached people groups in Papua New Guinea as I did about Tom Brady’s fifth Super Bowl ring? (Maybe next year, Tom.)
The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that human beings can in fact concern themselves with fascinations like football games, the Oscars, opera or that young adult novel that’s being turned into a movie soon while also loving Jesus. We can be single-mindedly concerned with Christ and his kingdom while eating seven-layer dip and crying during that beer commercial with the dog. We are not of this world, true, but we concern ourselves with things in it all the time—and that in itself does not detract from relationship with Christ.
The thing that people forget or don’t understand about sports fandom is that while it is a fanaticism that turns its gaze toward grown men and women playing childhood games, the communal experience fortified via that fanaticism is full to the brim with ideals like hope, despair, camaraderie, and dogged determination. Young boys and girls learn about things like sportsmanship and teamwork by both partaking in organized athletics and watching professional athletes perform. I took baby steps toward hope via experiences like the 2004 ALCS. I learned the importance of treasuring community in the midst of disappointment at the hands of Eli Manning during Super Bowl XLII. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, I learned Big Papi can say the f-word on live television, and somehow it makes you feel a tiny bit better—not the word itself, but the quiet laughter emanating from a grieving community in the wake of a sports hero’s emphatic, empathetic curse.
Of course, like anything, sports fandom can also become idolatry. Misguided loyalty to a team or institution can provoke such actions as poisoning one hundred year old trees or missing your daughter’s wedding to make the Alabama-Tennessee game. The line between enthusiasm and insanity is thin, but very important to watch for when you’re trying to understand what motivates half-naked men to spell out team names on their chests. A quick glance might seem to reveal idolatry or clinical insanity (why not both?); but a deeper inspection might show a community of people hoping together, losing together, and breaking bread together—even if that bread is in the shape of a football.
In his defense of the assertion that life imitates art, Oscar Wilde once wrote the following: “At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.” While I don’t subscribe to the aesthetic philosophy Wilde outlines in “The Decay of Lying,” the idea that art teaches human beings to truly perceive life is both beautiful and compelling. I think the same might hold true for sports. Athletics do not always embody things like hope, disappointment, triumph, or grief, but they do help others to perceive these aspects of the human experience in almost every other facet of life. And the human experience, after all, is the thing that Christ came to embody, perfect, and redeem.
So for the next two weeks, whether you’re a die-hard supporter or merely a bystanding spectator, try to prepare a little room for fandom. By all means, feel free to roll your eyes at the wild-eyed brother or sister who insists with near-devotional earnestness that Peyton Manning is going to lead the Broncos to victory in two weeks—but do so without shaming their enthusiasm. Point others to Christ, but do so without insisting they close their eyes and plug their ears during the Super Bowl. Because sports fanaticism is not merely moral; it is, in many instances, helpful, praiseworthy, and good.