Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Back in 2017, Tom Brady, Michael Strahan, Gotham Chopra, and Ameeth Sankaran launched a network titled Religion of Sports based on the fundamental idea that sport is a religion. Not like a religion, but a more powerful sect of worship than most traditional religions. Seriously, go check out the website for yourself.
When a friend told me about Religion of Sports several years ago, I thought it was a joke. I scoffed at the blasphemous idea of it all. It was a direct challenge to the supremacy of Christianity. Equating sports with a major world religion stings the Christian (and it should if we hold Christ supreme). But just because we don’t like it doesn’t make it an untrue part of our ever-changing culture.
Sports are a cultural staple. A further assessment of the Religion of Sports reveals that sports do have much in common with religions worldwide: faith, belief, seasonal celebrations (e.g., the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series), hymns (i.e., fight songs), weekly congregational gatherings, and more.
Sports, like religion, are an unavoidable aspect of our culture. You can’t dodge sports even if you hate them. The city, town, or state you live in probably celebrates a home team that’s supposed to reflect your community’s core values and virtues, or at least some geographical trait of the region that ties people to the place. These connections make the sport itself almost irrelevant. The desire for connectivity and believing together is what grows a love for the sport.
And the reason we can fall in love with sports is because of the not-so-secret sauce embedded in each match, game, or tournament: the story. It’s actually on the homepage of the Religion of Sports webpage: “We tell stories that make believers.”
Every human is obsessed with stories. Our brains are wired to interpret our lives through stories, and that’s been the case for thousands of years. We’re all the heroes or victims of our daily lives, so it makes sense that we’d fall in love with real-life events that are as dramatic as your daytime soap opera. Just think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic pose at the 1968 Olympics, the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics, or the highly controversial non-pass-interference call that prevented the New Orleans Saints from advancing to the Super Bowl in 2019. These stories affect each of us differently, but they’re also what successfully brings us together.
Embarrassingly, sports can do an even better job of bringing people together than religion at times. Competition and the enjoyment of its entertaining qualities naturally dissolve the invisible sociological boundaries we establish in our communities, creating an intersection of ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, age, and religious affiliations that might not otherwise exist in our daily lives. (This 2018 Toyota commercial is a great visualization of this point.)
Yes, there were attempts to segregate the fields and courts of competition. People manufactured “color lines” and gender discrimination. And there are still questions about equal pay and the fairness of transgender participation. But it nevertheless remains a community where everyone can contribute to the conversation, and, more importantly, there’s a place for everyone to compete. No topic regarding the humanity of competition in sports is taboo.
You might conclude that this is no different than religions that hash out similar differences within their own institutions. But that’s the point of Religion of Sports. So instead of criticizing it, maybe we—the Christian Church—can learn from the language of the culture. The Religion of Sports website states: “We are a diverse, forward-thinking team of storytellers. We craft thoughtful stories exploring a range of themes from social justice to gender equality. Our work distills the spirituality, science and humanity that unite elite performers and people of all kinds.”
As the Church, we can tell stories about ourselves that display the glory and grace of God in ways that are better and truer than any ESPN Sports Center Top 10 Countdown. When we openly grapple with complex subjects that do not fit neatly within our socially constructed boxes, it shows off the versatility of God’s mercy and patience.
The Church can praise God for its history and testify about the championships of old. But we are also called to be forward-thinking, progressive people. Jesus told his disciples to go (progress) and make disciples. That entails remaining true to the home team but learning and accepting new people, landscapes, and cultures. So that means we, too, can tolerate differences while staying true to our principles.
Our belief in a Savior who competed with our darkest sins (and won) should give us the confidence to love with immeasurable compassion. Our love for others will speak for itself. Even when “rival” religions are competing for what truth is and what effect our beliefs will have on the eternal resting place of our souls, there’s no need for us to attack the personhood of those who hold different beliefs. Similarly to how we approach sports as fans and athletes, Christians can compete with ideas and belief systems while dignifying the proverbial opponent—not as an enemy, but as a respectable image-bearer of God.
Sports paints a picture of humanity in some of its rawest forms of mental and physical fortitude, faith, and hope. But its most remarkable ability is shown in its capacity to help us love and be loved. And isn’t that the basic premise of Christianity?
So instead of criticizing the Religion of Sports network, perhaps we can look at their core mission—”We tell stories that make believers”—and be honest about where Christians fall short in this arena. Then maybe we can gather people from varying experiences, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and even religions, and tell them the greatest story of all time: the ultimate story of good versus evil in the lives of everyday people.