Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
I grew up in Central Texas in the ‘90s, raised by parents from Maryland. In our house, we rooted for the then-Washington Redskins, now Commanders. I had no other reason to be a fan of Washington other than that’s who my family rooted for. After Baltimore launched a new NFL franchise in 1996—the Baltimore Colts had packed up in the middle of the night and moved to Indianapolis back in 1984—we also rooted for the Ravens.
Every year since the Ravens’ inaugural season, they’ve become increasingly relevant, winning two Super Bowls in two decades. Washington, however, has grown less relevant, mired in scandals and controversies in the organization’s front office that has affected on-the-field action and personnel decisions.
After Washington botched quarterback Robert Griffin III’s career in 2015, I decided that my fan allegiance would go entirely to the Baltimore Ravens. I turned in my resignation letter as a Washington fan, at least until Dan Snyder was no longer the franchise owner. Now that Snyder is reportedly selling the team, I—along with many others—have a decision to make.
I’m still flying with the Ravens, regardless, but before I make my decision for or against the Commanders, I have a question for you, dear reader: Can a true fan decide to drop a team or player like I have? Is a true fan someone who sticks with an organization no matter how morally and ethically bankrupt that organization has become? Are we even asking the question correctly?
I pose these seemingly trivial questions because how we answer them can affect how we interact in our communities. Some people take fandom very seriously. A person’s willingness to stick with a team through decades of heartbreak communicates their loyalty, which signifies their trustworthiness. On the other hand, a “fair weather” fan who hops on the hottest teams when they’re doing well and abandons them when they’re not is seen as disloyal and potentially untrustworthy.
But what about the people in the middle who are willing to stick with a team through heartbreak but also choose to use capitalism and the free market to signify their distaste for team ownership when changes need to happen? If fans stop attending and watching games, purchasing merchandise, etc., are they disloyal and untrustworthy? Or are they simply using those means to communicate “this can and should be better?”
Now I take a hard pivot to religion and our state here in America. Though true Christianity should not be downgraded to the equivalent of sports fandom, how we approach trivial matters can sometimes bleed over into our beliefs concerning much weightier issues. So I pose similar questions regarding the “Christianity of the Land” versus the “Christianity of Christ.”
As Frederick Douglass puts it, Christianity of the Land “regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony…A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked.”
The Christianity of Christ, according to Douglass, is at direct odds with the Christianity of the Land. “To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other,” Douglass states. The Christianity of Christ is “pure, peaceable, and impartial” while the Christianity of the Land is “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical.”
So can faithful followers of Jesus (not fans) turn away from churches practicing the Christianity of the Land? Are they disloyal for dropping their support of a denomination or pastor who—like those evangelical leaders who supported the unbiblical values of Trump’s presidency—consistently fail to love our neighbors as Jesus loved because they’re in love with their own cultural power instead? Or do the real followers stick it out and suffer in those congregations and organizations while being light and loving to those who are ignorant, hoping that they will see the Christianity of Christ?
See, I told you this was a hard pivot. Yes, this is about sports, but it’s about Jesus, as well. There aren’t any easy answers, but they can be consequential in how we interact with others in the circles of our communities.
Because we aim to do everything unto the glory of God, how we worship and what team we root for can be equally consequential to our witness. The aim in either circumstance is to share the love, grace, mercy, kindness, and truth of Jesus with our communities, whether wearing the same jerseys or taking one off in the hope of loving people like Jesus did.
So I ask you again: What makes a true fan? Who is a faithful follower?