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Faith and Sports

Seventh in a series:

Today, about a dozen religions can be described as major world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Has the time now come to add one more to the list: Sports?

Individuals and organizations around the globe spend billions of dollars on sports each year–building stadiums, paying players, buying uniforms and equipment, purchasing tickets and marketing products. Sports heroes become marketing icons. Sports dominate more and more time and space on television channels, Web sites and daily newspapers. National Geographic in 2006 depicted soccer on its cover; its lead article identified soccer as the international sport.

Confessionally, I have always enjoyed sports. As a child, I played Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball; reveled in basketball, softball, and touch football during school recess and after school; enjoyed bowling, horseshoes, swimming, table tennis, and volleyball. I listened to World Series games on radio and attended automobile races with my father.

As a teenager, I took up golf and later shot a hole in one (sheer luck). In college, I enjoyed tennis with my roommate and track and field during physical education classes. Every year, I can hardly wait for the Super Bowl, the Sweet 16, the Masters, a few trips to see the Atlanta Braves, the World Series–and every few years, the Winter and Summer Olympics.

Sports can teach unlimited positive virtues–the art of responsible competition, discipline, fairness, physical health, community togetherness and how to win and lose. Sports can provide wonderful participatory or couch-based recreation.

However, sports can also have negative sides. Professional athletes and coaches sometimes seem vastly overpaid. At times, alleged sports heroes have soured their images through inappropriate behavior, such as gambling or the use of drugs. Occasionally, the joy of sports disappears when rigid business motives drive the engine of athletics. In children’s sports, parents periodically get out of control in relating to referees and umpires.

One of the truly negative sides of sports relates to gambling. A recent issue of The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 5, 2007) claimed: “The amount of money Americans wager on sports has grown to rival the gross domestic product of New Zealand. This year, 118 million people will wager an estimated $96 billion on different events.”

Is it possible that many Baptists spend more money on sports than they do in providing financial donations to churches and other non-profit organizations? My hunch is that many Christians invest disproportionate amounts of time and money on sports, thus distracting increasingly from the missional involvement in the Christian life and the church.

In early Baptist life, churches often disciplined members for participating in sporting events, and other recreation deemed unacceptable, especially on Sunday.

In 1800, the Goshen Baptist Association in Virginia included in its minutes a moral admonition for parents: “If possible, prevent your children from following the abominable practices of cards, dice, horse-racing, cock-fighting and all such sinful soul-destroying pursuits.”

In frontier Kentucky, Baptist churches, at times, excluded from membership persons who attended horse races and played cards and billiards. One such church described playing cards, checkers and dominoes as “anti-scriptural and … incompatible with Christian character.”

That strong tension between sports and faith in Baptist life no longer exists. In fact, sporting events in the South and West would be negatively impacted on Sunday, or any other day, if Baptists alone refused to attend them and elected not to watch them on TV.

So what are the implications of all this? For me, I will never give up my strong interest in church; neither will I give up my love for sports. I need to take Christian ethics seriously as I establish priorities and create appropriate balance in my life. I need to remember that Jesus calls me to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. But I should also remember that Jesus enjoyed recreation and happy times: he performed his first miracle at a wedding, he climbed mountains, and he ate and enjoyed fellowship with all sorts of people–by lakes, on mountains, in homes.

Is Sports the new world religion? For some, it is. For others, it isn’t. For all, it shouldn’t be. Sports can a wonderful human outlet. As a god, it is useless.

Lesson: Keeping faith and sports in proper biblical perspective requires disciplined effort. Is it possible that the Apostle Paul had a sports image in mind when he wrote: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?” (Phil. 3:14). He certainly knew what was most important in his life.

Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.