In Defense of Sports

Last week I had the chance to sit down with some of the team at Desiring God to talk about how Christians should interact with sports. During the conversation we briefly touched on how easily sports can become an idol, whether it’s as an athlete or fan or a parent of an athlete. Overall, though, we explored how Christians can be involved in sports and the goodness of sports in culture as an expression of God’s creativity and the gifts he’s given people.

One Facebook commenter responded to the podcast with a perspective that many people share — sports seems “like a whole other religion.” He went on to describe the amount of excitement and money people pour into sports and how that ought to be poured into “the true battle we live in,” such as healing the sick, feeding the poor, and saving souls. He makes the point that sports clearly aren’t as important as these things.

This perspective is quite common and deserves a thoughtful response. At first blush it has merit, but it is not entirely accurate. Let me take his objections one by one.

“Sports is its own religion”

As we discussed on the podcast, sports can easily become an idol. But that does not make it an inherently bad thing. Money can be an idol. So can music; attend any concert and you will find worshippers there. Or family. Anything that we devote ourselves to can become an idol which can then become a religion; that is, it can become something which gives structure to our lives and determines our values. But the human ability to make idols out of anything does not make those things bad. And sports contain enormous good as a reflection of God’s creative power and the unique abilities he has poured into people as athletes, coaches, strategists, broadcasters, journalists, and more.

“People should devote their excitement and energy to things of eternal value”

Taken at face value, this sentence is true, but when you use it to parse sports (or other forms of entertainment) out of life it creates a false dichotomy. Sports offer rest and refreshment. The energy poured into them is not draining a person from doing things that “matter” — it is restoring them for work. Sports also offer a kind of community and connection to people that is difficult to duplicate. Whether it’s regular pick-up basketball games, rooting for the same team, or being softball teammates, sports bring people together. And people together is where real eternal ministry is done best.

“The money and time devoted to sports are better spent elsewhere, serving those in need”

Such an objection is worthy of consideration as a matter of conscience at the personal level, but it is not a black and white issue. It is always wise to ask whether I am giving what I ought, helping who I ought, and being generous as I ought. Am I misallocating my own resources to serve my idol? This idol could be sports or it could be lattes or books or cars. In most cases, this is not a question anyone can clearly answer from the outside. It is not wrong to spend money on any of the things I’ve listed, but it could be a poor choice. Usually only God and the spender know whether it was wise or not.

The money in sports (and all entertainment industries) is enormous. It is so because we as a culture demand to be entertained. Cost and demand is a basic economic principle. We are better off examining our own lives to see if there is inequity or inconsistency than in haranguing about the system as a whole.

I believe sports are a gift, a good gift, that God gave through human creativity for our enjoyment. They should be participated in at every level and in every way as such. And just like all of life, we ought to approach them with thoughtfulness, discernment, and intentionality.