I want to preface this blog by saying, “Our culture is obsessed with sports”. Now, that's not something you say if you are trying to win friends and influence people, especially if they are loyal sports fans. In fact, I have probably made some instant enemies already. If, however, you are one of those people that loathe turning on the TV because all you see is one professional sports game after another, then I might have peaked your interest.
Let me get something out of the way before I proceed any further. I love hockey, baseball, football, and golf–in that order, and played some of them competitively and recreationally for years. I coached baseball and our children were involved in many sports activities as well. So, I don’t have an aversion to sports. There are many healthy and socially derived benefits from participating in sports, such as exercise and learning to work together as a team.
So, what’s my beef then? Well, I think we have a culture that idolizes sports. During my times of coaching and refereeing, I have seen too many parents vicariously trying to live out their dreams for professional stardom through their children. Just last night, I was reminded of this once again. I had my grandson out for a walk in the park and we stopped to watch a kid’s baseball game. I happened to watch a father chastise and berate his son for failing to take off his catcher’s mask quickly enough to get a bead on a foul ball. The son’s reaction said it all. I watched every bit of enthusiasm and color drain out of his face. It is not likely that his son will go home remembering the fun of the game, especially after being so humiliated in front of his peers. I wonder how well that dad did when he played baseball as a child–hmmm.
Sports is big business! A lot of parents would love to see their kids cash in and little wonder. Forbes.com reports that the top 100 professional athletes make an aggregate total of $3.15 billion. The top 25 make up 1.25 billion of that figure. Do you think there are some parents out there that would love their child to make that kind of salary? You bet there are!
Let me put the gravity of this obsession in terms we can all understand. Consider how many people it would take, earning an average salary of $60,000.00 a year, to make up $3.15 billion. The answer–it would take 52,500 working people, earning a salary of $60,000 a year, to add up to $3.15 billion. Does that put things a little better into perspective?
Did you ever think that just maybe the girl or guy selling hotdogs in the stands would like to get a slice of that pie? And what about the person making the baseballs, maybe they would like a bigger cut too? Costa Ricans, who make most of the hardballs used in the Major Leagues, earn a base salary of $1.60 an hour, slightly above Costa Rica’s minimum wage, but a world away from the $3 million average salary of a U.S. professional baseball player. Contrast that to how much a good Major League pitcher makes on an average day for throwing those baseballs–the answer: an average of $84,931. And for every pitch they throw–the answer: an average of $9,149.
Every year we hear of salary increases in professional sports that continue to stagger our imaginations. We keep thinking at some point this insanity will not be sustainable, but every year loyal fans keep buying tickets, sportswear and memorabilia and salaries keep going up and owner’s revenues keep increasing.
And then there was the much-hyped fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conner Macgregor that has estimates of payouts for Mayweather in the vicinity of $230 million and $70 million for MacGregor. Can you imagine what could have been done with this kind of money if people would have given it to victims of famine, Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, instead of watching two people pummel each other? Now I ask you, in all honesty, “Do you think our culture idolizes sports and sports figures?”
God doesn’t limit the definition of idols to just those lifeless statues. Consider the following from Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure”.
In light of what it means to have an idol, why then is there such an obsession with sports? I think we all want heroes and we want to be on the winning side. I get that. Throughout history we see the importance that games and their heroes have had in the cultural identity of a nation. Look no further than to Greece, Rome and to North America during the Super Bowl. These games all have something in common. Besides the game’s hypnotic effect, some people just like to root for the underdog, while others want to cheer on their favorite team, and let’s not forget to mention what chicken wings and pizza can do to fuel the hysteria.
Did you know the Christian life has also been likened to a sports competition–a race, for example? In this race, we have the option of winning or losing. Like other sports, it involves strict training and discipline as well. But that's where the similarities end. The prize we are striving for is as different as day is to night and the compensation we receive bears no resemblance.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, the Apostle Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
Paul doesn’t just say we need to run in a race, but we need to run in such a way so as to win the prize. The Christian life demands an all-out dedication. In other words, it’s an obsession. But it’s a good obsession and it’s for the right reason and purpose–to be like Christ and to be with him for all eternity.
When all the glitz and glitter of stardom fades and all the accomplishments end, there is an emptiness that sets in. I remember professional athletes I had in my churches over the years saying, “that after they had won a cup they didn’t know what they were to do next. The thrill of victory was brief and temporal. All their focus had been in the pursuit of a cup or trophy, that in the end, did nothing to bring them internal happiness.
I think Jesus summed up their feelings well when he said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very soul” (Luke 9:25)? Too many people are obsessing and idolizing over temporal things.
When Paul talks about the runners in the early Isthmian games, he says they ran so as “to obtain a crown that will not last”. Their rewards were only a crown made of leaves from some plant, or the bough of some tree. But for the Christian, their race involved the pursuit of something greater than a temporal prize–they were running to achieve an imperishable prize called eternal life.
We need to be careful about what we are obsessed over. If you really want to make a difference in this world you need to invest in the next–you need an eternal focus and perspective. In other words, we need to live our lives right now in the light of eternity. Jesus said, “Don’t store up treasures [cups, pennants, trophies, etc.] here on earth, where moths eat them, rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal them. Store your treasures in heaven. Wherever your treasure [aka– your obsession] is, there the desires of your heart will also be (Matt. 6:19-21)”.
The Apostle Paul was obsessed over Christ. He said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21)”. When the Apostle Paul came to the end of his life, he summed it up in sports terminology, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7-8)”.
Are you looking for something or someone to get obsessed over? May I suggest Jesus? Do you want to experience his abiding presence in your life right now and spend eternity with him? Then enter the race and become obsessed with Christ. Follow him with all your heart, fight the good fight, finish the course and keep the faith!