Chicago sports fans have tasted the thrill of victory, especially recently. The Cubs (2016), White Sox (2005), Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015), Bulls (1991-1993, 1996-1998), and Bears (1985) have all hoisted the champion’s trophy. But too often Windy City aficionados have experienced the agony of defeat. As George Will has said, “Chicago Cubs fans are ninety percent scar tissue.” And yet despite our well-known habit of grumbling, we always come back for more.
Why is that? I believe that sports is not only in our genes. It’s also in our souls, in Chicago and around the world. But for all the time, money, and passion we pour into it, do big sports extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl really matter?
America’s love affair—or is it obsession?—with sports is well-documented. And it’s been with us for a while.
On a harsh Saturday night in December 1929, Charles Sheldon walked into a jam-packed gymnasium in Kansas for a college basketball game, Religion News Service recounts. Sheldon, author of the iconic book “In His Steps,” later wrote, “I couldn’t help wondering, while looking at the big crowd and the athletic ten young men running around, how many church members would be in the fifty different churches at a prayer meeting on a night like that, and paying a dollar apiece for the privilege of going.”
As John Tunis, a successful author of sports-themed books, had already observed, sports are “a kind of national religion.”
Sports have been likened to religion many times. Joseph Price of the University of Chicago Divinity School described sports as a form of civil religion in his book, “Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America” (Mercer University Press, 2006). Price notes that sports, like religion, build community and share life-shaping myths.
“There is also something fundamentally human about trying to secure a victory, as passing as it might be,” Price told UChicago Magazine. “Theologian Michael Novak pointed out that the experience of defeat in a sport is a way to rehearse how one will deal with death. Issues of life and death are dramatized in a timeframe of sports competition that reflects questions of ultimacy. And that’s fundamentally a religious question.”
Those of us who live and die with our teams certainly can relate.
But is all this sports passion healthy? And more to the point, is it Christian? Writing in Themelios, Los Angeles pastor and professor Jeremy R. Treat says yes, if we don’t idolize sports. Unfortunately, too many fans—short for fanatics—do just that.
“[M]any today look to sport for that which people traditionally found in religion,” Treat writes. “Sports are religious in nature; they are a vestige of transcendence in what Charles Taylor has called ‘the malaise of immanence.’ Peter Berger argues that in the face of such a secularized, disenchanted society, play can function as a ‘signal of transcendence.’ When a player is ‘in the zone’—what sociologists call ‘flow’—they are having a spiritual experience that begins with their physical body but connects them to something beyond the physical realm. And this is true not only for the athlete, but for the fan as well. As Allen Guttman says, ‘many sports spectators experience something akin to worship.’”
And yet with another Super Bowl (the LVth edition, by the way) right around the corner, America seemingly has been re-evaluating its long-lasting love affair with professional sports during our politically charged pandemic. Nielsen says television ratings for the National Football League have fallen 7 percent, and ad revenues are likely headed in the same direction. Other leagues have also been struggling with declining fan interest.
Perhaps our sports idols have feet of clay after all?
In post-Christian America, too often our high ideals of sports as a breeding ground of teamwork, self-discipline, and character have been buried in an avalanche of gambling, greed, showboating, post-championship rioting, political posturing and virtue signaling, PEDs, and other forms of cheating. Many formerly devoted sports fans are fed up, and rightly so. But abusus non tollit usum—the misuse of something is no argument against its proper use.
And Christians are positioned better than anyone to point to a superior way forward for America’s behemoth sports-industrial complex. Treat notes that the gospel—that Jesus is both saving souls and renewing creation—gives sportsmen and women a new purpose (enjoying sports as a gift rather than as merely an arena in which to prove our worth), a new identity (we are “in Christ” rather than mere athletes seeking selfish accomplishments), and a new ethic (focused on glorifying Christ rather than winning at all costs).
Further, sports are not just opportunities to point others to Christ—using everything from John 3:16 eye-black to church Super Bowl parties—as worthy as that purpose might be. They are also signposts pointing toward the coming restored creation.
“If Jesus is tossing his fallen creation and saving souls into a disembodied heaven,” Treat writes, “then the shot clock is winding down on our sport experience. But the story of redemption in Scripture is not one merely of rescuing souls from the fallen creation but rescuing embodied souls and renewing all of creation.”
So, yes, the Super Bowl matters, but not in the way the NFL wants you to believe, and certainly not ultimately. But when creation is finally restored and all things, including sports, are offered to Christ, we will play. In that everlasting day, we will exult in our glorified, perfect bodies on the fields of a new earth without shame or scar tissue—joyously walking, dancing, running, swinging, throwing, kicking, catching, and jumping to the glory of our Creator.
That is a victory infinitely more thrilling any Super Bowl.
Stan Guthrie’s latest book is Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.