Do You Struggle with Sports Idolatry? Cultivate Sports Atheism

Nate Claiborne  has an interesting article on sports and worship up at Patheos. He compares, very convincingly, I must say, sports fandom to Church and as a potential point of worship. The crux of his point is to advocate for a love of sport, rather than a love of a particular team (or ‘deity’), rather like “atheists do not affiliate themselves with a particular religion, but they are still interested in living the good life.

Nate Clairborne - In Which I Make An Argument In Favor of (Sports) Atheism

In some ways I can very much identify with what he says. Not in making an idol out of a particular team or athlete, although I may have in the past to some degree. But I love sports. I don’t get to watch or follow as much as I’d like, but I love it. I may be more interesting in watching a Bulls than a Bucks game, or watching, England, Australia or Newcastle United (up the Toon!) play football,* but I’ll watch anything really. I remember when I was younger I’d listed to Australian football and cricket on the radio while doing jigsaws, and have a radio on late at night (and an earphone on through class sometimes, often with teacher assent) to listen to cricket from around the world. When the FIFA world cup was on, we’d be allowed to stay up through the night watching 2 AM England games, and maybe the final, despite school and even exams the next day. So maybe there was some obsession there… But really, I guess I don’t understand how you can follow a team blindly, and not really want to watch other games. I have to question if you even like the sport, if that’s your attitude. I mean, when we did have our antenna hooked up, I’d watch the Mexican football* games, despite them being in Spanish, because that was all I could get, and I like watching the game.*

Back home during the Olympics they televised many many events, even ones where Australians weren’t competitive, or sometimes, rarely, even competing (Australia tends to enter most events though). It was on all day and most of the evening, and night, depending on the time zone where the games were taking place. It was awesome. I wish they did it here on free-to-air television. Since then I’ve always wanted to try water polo, I mean it looks like great fun. I would add archery, field/grass hockey, squash, lacrosse, and a few others, but I actually did later get to try them. But that brings me to my next thought.

I remember during highschool we played many sports. I swam, ran track, played cricket, chess, grass hockey, lacrosse, and basketball for the school. We also played football,* tennis, squash, miscellaneous track and field events, Australian football, rugby, tee ball, baseball, archery, horse riding, bowling, bocce, pool/snooker/billiards, netball (I can’t understand why softball is so popular here in the states but not netball), volleyball and probably a few others that I can’t recall offhand. Outside of school I body boarded. body surfed. played indoor roller hockey, indoor football* and skateboarded/rollerbladed

Here I come to the states (more accurately Texas, I’m sure it’s slightly different elsewhere), and it seems you have American ‘football’ and to a lesser extent basketball and track, with volleyball and baseball, and maybe football, if you’re lucky. And that’s it. And an amazing amount of money is spent at the highschool level on full-time coaches and lovely stadiums (some highschool and college stadiums are as good or better than my Australian state’s football* team played). Reading of Nate’s article, it certainly seems like idolatry to me, especially in light of my wife’s highschool students who can’t add or multiply. At my school, the ‘coaches’ for school and extra curricular sports were simply our physical education teachers plus other teacher (and maybe parent) volunteers giving of their time. I remember as a lacrosse goalie wearing a baseball catcher’s helmet and chest plate, with a cricket box and wicket keeper’s gloves, because the school apparently only had the leg pads. It just feels to me that here there is so, so much money and focus spent on sports, even at the highschool level, where I would think education might take more priority, that maybe, as a culture, I may be seeing the exact issue that Nate talks about. When students can’t play for the school unless they’re passing, the fact that there’s pressure on teachers to pass them anyway, so that they can play, when they can’t add, read, write or whatever subject they’re failing abysmally, it just seems like there’s a teensie issue of priorities and focus there. 

The exception to the sports (team) idolatry, as Nate puts it, seems to be this Sunday. Whoever they support, or whether or not they even like football, millions of American will be watching the game on Sunday. Many more than watched the State of the Union on Tuesday, and probably more than will have attended a church service Sunday morning (one of the lowest attendance Sundays of the year). Not that this is indicative of an issue for the individual (to miss one service); I don’t believe that’s the measure, heart or focus of our faith. I do see it as indicative of a culture, and I think Nate’s article is both necessary and relevant as we go into Super Bowl weekend.

For the record, I think I’ll be going for the Seahawks, because I tend to like underdogs, and I suppose I have more of an affinity for Seattle than Denver. Some of my favourite musicians have come from there. Not that I care very much, I’m not really into American football, but I hope it’s a good game. Should be interesting being in the cold of the north. I’m kinda hoping for snow or wet, a gutsy yard by yard running game.

Should be fun!

Link to Nate’s blog
Link to his article on Patheos

*Real football that is, with a round ball, in some strange places the natives call it “soccer.” It’s also colloquially known in parts of the world as “The Game.”



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