by William Michael
January 24, 2012
In this article, I’m not going to waste time, but just get right to the issue. We can discuss details in the comments and follow-up articles.
Sporting is a means of leading boys and girls from lesser things to higher things. Sporting serves the inferior part of our nature (our body and mind) and is temporal, it should lead us to serve the superior part of our nature (our soul), which is eternal. Sporting, like anything, falls into the hands of three different groups of people who make it good or bad.
First, there are Christian who, as we will see, can use sports rightly to serve their highest end. We’ll talk about these below.
Second, there are virtuous and responsible secular groups, e.g., the military, that use sporting to train men for necessary earthly responsibilities. The military uses sports to promote cameraderie, to physically train soldiers to perform their duties and to relieve stress among officers. The philosophy of military sporting is ancient and was the philosophy behind the Greco-Roman Olympic games. However, inasmuch as war is temporary and undesirable, so also is training for war. In fact, when Scripture speaks of the kingdom of God, it assures us that military games will have no place in it:
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” -Isaiah 2
Therefore, the notion of military sports in the ancient model is a temporary notion that really isn’t “Christian” at all and will be phased out in time when peaceful work replaces war in the kingdom of God (which, by the way, is already here).
Third, there are materialistic and sinful groups that use sports as an end in themselves for money-making entertainment. This is vanity and the source of most of the evils of sporting. Las Vegas, betting, fantasy leagues, apparel collecting–the whole culture is degrading to human beings, immoral and impoverishing. Here’s an example.
Last weekend, Kyle Williams single-handedly lost a conference championship game for his team, the San Francisco 49ers. He fumbled two kicks, the last of which sealed their loss. After the game, Williams was supported and end encouraged by his teammates. He said,
“I was kind of surprised by that, actually. Just because I felt like I let everybody down in the locker room. Just to get the response that I got from those guys, everybody basically on the team, coming up to me and telling me they appreciated my effort and they knew I was trying to make a play. It wasn’t all on me, we lose as a team and win as a team.”
However, the spectator culture responded not with encouragement and support, but with railing, vicious criticim and even death threats. Williams’ father (who makes a living from pro sports as a baseball executive) said:
“I’m used to the years of criticism and threats on my life from time to time, but I have to hear about threats on your son’s life while you’re watching TV and it certainly makes you question our culture of sports as it stands.”
Oh, really? As if we don’t all know this already. There is no “good” culture of spectator sports. That’s the problem, and Mr. Williams Sr. makes a living of the culture that’s threatening to kill his son for dropping a football. This is the self-contradicting cycle of this whole mess. Anyway…
As for Christian sporting, it has a role similar to that of the prophets of the Old Testament, most of all, John the Baptist. When John came he said, “One who comes after me is greater than I.” and more clearly, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Sporting, in the lives of Christians boys and girls must do the same–it must nourish something good in us but then be replaced by something better. The milk of sporting must give way to the meat of Christian work–evangelization, apostolates, missionary work, works of mercy, etc.
When this transformation fails to occur, sports fail to serve their purpose and can cause human beings to grow farther from the goal than they would have been without sports. When we see true Christians mature in the sports realm, what we find is that they lose appreciation for “the game” and turn to superior pursuits to which the game pointed them.
St. Paul explained this to Greeks during his apostolic ministry. He entered into these pagan cultures as a Christian Jew with a very difficult cultural background. What he found there were the shadows of realities, the beginnings and similitudes of truths yet to be grasped. He did not bash their former practices, many of which were relatively virtuous, but taught the people of greater things. For example, the Greeks loved their competitive athletics. They held “excellence” as a virtue regardless of what the excellence was achieved in (the Romans didn’t share this view). Plato explained that the mind of man ascends from beautiful things to the principles of beauty, to beauty itself. This was true, but many Greeks stopped progressing in that course and settled for inferior things rather than continuing for what it was that was attractive in those things. St. Paul explained this in the opening of his letter to the Christians in Rome:
“Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. Men revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever.”
In other words, the signs didn’t give way to the reality but replaced it–and that is idolatry. St. Paul focused on this truth in leading the Greeks to God because although they were so far from God morally, they were so close to Him! For the things they loved were from God and yet the gave up and settled for imperfect satisfaction. It wasn’t that the Greeks sought too much satisfaction, but that they were content with too little. He explains this with regard to sporting:
“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”
Here we have the great Apostle’s doctrine of sporting, and our own as well. The sporting of this world is but a shadow of the true Sporting of the Christian life. It cannot be allowed to interfere with it or hold it back. If sporting does consume a man, it is vanity. For, after all his striving, he wins a perishable crown, while an imperishable crown was available to him. The sporting man despises the true and eternal prizes and settles, as an idolater for that which was meant only to point him to the truth. Anytime a man or woman ends up working for the perishable crown rather than the imperishable–which is a very different kinds of sporting–they prove themselves to be fools.
The Apostles have much more to say about this and I’d like to share their sayings in this proper context:
First, St. Paul wrote to Timothy, who was a young Gentile covert, about this true sporting:
“Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future. For this we toil and struggle because we have set our hope on the living God.”
See there that physical training is set up against devotion. Physical training, St. Paul explains, is of limited value because it holds a promise of life for the present. However, devotion is to be preferred because it holds a greater promise–of life for the present and for the future. St. Paul is urging young Timothy to seek the true end of his life and avoid settling for inferior things. Don’t settle for the temporary benefits of sporting, young man. There are everlasting benefits available to you through devotion!
Second, to the Corinthians Paul explained his life in terms of sporting. He said:
“Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
Is this not an awesome image of the Christian life? It must have been exhilarating to hear St. Paul preach with so much zeal and courage, making everything in the world seem so empty and childish. He explains that he is an athlete of a different kind. He trains and fights “for the sake of the Gospel” and his goal is “to win over as many as possible”. This is the clearest statement of true and Christian sporting. We, Christians, are sent into the world to conquer it for Our Lord. We are sent to train and discipline and wreck ourselves for the sake of the conversion of the world. That is our sport of sports, the ultimate contest requiring the ultimate athlete whose victories can only be rightly rewarded by everlasting glory.
Lastly, St. Paul again writes to Timothy with these strong words:
“So you, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Bear your share of hardship along with me like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. To satisfy the one who recruited him, a soldier does not become entangled in the business affairs of life. Similarly, an athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules. I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory. If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him. But if we deny him he will deny us.”
Here, St. Paul combines illustrations–one from the life of the soldier and one from the athlete. The ancient soldier devotes his entire heart, soul, mind and strength to his recruiter and allows himself to be distracted by nothing around him. The athlete competes according to the necessary rules of the sport. Their work is reasonable–you must live and compete in a certain way if you would win. St. Paul urges Timothy to look at his own example–a faithful and victorious champion–who had overcome bloody persecutions, hunger, loneliness, catastrophes and the constant threat of death. St. Paul was about to cross the goal line and spike the ball in the face of his enemies–a champion and conqueror. The stakes are infinitely greater than any earthly sports contest for if we die with Christ we shall reign forever but if we fail Him, we will lose forever.
Thus, it should be plain that Scripture does not encourage people to play competitive sports or suggest that such is necessary any more than it teaches that must also become soldiers. We must understand the lessons that sporting and soldiering can teach us. Scripture teaches Christians to fight and train and toil for the ultimate prize, in the ultimate contest, which is making Christian disciples. Moreover, that contest is not without its own rules and the true athlete must abide by them. God has told us how He wants his athletes to win and it is not by inventing their own methods. He has commanded that we follow the example of His Son, who won the world through personal holiness, patient teaching, incessant prayer and works of mercy.
Nevertheless, there is a maturation process whereby men grow bit by bit, moving through the process as Plato explained–from beautiful things to beauty itself–and earthly sporting can play a useful part in that process. When we see and hear Christians talking about earthly sports rather than the ultimate sport, we can be sure that they are not yet where St. Paul led Timothy and the men of Corinth in the spiritual life. Hopefully, they are progressing, but it may be possible that they have stopped ascending, and have settled for the sign rather than the reality. A grown man wearing a football jersey to Mass or playing a game on the Lord’s Day obviously doesn’t yet understand. Let us therefore use these temporary steps to ascend to our true calling and be careful of the real dangers of idolatry along the way. Let us not lose sight of what we should be doing–training, working and dying for the salvation of the world. We must “leave everything on the field” as they say. There’s no use keeping anything back.
William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy