What’s so Wonderful (and Dangerous) About Sports?
By Dan Doriani

I have questions about sports and also love them. In my youth, I constantly played baseball, basketball, and football, and I still play tennis in competitive leagues. Like many, I’ve tried my hand at dozens of sports, from skiing and hiking to bowling, which may not count since bowling has neither a defense nor a demonstrable need for fitness.  

To understand our topic, we should distinguish competitive sports from exercise and play (from this point on, I will use “sports” to designate competitive sports). Sports are governed by rules. For example, a runner who strays from his lane or course in track or cross-country is disqualified. But when people run for exercise, they can go where they wish, and when we play, we may trace loops or circles as we chase each other, skipping, jumping, and gyrating as we go. 

Sports are governed by many rules, which players agree to follow as they compete. There is a field of play, with specific dimensions and boundaries, and an order of events, as well as statistics that appraise performance. Opponents take turns, and clocks or innings establish when the game ends, typically in victory, defeat, or perhaps a tie. Exercise also has measurements and principles, but few rules. Play doesn’t measure success, it aims for fun, and it has hardly any rules. Time is suspended when we play, but the clock is usually on in sports.

The Bible barely addresses sports, but it does offer first principles. Scripture clearly favors strength and what we now call “fitness.” In biblical times, most people got plenty of exercise by walking and working. A certain level of strength and vigor was essential for daily life, and God’s word blesses that. Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of young men is their strength,” and Proverbs 31:17 praises the woman who “dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.”

Sports can strengthen the whole person. They build discipline, including physical endurance and mental toughness. They teach submission to rules and coaches.

Paul praises exercise guardedly when he said, “bodily training is of some value [but] godliness is of value in every way.” Both Jesus and Paul had high physical capacity, since both worked with their hands and traveled great distances on foot (Paul’s missionary journeys required him to walk nearly 10,000 miles). Scripture also celebrates Moses’ strength in old age: “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). 

We also need to distinguish playing or competing in sports from watching sports. The first is an activity that involves struggle, skill, dexterity, strength, exertion, strategy, and endurance. The second is passive and vicarious. When we watch sports, it helps to understand and appreciate them. Spectators often have a sense of allegiance to players and teams, and identify with them. That allegiance can bring great joy and great sorrow, as we glory in their victories and suffer in their defeats.

We often talk about helpful and harmful ways to find our identity. We question people who find their identity in politics, sexuality, or work, but millions find their identity in athletic teams. If you suspect that your allegiance is too strong, ask yourself if you can honestly say: “My team could move to another state or vanish entirely, and it would hardly be a problem.” 

I live in St. Louis; the Cardinals are in the playoffs most years and have won the World Series in recent years. After one especially stirring victory, I heard a woman say, “Now the world will know that St. Louis is a great city.”

These realities raise doubts about spectator sports, but Scripture is positive toward play. The Lord wove playfulness into creation from the start. Psalm 104:26 says God created Leviathan to frolic in the sea. Job 40:20 mentions the wild animals that play in the hills. Young animals are especially likely to bounce and run, but mature dogs, otters, and porpoises keep playing. Perhaps God Himself is playful. Is the riot of colors He gives to birds, beasts, and flowers an act of playfulness? Playfulness might be an aspect of creation in God’s image. 

When Isaiah describes the new creation, he says children will play safely: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra” (Isaiah 11:8). When the Lord restores Israel, Zechariah says, “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zechariah 8:5). Similarly, Jeremiah says that when God delivers and rebuilds Israel, “the young women rejoice in the dance” (Jeremiah 31:13). And when Jesus critiqued His generation, He compared it to children who refused to play. They would not mourn with John, but neither would they dance with Jesus (Luke 7:32, Matthew 11:16-17).

To summarize, the Bible is positive toward play and exercise, but while it mentions and acknowledges competition, it does not praise it. For example, when 12 men “compete” in hand-to-hand combat in 2 Samuel 2:12-17, all die. That leads to a wider conflict and a second running-fighting contest between Abner and Asahel that also ends in death (2 Samuel 2:18-23). Similarly, the multifaceted riddle competition between Samson and the Philistines leads to deaths (Judges 14:12-20. cf. 1 Samuel 17). Theologian Jack Collins once observed that competitors are often “jostling for position in the community hierarchy of significance and power.”

Paul often mentions the athletic competitions, so celebrated in ancient Greece, and the training that goes into them (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Twice in 2 Timothy alone, Paul uses athletics to spur Timothy and other leaders to faithful effort. He says, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7) and tells Timothy “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). If Paul mentions but neither critiques nor praises the games, perhaps his appraisal was guarded. He knew they could inculcate endurance, self-discipline, and skill, but he was also aware of their excesses, for the context of the games was idolatry. At worst, in Rome and elsewhere, they included acts of murder, between gladiators, and the slaughter of the guiltless.

Authors Carmen Berry and Robert K. Johnston have observed that sports seem to have their origin in play, but they are distinct. Play is voluntary and absorbing. We play for enjoyment, not for results. Erik Thoennes said, “Play is a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative spontaneity and humor, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from necessary work of daily life.” Unlike work, exercise, and sports, play is “autotelic,” an end in itself, with no extrinsic goal. Play has benefits — children can gain physical and social skills through play — but we don’t play for the benefits. Play is definitely supposed to be fun.  

The competitive spirit, so common in humanity, readily transforms play into sports. When we chase each other in play, we notice that some run faster or longer. Next, we want to know who runs fastest, so we propose a race. Races and contests of strength lead us to isolate certain skills, such as running or throwing or lifting heavy objects. To make the competition fair, people organize the activity and formulate rules. So the spears that contestants throw must have the same weight, and teams must have the same number of players. When regulations emerge, play becomes informal competition, and that can lead to sports.

Mainstream sports foster and reward speed, strength, endurance, dexterity, strategy, and teamwork. Ideally, they provide joy to participants and spectators in the context of fair play and sportsmanship, which includes grace in both victory and defeat. Sports can be exhilarating. God made the human body to enjoy skillful physical exertion. In a sedentary age, when people are prone to stay inert and indoors, sports reconnect us with our bodies and the potential the Lord gave them. 

There is nothing quite like athletic perfection. To crush a baseball and watch it rocket past the outfielders, to thread a pass into the arms of a teammate, just past the reach of a defender, to soar above the rim to snag a rebound in traffic, to outkick a speedy foe at the end of a race — these bring incomparable joy. If we listen, they will teach us that we are not souls that happen to have bodies, that God designed us to live in body-soul unity.

The Benefits or Blessings of Participation in Sports

The joys of sports are obvious, starting with delight in skillful physical exertion. There is also pleasure in progress, in gaining speed, strength, and skill. There is satisfaction in creating and executing effective strategies. And team sports provide camaraderie, as a group of individuals becomes a cohesive unit that accomplishes what no individual could.

Spectator sports also teach us to marvel correctly. The Bible prohibits coveting, jealousy, and envy. That means the Lord wants us to see excellence without trying to seize it for oneself, or to ruin it, if seizure proves impossible.

Sports can strengthen the whole person. They build discipline, including physical endurance and mental toughness. They teach submission to rules and coaches. Fitness typically improves both concentration and sleep. Exercise reduces problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and negative body image. There is a simple pleasure of feeling fit and strong. All this bestows a sense of capacity; witness the joy of a child who learns to catch a football or a Frisbee.

Play and sports can correct our culture’s bias for productive and commercially valuable activities. Author Jeremy Treat, in his article “More Than a Game,” observes that while most Western Protestants “have a great work ethic,” we typically “lack a play ethic.” Casual sports show us that actions can be nonproductive, yet meaningful. In “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture,” Johan Huizinga points out how sports remind us that we don’t need to work or get things done all the time. School leagues for children and community leagues for adults are supposed to be fun. “Serious play” sounds like an oxymoron, but it may be the best label for the millions who play hard, yet keep a light spirit as they cycle, hike, ski, and play basketball, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, or volleyball. 

Evangelicals sometimes hope athletics should provide a “platform for evangelism.” One thinks of Tim Tebow. Western societies do pay attention to the opinions of famous people, including athletes (more than is wise), and everyone should look to share our faith, and secular athletes probably do have a higher opinion of people who demonstrate skill and toughness in competition. Paul urged the Corinthians to “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13). When competing, I sometimes pray that I will act like a man, as Paul says. We also know that some men expect pastors (and seminary professors) to be soft. We hope to show that faith and toughness can go together. That said, serious play has intrinsic value, whether we win, whether anyone notices, whether it leads to evangelism, or not. We are always ready to share our faith, but play is legitimate even if that never happens. Physical pleasure and camaraderie are good in themselves.

Like everything else, participation in sports is marred by suffering and sin. First, winning becomes too important. When we think we must win to prove ourselves, misery multiplies, since losses are blows to the ego. Then, as the saying goes, “Losing feels bad more than winning feels good.” In short, we can play for the wrong reasons — to escape from work or home or a meaningless life. Then play easily becomes an idol.

Beyond that, competition fosters specific sins. Athletes cheat, boast, and admire themselves. They sulk, disrespect coaches, and demean, injure, and humiliate opponents. They take illegal performance-enhancing drugs to gain an illicit advantage. Occasionally, entire fields, such as professional cycling, become corrupt. 

Laying sin aside, sports are complicated. For example, when athletes excel, it is more fun in the short run but harder in the long run. Suppose a child has natural athletic gifts. He or she excels at sports and gains a sense of accomplishment. But if the child truly excels, coaches notice and recruit him (or her) for a team. That leads to long practices, at all hours, in pouring rain and burning heat. The child will exercise to the point of exhaustion to gain strength and endurance. He will repeat certain motions indefinitely to hone proper technique. He will learn to focus in close games, where the tension can be excruciating, even debilitating. Many hate the exertion and the drama; they just want to have fun. Besides, many athletes fail to make the team of their choice. And while the most talented and dedicated athletes gain prestige and lucrative careers in sports, there are always more athletes than openings. 

Spectator Sports

We also need to consider spectators. The major spectator sports generate billions of dollars in economic activity, from the salaries of coaches and qualified players, to the costs of equipment and facilities, to tickets, broadcasting, and licensing fees, with a host of ancillary activities, such as marketing, travel expenses, and more. 

Spectator sports bring clear benefits. They foster community by giving people a reason to spend time together. This is helpful for people who are a bit isolated and for folk who love to connect. Sports bring people together, whether they cheer for the same team or not. They let impassive men shout for joy and weep in sorrow. There may be better ways to build community or express emotions, but spectator sports do bring people together. 

Spectator sports also teach us to marvel correctly. The Bible prohibits coveting, jealousy, and envy. That means the Lord wants us to see excellence without trying to seize it for oneself, or to ruin it, if seizure proves impossible. Instead, we should give thanks to God for bestowing such gifts to humanity. When we see superb athletes at their peak, we gasp and then cheer. We even thank God for giving such gifts to people. So sports teach us to marvel correctly.

Like participatory sports, spectator sports lead to both sins and sorrows. Tertullian of Carthage (155-240), a great early theologian, critiqued misbegotten spectatorship in his short book on the theater and the gladiatorial games, “De Spectaculis — On the Games.” Tertullian understood that people love a spectacle even if the content is doubtful or evil. The games featured violence, even the murder of Christians, and yet certain believers said attendance is optional since no law prohibits it.

Tertullian argues against attendance at the games in three ways. First, an action can be wicked even if God never explicitly forbids it. If some object that no “rule in our way of life” forbids them, he replies that people deceive themselves through a mix of ignorance, love of pleasure in the spectacle, and self-deception. Besides, Psalm 1 instructs believers not to sit in the chair or stand in the way of sinners, and the games require both (Chapters 1-3). Second, the games are rooted in idolatry (Chapters 4-9). Third, the games present immoral acts as entertainment, for applause. Those who attend the games and the theater allow frenzy, violence, indecency, disfiguring blows, even murder, to entertain them, when we otherwise detest such acts (Chapters 16-21).

Tertullian’s work offers a template for our reflection on spectator sports. First, do we deceive or stay ignorant so we can excuse our pleasures? Second, is there idolatry in our love of sports? Third, do the spectacle and the crowd induce us to approve of activities we would otherwise detest? At a minimum, this question should lead us to avoid boxing and mixed martial arts where the goal is to beat an opponent senseless or defenseless. And it seems that spectator sports can be idolatrous. For example, pastors know they had better check the sports calendar if they want to schedule anything other than worship on a weekend.

Spectator sports are good; that is why they can become idols or substitutes for God. People with no faith still seek transcendence. Eugene Peterson observed that people seek transcendence in drugs, in sex, and in crowds, especially in cheering or praising something together. If crowds don’t praise God, they praise great people, musicians, politicians, and athletes. When loyalty to family or church fades, many substitute loyalty to a team. When vision of a transcendent God fades, people seek transcendence in athletics. This may be more common in spectators than in players.

At times, fans who attend a game find themselves at the same restaurant as the pros who just lost their game. Fans, distraught at the result, can be stunned to see the players relax and laugh as they eat! A prominent professional athlete explained it to me this way: “We do our best, but we know we are going to win about half the time because our opponents are pros too. This is our job,  and we expect to have good and bad days, like everyone else. When engineers have a rough day at work, do they refuse to eat? Cry all night? Neither do we.” If someone finds that hard to fathom, perhaps they have a religious obsession with their team. 

When people live through local teams, they seem to feel that the star’s achievements are theirs. Fanatics can let passion for the achievements of a sports hero blind them to their own lack of achievement. Zealous fans, longing to know ever more about their heroes, may forgo seeking knowledge of God, friends, and self. Men can mope around for days because a member of their team drops a ball at a critical moment. Their soul withers when teenagers with an abundance of growth hormones miss an easy shot in the final seconds of a basketball game for their university.

Someone needs to shake these people and say: ‘The players don’t know you. If they did know you, they would not be your friend. They probably live here because someone offered them money (or a scholarship) to play here. Stop worrying about the speed and musculature of strangers. Get up, dust the potato chips off your shirt, go outside, and have fun.”

In all seriousness, through my reflection on play, sports, and exercise, I suggest that believers consider whether they should watch less and play more. My family lives by this principle — if we can choose between watching and playing — between spectator sports and participatory sports, we choose to play every time (World Series tickets might be an exception).

I suspect that most adults don’t play enough. Many of us love sports, but they have lost touch with the bodies — so beautiful, yet so fallen — that God has given us, so they hardly engage in sports. Some work too hard and worry so much that spontaneity has drained from their lives. They feel guilty when they relax, or they are too harried by their calendars to play. Others waste their leisure, drifting across the internet and flipping through vapid programs.

There is a better way, and our redemption opens it to us. Knowing God cares for His children, we can lay down our tasks for a while, go outside, and walk, run, and play.

Dan Doriani is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Vice President at Large of Covenant Seminary. His latest book is “Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.”

Photography by Ryan Hayslip

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