When Super Bowl LI commences at 6:30 p.m. this evening (Sunday, February 5, 2017), millions of viewers will tune in to watch the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons. For some fans, it is an opportunity to pull for the “underdog” Falcons against the “Evil Empire” Patriots. For others, it is a chance to pull for a great dynasty (Patriots) against whoever-the-other-team-is. For still others, the Super Bowl serves is more of an exciting opportunity to consume enormous amounts of food while yelling at an inanimate object—the television screen—in light of the reality that we cannot actually yell at (or cheer for) the coaches and teams in person.
For those of us who are parents, it also provides an opportunity to teach their children that enjoy football as something that is more than a game and less than a god, and to feel God’s pleasure together as we watch the Super Bowl. My wife and I are going to watch the game with our three children this evening. We are going to eat hot wings, nine-layer Mexican bean dip, chips and salsa, and several varieties of dessert.
Before the game starts, however, we are going to take a moment to teach them a Christian view of football. We will teach them that football is more than a game, less than a god, and a yuge opportunity to feel God’s pleasure together while eating good food and cheering in front of the television.
More than a Game
Some Christians treat a sport such as football as a mere triviality, a distraction, or even an evil. But they are wrong to do so. One reason is that God created us to be like him (Gen 1:26-28). One the ways we imitate him is by being creative and bringing out the hidden potentials of his creation.
Football is just that: it is a game that was created in the mind of Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football.” Football brings out the hidden potentials of its coaches and athletes, as they compete in a game that has its own unique goals, obstacles, rules, and parameters. It allows fans the opportunity to retreat from the stresses of life and work, employees the opportunity to earn a salary, and commentators the opportunity to blather.
Another reason is that God will return one day to rid the earth of sin and its consequences (Rev 21, 22), and sports such as football can provide a preview of that day. On game day, we can experience a type of excitement, enjoyment, and relaxation that temporarily frees us from the stresses and sadness of our life. That is why theologian Jurgen Moltmann often urged Christians to participate in play and sport as an anticipation of the day when there will be no more sadness or stress.
Less than a God
So, on the one hand, we should not view football as a mere triviality. Yet, on the other hand, we should not elevate it to the status of a deity. The Bible teaches that humans often elevate some good aspect of God’s creation—such as sex, money, or power—to a status of ultimacy that God alone deserves. When that happens, the “good” thing becomes a false god or an “idol.”
Football is no exception. A number of social analysts (such as Charles Prebish, Allen Guttman, and David Prince) have argued that Americans tend to make a god out of sports such as football. When football is treated as a “god,” and especially when it is worshiped in combination with other false gods (such as sex, money, and power), the outcome is ugly and harmful:
- When football functions as a god, athletes become narcissistic. The great philosopher Dennis Miller puts it nicely when he rants: “Today’s athletes…can’t complete the most basic of tasks without performing some kind of field, ego-driven, self-congratulatory ritual… If I see one more athlete make a routine play and do a wild banshee itchy dance, I’m going to slap the man senseless with my remote….” (I agree, but I cannot publicly condone remote-slapping as a remedy for narcissism. For the record.)
- When football functions as a god, athletes feel free to demean and degrade the competitors on rival teams. Over the past twenty years, the level of sportsmanship in our nation has dropped faster than the balance in Bernie Madoff’s trust funds. Athletes often treat their opponents with animosity and disdain rather than with competitive respect.
- When football functions as a god, athletes are tempted to take illegal substances in order to enhance their natural abilities. The steroid epidemic has expanded more rapidly than Jose Canseco’s shoulders in the 1990s, cheating players and fans alike of a fair competition.
- When football functions as a god, coaches are tempted to cheat by stealing information from other teams, paying players to injure their opponents, or by otherwise inflating, deflating, or altering the game illegally.
- When football functions as a god, commentators and fans feel free to ridicule and degrade athletes and coaches publicly on social media. The sad aspect of this behavior is that those athletes and coaches deserve respect. The humorous aspect is the ironic contrast between the ridiculers and the ridiculees. Professor Miller rants, “What I’m talking about is the 400 lb. sports talk radio host who, in between mouthfuls of corned-beef sandwiches and mayonnaise salad washed down with a glass of pureed Snickers bars, says he thinks Derek Jeter’s starting to get a little soft.”
- Finally, when football functions as a god, parents will unwittingly predispose their children toward false worship. Our children will notice if sports are the primary shapers of our identity. They’ll eventually pick up on the fact that football—rather than, say, church worship or marital commitment—brings out our deepest emotions.
An Opportunity to Enjoy God and His World Together
So the Super Bowl is more than a game and less than a god: it is a very good opportunity to enjoy God and his world together on a Sunday evening.
It is a time to celebrate humanity created in the image of God. Walter Camp exercised his God-given creativity when he invented football. Coaches and athletes use their God-given abilities to compete and to achieve a goal by overcoming obstacles while keeping the rules. Fans and commentators are able to suspend the stresses and sadness of life in order to watch a ballgame. It is a time to destress and forget the sad aspects of our lives in anticipation of the day when there will be no more sadness or stress.
Let’s enjoy the Super Bowl by keeping things in perspective. Football is an opportunity to remember God. God is the one who created us in his image, who created our world as a venue for the excitement and pleasure provided by sports and competition. God is the one who is far greater than any of his good gifts, and who therefore can fulfill us in a way that football or any other good gift cannot. And he is the one who will return one day to restore his creation, abolishing the stresses and sadness from which sports often provide relief.
To riff off of the apostle Paul, we might say, “Therefore, whatever we eat or drink, whatever sport we watch or play, whatever team we pull for or against, we do it all to the glory of God.”