Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 2, 2015

The Spirituality Of Sports: Figuring out why I am so upset about the Seahawks loss

Today is a tough day to be a Seahawks fan.  The Hawks were just 1 yard away from winning their second Super Bowl when they decided to call an unexpected pass play that lead to an interception.  Instead of hoisting the coveted Lombardi trophy they went home defeated.

Russel Wilson After Throwing Game Ending Interception

Russel Wilson After Throwing The Game Ending Interception

What I am trying to figure out is why I am so upset about it. Why am I emotionally impacted by an event that has absolutely no bearing on my life and well-being?

When you reduce being a fan to its most basic level it actually seems pretty odd.  We are cheering on highly paid professionals who are trying to get a piece of leather from one side of the field to another.  These professionals also change teams so frequently that their allegiance to the home city is easily traded in for a bigger contract.  As comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, we are basically cheering for laundry, because the players wearing the home jerseys switch teams every few years.  And even if our home team does win, it isn’t really something we have a reason to be proud of.  We didn’t win anything.  We just sat in front of a T.V. for 4 hours eating junk food!

Yet, for some reason, I found myself emotionally impacted by last nights game. I watched the Super Bowl with a friend who is not a Seahawks fan and he made fun of the way I was going through the stages of grief over a football game.   There was denial (where I tried to convince myself that I didn’t really care), anger (where I showed frustration that they made a bad play call), bargaining (where I started focusing on the fact that they’ll have another chance next year), and depression (where I simply felt upset about the loss).   I suppose this blog post is my attempt to move to the final stage of grief – acceptance! 🙂

I don’t want to suggest that being a sports fan is necessarily bad.  It is a relatively healthy form of entertainment (aside from the junk food that usually goes along with watching a game), it makes us feel part of a community, it draws people together, and it affirms the value of sports, which promote physical health, teamwork, and mental resilience.

At the same time, I think we need to keep our attachment to a professional sports team in check.  I suspect that my disproportionate emotional response to yesterdays loss is actually a symptom of idolatry.  I have heard it said that we make idols when we turn good things into ultimate things.  Football is a good thing, but it becomes an ultimate thing when it becomes our main source of identity, joy, or transcendence.

After the unprecedented comeback in the NFC championship game against Green Bay, there was an aura of transcendence surrounding the Seahawks team. Transcendence simply refers to the human longing for an existence or experience beyond a normal level.  This seems to describe a lot of the language used to describe the Seahawks victory over Green Bay. The comeback was labeled a miracle, players spoke of going to the Super Bowl as their destiny, others overconfidently spoke of how they were unstoppable in the face of adversity.  Dramatic youtube films went viral, pairing the highlights from the game with emotionally charged music and inspirational quotes.

Of course the majority of us realized that these claims about the Seahawks were overstated. To some degree, though, many  of us got caught up in the hype. When this happens, professional sports start to become more than a source of entertainment, they become an antidote to the longing for transcendence that seems to be embedded in the human heart. You see, we want to believe that there is something bigger to life than the disappointments we encounter everyday. Things like money, status, and, yes, even sports teams, help numb the pain of reality.

David Foster Wallace once wrote:

There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

It seems that many of us have made sports a primary recipient of our worship. The amount of money, time, and enthusiasm we put towards professional sports gives us a clue into where our priorities lie. Ben Witherington III has this observation about American culture:

Someday archaeologists will be digging up the once great American landscape and they will find gigantic concrete sports stadiums, with all sorts of luxury boxes. And then they’ll find churches made out of plywood and press board and siding. And homes made out the same thing. And they will ask—- why did they spend more money on entertainment than on food, clothing shelter, and God combined? And in the end—– who won?

In a way, there is something healthy about having our team lose.  We are faced with the opportunity that comes with disenchantment.  We see the idol for what it really is.  Our team is not unstoppable, they make mistakes, and coaches make bad play calls.  This helps us realize that at the end of the day, sports cannot be what we live for.

Perhaps we could paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 saying:

“do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where footballs are intercepted, and coaches make bad play calls; instead, seek first the kingdom of heaven!”

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Responses

  1. Love the ending!!

  2. Boy, I could identify with everything you wrote. The part about everybody worships something, and looking for transcendence especially hit home. What I find myself anticipating or getting excited about is not usually a deeper walk with Jesus, but rather the next Trailblazer victory, the next Nips Bacon Cheeseburger, the next job, the next good book, or even solving the next difficult Jumble puzzle. But after the book’s been read, the burgers digested, or the thrill of victory – there’s still an empty longing for more. As you said, a defeat can be good, if it shows what idols we can make out of things.

    Loved your football paraphrase at the end about storing up treasures in heaven. I recommend you reprint your reflection in the church newsletter.

    A fellow Seahawk griever,
    Stan

    • Hey Stan, thanks for sharing. I appreciate the other examples you use. In a way sports is a more obvious “idol” to expose. The winner of the superbowl literally kisses a gold statue (ie The lombardi trophy). Sometimes the more dangerous idols are the subtle things we don’t realize – like success, or food.
      Glad I’m not alone in my disproportionate grief!

  3. Did not watch the game, have no interest in over paid behemoths crash around, but still connect with your comparison. Just where is my treasure? ………..en Cristo, GR

    • Thanks Gil. Yes, I think these principles apply to a variety of contexts. Nietzsche ones said, “there are more idols than there are realities.” The lure of idolatry is everywhere.

      • In fact, after just name dropping Nietzsche I wonder if one of my idols is “trying to look smart 🙂

  4. Oh oh, you nailed me with that one. I confess ,image is huge for me. Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death, Amen…………….


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