A Warning About Professional Sports
The more I have meditated upon the topic of professional sports, the more disgusted I have become.
This is not to say I have not found enjoyment from sports in general. In the 1990s when my sons were teenagers, I got involved with baseball and, to a lesser degree, with a few other sports. At the same time my limited experience has been bitter-sweet and I have noticed many spiritual dangers. There is a tremendous amount of misplaced enthusiasm, money, and time being spent upon the vanities of this life by those who profess the name of Christ. There can be some value in sports but it is a dangerous thing and easily becomes an idol. May God help us redeem the time while we have the opportunity.
Let me make it plain at the outset that I am not preaching against sports in general (though there are some warnings which could be given even in general, and we have given those warnings in the article entitled “Beware of an Unwholesome Addiction to Sports,” which can be found at www.wayoflife.org.)
HERE I AM SPECIFICALLY WARNING ABOUT THE DANGERS OF PROFESSIONAL SPORTS as it exists today. I am warning about the misuse of time. I am warning about friendship with the world whereby we become adulterers and adulteresses in God’s sight (James 4:4). I am warning about misplaced priorities. I am warning about covetousness and idolatry and sensuality.
I BELIEVE THESE THINGS NEED TO BE PREACHED FOR THREE REASONS:
ONE, THE CHRISTIAN SHOULD ANALYZE EVERYTHING HE DOES. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Proverbs 14:15 says “the prudent man looketh well to his going.” In my analysis of social issues facing God’s people, I am not trying to make laws which every person must follow rigidly. I am trying to make people THINK about things from a biblical perspective. If you don’t draw the line exactly where I do, that is your business before God; but it is my business to “preach the Word,” and that involves applying the Scriptures to everything that we do. A Christian who goes through life without praying about and applying God’s Word to the things that he does is walking in presumption and not in faith. The Bible warns that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Those who enjoy my articles and who benefit from them are those who are yearning to know the perfect will of God for their lives and who are more concerned about obedience and fruitfulness than “liberty.”
TWO, THESE THINGS NEED TO BE PREACHED BECAUSE THIS IS A SPORTS-MAD GENERATION. Commenting on the amazing sports frenzy that has permeated the land, sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg of the University of Connecticut said: “Sports [is] like a religion, and the god of that religion that we all worship is the god of winning” (CNSNews.com, August 31, 2001). In a report on the drought in west Texas that is killing the grass on football fields, the Los Angeles Times observed that this is serious because “football is God and the field is church” (“In West Texas,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 3, 2011).
An extensive survey commissioned in 1983 found that seven in every 10 Americans watches, reads, or talks about sports every day. The study, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s attachment to sports, found that almost 35 million people are “ardent sports fans” who watch sports events on television at least once a week, and in some cases, every day. I am confident the statistic would be higher today. It was also in 1983 that World Almanac and Book of Facts polled 2,000 8th-grade students to see which persons they most admired. There was not a single name on the list that was not an entertainer or a sports figure. In 1982, the famous sports announcer Howard Cosell, while viewing the largest Sunday football game attendance in Texas history, said “the Cowboys are more than a football team in Dallas; they are a religion.” He exclaimed, “Look at the loyalty of those people! Look at the signs they have made. Truly, the Cowboys are a religion in Dallas.” He was right. Professional football has become a religion all across America. On Sunday, December 27, 1987, 75,000 Denver Broncos football fans battled blizzard conditions to reach Mile High Stadium by the 2 p.m. kickoff. The airport was closed at 12:30 p.m. that Sunday and remained closed until 6 a.m. Monday. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport, but those extreme conditions did not stop the football-mad crowd.
In other lands the religion is called soccer.
A funeral service in the United States is marketing “alma mater caskets,” which feature the logos of more than 50 universities. Why would someone want to take a college or university with him to the grave? No doubt this new marketing scheme has a lot to do with the sports craze. The love for college football is at near insane levels, and now someone is cashing in on that fervor by offering to allow the sports fan to take his favorite college with him to the grave.
The noise level in a domed ballpark has been recorded at 125 decibels. This was in Minnesota’s Metrodome in Game 2 of the 1987 World Series (USA Today, Oct. 18-20, 1991, p. A1). That is louder than a launch of the massive Saturn V rockets which carried men to the moon. The noise level for a Saturn V launch was 120 decibels.
Morality and sports are almost completely separated in the minds of large numbers of people. A survey of 1,240 adults completed in 1995 and published in Sports Marketing Newsletter asked people to name the athletes they most admired. The first four were Magic Johnson (HIV positive and an admitted adulterer), Tonya Harding (convicted conspirator for the violent attack upon fellow-skater Nancy Carrigan), O.J. Simpson (held financially liable by a jury for murdering his wife), and Mike Tyson (convicted rapist).
A person’s god is that which he loves and serves the most. Sports is one of the chief idols in the lives of people today, and God hates idolatry. The prophets and Apostles of old preached directly against idolatry. So should we.
THREE, THESE THINGS NEED TO BE PREACHED BECAUSE MANY CHURCHES TODAY ENCOURAGE LOVE FOR PROFESSIONAL SPORTS WITH NO WARNING OR CRITICISM. Houston’s First Baptist Church announced in June 1994 that “if there is a sixth game between the Rockets and the Knicks” the Sunday P.M. service might be changed. During the same month this huge Southern Baptist Convention church had an Elvis contest and Beatles music at its Solid Rock Café. Before me as I write is an ad which a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod congregation placed recently in a local newspaper in Wisconsin. It encourages the community to attend a church event advertised as “Preaching, Pig Roast, and Packers.” It involved a “worship celebration, a pig roast and big screen Greenbay Packers game free of charge.” Pastor Dan Kelm explained his philosophy: “A lot of people today have the false notion that Christianity is rigid and inflexible, boring and irrelevant. ... we want to show that Christians can have fun, too” (Christian News, Oct. 6, 1997, p. 4). This man wrongly connects inflexibility with boring irrelevance. Biblical Christianity is as inflexible as the Bible, but it is not boring or irrelevant. Sure, Christians enjoy the wholesome things of life, but that does not mean we uncritically join hands with the wicked things of this world. You can’t convince me that watching the cheer leaders shake their immodestly attired selves and watching the wicked things promoted by the sponsors of the games is spiritually edifying.
It is not only some Lutheran churches which are promoting worldliness in the name of liberty and fun. There are many fundamental Baptists who have fallen into the same trap.
A WARNING ABOUT PROFESSIONAL SPORTS
1. THE PRIDE
The pride of man is part and parcel with professional sports. “He is the best; we are the best; I am the best; we win the most games; hit the best; run the best; throw the best; the best defense; the best offense; the greatest slugger of all times; the greatest offensive lineman, period; the Iron Man; the Big Unit; the Big Hurt...” The pride which emanates from professional sports is pervasive. Pride proceeds from man’s fallen heart (Mark 7:21-23), and we all know its sorry taste; but God warns us to put it away. Proverbs 6:17 says God hates a proud look. Proverbs 8:13 says God hates pride and arrogancy. Proverbs 14:3 says pride is in the mouth of the foolish. Proverbs 16:5 says pride is an abomination to the Lord. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 21:4 says the high look and the proud heart are sin. 1 Timothy 3:6 reminds us that pride brought the downfall of the devil. 2 Timothy 3:2 says pride is one of the characteristics of apostate people in the last days. 1 John 2:16 warns that the pride of life is not of the Father but is of the world, and God’s people are not to love the world. Two times the New Testament says that God resists the proud (Jam. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5).
2. THE SELFISHNESS
When the well-known evangelist Billy Sunday turned his back on a successful professional baseball career in 1893, he gave ten reasons for leaving. Reason number two was “Because it develops a spirit of jealousy and selfishness; one’s whole desires are for personal success regardless of what befalls others.” As a matter of fact, sports teaches us to be happy when our opponents fail or when another player is injured so that I am promoted to his position. Winning and promotion of self are what matter most.
3. THE PHILOSOPHY
Professional sports is permeated with vain and unscriptural philosophies.
Consider the vain philosophy, for example, that “winning is everything” and “when we are winning, everything is fine” and “the solution to our problems is winning.” I hear this frequently from the lips of sports figures. When Chuck Knoblauch was traded from the Minnesota Twins baseball team to the New York Yankees, Feb. 6, 1998, he said he was very excited about being on a winning team because “winning creates happiness.” After his team won the American League pennant in 1998, New York Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill told the press, “It’s only fun when you win.” While discussing the unexpected 1999 slump of his Anaheim Angels, manager Terry Collins observed: “When things aren’t going good, things don’t go good.” This obtuse statement refers to the sports philosophy of winning is everything.
Consider the philosophy that implies that the chief goal of life is to pursue some vain sports goal. Frequently we have heard sports stars say, “THIS is what it’s all about,” referring to the World Series or to the Super Bowl or to some other apex of professional sports. This is nonsense, or course. The Bible teaches us that life apart from Christ and His perfect will is utterly vain and empty. The Christian life certainly is NOT about sports goals. Christ has given us a Great Commission, and it is not to win the World Series!
Consider the “No Fear” sports slogan which has caught hold of the imagination of the youth of this generation. Millions of T-shirts and sweat shirts have been sold bearing this slogan. It promotes the philosophy that man himself has the power to conquer all. He has no fear. He is able to reach down within himself to find the strength to overcome any obstacle. He is a god. Or at least his sports idols are a gods.
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
4. THE COVETOUSNESS
Covetousness is one of the definitions of modern professional sports. Take baseball, for example. The major league players make outrageous salaries but they are less content financially than ever before. They were so consumed with the desire for higher salaries that they cancelled the World Series in 1994. Professional sports in the West today is an orgy of greed, and the Bible says this is a sin akin to idolatry. “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Professional sports is permeated with that which the Bible condemns as licentious and illicit. Consider the ever-present ungodly beer commercials, the beer drinking, the drunkenness, the gambling, the diabolical, fleshly rock music, the sensual dancing, the indecent clothing, the cursing and blasphemy. What does the Bible tell us about such things? “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). Professional sports stars are frequently in the news for their moral perversions, for rape and assault charges, for public drunkenness, for drug arrests, for ugly divorces, even for murder. The sports announcers are also frequently caught in immoral situations. One of the top U.S. announcers recently was charged with indecency and unlawful assault of and restraint of women. He pled guilty of a lesser charge of assault to avoid more serious charge of forced sodomy. During the trial, his perverted sex life was displayed to the public. In the last few days an announcer on a popular baseball television broadcast was charged with public indecency after urinating from a window onto some police officers below. You will read of things like this almost on a daily basis in the sports section of the newspaper. Professional sports is a trashy environment.
Take the halftime show and commercials for America’s great idol called the Superbowl. The 2013 halftime performance by Beyonce has been described as “pushing x-rated.” The 2013 Superbowl commercial voted a contender for “best” was a Mercedes advertisement that depicted a young man contemplating selling his soul to the devil for the pleasures he could expect from owning a sleek automobile, those pleasures being the exact sins warned about in 1 John 2:16 -- the lusts of the eyes, and the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. The commercial was set to the Rolling Stone’s wicked song “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Any professing Christian who invites such spiritual garbage into his personal life or home needs his head examined.
Those who keep up with professional sports month in and month out become desensitized to the wickedness that is inherently associated with it.
6. DESPISING THE CHURCH
Not many decades past, professional sports was not played on Sundays in respect for the Lord’s Day and the command of God that Christians not forsake the assembling of themselves together. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Not so today. Over the past several decades the various states lifted their “blue laws” which restricted trade on Sunday. (These laws were in effect in some states until as recently as 1985.) The devil has pulled out all the stops in his effort to woo the hearts of people away from the things of Christ toward the things of this wicked world. Ball games are played on Sundays and on Wednesday evenings, tempting multitudes of Christians to disobey the Bible and to exchange the house of God for worldly pleasure. Many who don’t actually skip church services for games, are thinking about the games during the services and are “chomping at the bit” to get out of church and to tune into the game. The only thing that has caused more people to absent themselves from the house of God than sports, is television in general. Holidays such as Thanksgiving, which once were days dedicated particularly to worshipping God and enjoying family time, today are more likely to be consumed by professional sporting events.
7. HERO WORSHIP
Griffey! Griffey! Griffey! Griffey! Griffey! Griffey! Those were the words which were screamed every time the Seattle Mariners’ famous star outfielder, Ken Griffey, Jr., stepped up to bat in the 1990s. A huge likeness of him was flashed onto a massive television screen to the thrill of tens of thousands of fans. There is far too much adulation today in professional sports. This type of scene is repeated thousands of times during the year in various professional sports forums across the land. I have even observed the actual bowing down of fans toward their favorite player when he accomplishes some amazing feat. There is an absolute hero worship here, and it is becoming grosser by the year. It makes the heart sick. In Isaiah 42:8 God warns that “my glory will I not give to another.”
8. THE SUPERSTITION
Many times I have heard sports announcers say that there is not a more superstitious group than professional sports players. Some obsessively wear the same pair of socks or underwear every game. Great numbers of them have their various lucky charms. Some go through inflexible superstitious routines prior to each game or each at bat or each play. As the pagans of old they are confiding in their “lucky stars,” but this is a form of idolatrous witchcraft (Deut. 18:10-12). Our times are not in the hands of the stars. Our fortunes are not influenced by charms and rituals.
9. THE COMMERCIALISM
Professional sports has always had a strong financial motivation. It is, after all, an occupation pursued for profit. There was a time, though, when it appeared that money was not the only motive, or even the overriding motive, for sports players. Today, by contrast, the gross commercial aspect to professional sports is all pervasive, and the words of those who claim not to be caught up in the gross commercialism of the game sound hollow. Star players are granted multimillion dollar contracts merely for permitting a company to use their name and likeness to sell everything from automobiles to toothpaste. The names and logos of businesses appear on the players shoes, clothes, caps, equipment, everywhere. We wonder when the players will begin allowing themselves to be tattooed with business ads. The stadiums are literally plastered with advertisements. So are the Internet sites and the television and radio productions. Absolutely everything having to do with professional sports today is commercialized to the hilt.
WHAT ABOUT CHRISTIAN SPORTS PLAYERS?
There are professional sports players who are model citizens and good family men and who avoid the general dissoluteness that characterizes their field of endeavor. There are some, in fact, with clear testimonies of faith in Christ. When the Cleveland Indians clenched the American League pennant in October 1997, and pitcher Mike Jackson was interviewed, he said, “I give thanks, first of all, to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Jackson’s fellow Indian pitcher Orel Hershiser is also an outspoken Christian with a good moral testimony. I admire Hershiser in many ways. He is a brilliant pitcher and he boldly professes Christ. He ends his autobiography, Out of the Blue, with these words: “But the only thing that’s going to count in the long run is not my won-loss record or how much I wind up with in my bank book. … Read chapter nine again. It’s the only one that really counts.” (Chapter nine of his book contains the account of how he came to trust Jesus Christ as His Savior.)
It is encouraging to hear such things from the mouths of sports stars, but this does not change the fact that the world of professional sports, generally speaking, is very wicked. It also does not change the fact that there are Scriptural responsibilities which I believe professional players are ignoring.
I do not doubt their faith in Christ (those who hold to a sound Gospel), nor their sincerity. If they maintain a pure testimony and win others to Christ from the sports realm, that is wonderful. In many ways, though, it appears that professional sports players today are disobeying a number of plain exhortations of Scripture.
FIRST, THEY WILLFULLY ABSENT THEMSELVES FROM THE ASSEMBLY. The Lord’s plan is the New Testament assembly, and the Lord’s people are not to forsake it. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:25). A parachurch Bible study cannot take the place of the church. God has established the church to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and that is the church which has pastors (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13). What kind of example do the Christian professional players give to young people in the churches who see them out on the sports field on Sunday morning and Sunday evening when Christian people should be in the house of God under the ministry of God’s Word? Do they not get the message that one can be a great Christian and ignore the house of God? Professional Christian sports players encourage, by their example, weak Christians to follow them and put sports above the commandments of God.
SECOND, THEY WILLINGLY IMMERSE THEMSELVES IN A VERY SENSUAL ATMOSPHERE FOR MONTHS AT A TIME. Attending a major league baseball game has always been a bittersweet experience for me. I enjoy baseball as a game, but I am depressed by the worldly atmosphere. I cannot imagine immersing myself in that atmosphere for thousands of hours each year. Orel Hershiser might be able to remain pure in such a spiritually oppressive, morally tempting atmosphere, but how many young Christians who follow his example will fall to the great temptations which are part and parcel with the professional sports world and will lose their testimony for Christ? I realize that we all live in the world and are exposed to its influence. As Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 5:10-11, if we are to avoid company with wicked people altogether we would have to go out of this world. That is not God’s will. We are in the world to be a testimony for the Gospel. Any man or woman who works a “secular” job is forced to endure things which are worldly. Even so, it does not follow that every job is equally edifying for the Christian. God’s Word warns, for example, against giving my neighbor alcoholic drink (Hab. 2:15). This would restrict a Christian from being employed in the liquor or beer trade. I know of a number of Christians who gave up jobs as bartenders and beer salesmen after they were saved. Theirs was a decision based upon the principles of the Word of God. The Bible also warns against being a partner with a thief (Prov. 29:24). This would restrict a Christian from being employed with any company or field involving any type of dishonest gain. Further, the Bible warns against nakedness and indecency and immodesty. This would restrict the Christian from being employed in certain fields such as prostitution or pornography or modeling (if required to dress or perform indecently), etc. What I am saying is that there are jobs which the Christian should avoid because of scriptural principles. I believe professional sports today might be one of those. “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
THIRD, THOUGH THERE ARE SOME PROFESSIONAL SPORTS PLAYERS WHO HAVE A CLEAR TESTIMONY OF SALVATION, THEY ALMOST ALWAYS FOLLOW THE UNSCRIPTURAL CHARISMATIC AND/OR ECUMENICAL PHILOSOPHY. There might be an exception to this, and I trust there is, but I have never heard of an exception. As a rule, Christian sports stars do not practice biblical separation. They fellowship with anyone “who names the name of Christ” and do not make careful doctrinal distinctions. They do not earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints by exposing false doctrine and marking and avoiding those who practice error (Rom. 16:17; 2 Cor. 6:14-16; Jude 3). These are not obligations which can be ignored. They are not obligations for preachers only. These passages are directed to every child of God.
There are other things which could be mentioned. For example, professional sports players today are sponsored directly or indirectly by beer companies which are responsible for a multitude of wickedness in this world.
(By the way, if there are sports which do not require players to do these things, that is a different matter altogether.)
Can we imagine the Lord’s Apostles smiling upon a first century Christian who desired to join a professional sports team under such circumstances?
In conclusion, WHAT IS THE MESSAGE THAT CHRISTIAN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS PLAYERS ARE SENDING TO THE YOUTH IN OUR CHURCHES? Is it to give oneself unrestrictedly to the Great Commission, to winning souls and building churches throughout the world? I don’t see that. The message which is coming across the loudest to the youth, rather, is that one can have the world and Christ, too. One can pursue the self-oriented goals of sports attainment and ignore many of the responsibilities of Christian discipleship and still have God’s best blessing. From my observation, as the father of two grown boys who played baseball when they were growing up, this is the message which is most powerfully emanating from professional sports stars. The average boy looks at Orel Hershiser and thinks, “I can pursue my worldly dreams like Orel and can make light of the church and of praying seriously about God using me in His Harvest, and I can give myself wholly to Christ later, after I attain that major league career.” It is a pipe dream. The Bible does not speak of the will of God in the future tense; it is always spoken of in the present tense. The will of God is not something to put off until later; it is something to be DONE today!
“No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
TEN REASONS WHY PITTSBURGH PIRATES OUTFIELDER BILLY SUNDAY SAYS HE LEFT BASEBALL IN 1893 (USA Today Baseball Weekly, June 8-14, 1994)
1. Because it is a life which has an undesirable future.
2. Because it develops a spirit of jealousy and selfishness; one’s whole desires are for personal success regardless of what befalls others.
3. Because it tends to indolence as shown by the fact that few use the five months of unemployed time for study and self-improvement and preparation for future pursuit.
4. Because it is better to benefit mankind than to simply amuse them.
5. Because after one attains to a certain standard of efficiency, there is no more room for development.
6. Because it does not develop one for future usefulness; as illustrated by the fact that many ex-ballplayers are engaged in the saloon business.
7. Because it is a life in which morality is not an essential to success; one may be a consummate rogue and a first-class ballplayer.
8. Because reflections on past “grand stand catches,” “great slides to the plate,” “stolen bases,” and the echo of applauding multitudes are very poor food for consolation.
9. Because I felt called of God to do His service.
10. Because of the anticipated contentment (now realized) which comes to any man who finds himself in the right place.