Athletic Competition

Our society is greatly invested in athletic competitions.  Spectator sports abound; the average person enjoys seeing accomplished athletes achieve success, even to the point of “idolizing” the icons of sport (fans support enormous contracts; watch sports on TV; wear logoed clothing; seek autographs and other memorabilia; visit halls of fame; etc.).

Participatory sports are also popular for various reasons:  health, competition, camaraderie, personal challenge, etc.  Much money is spent on equipment, memberships, fees, travel and other expenses associated with our favorite sport. 

Consider these questions followed by my own observations:

1. Is engagement in sport sinful per se?  Scripture does not condemn athletic competition.  To the contrary, a life of faith is analogized to running a race (1 Cor 9:24; Heb 12:1) and boxing (1 Cor 9:26).  Paul refers to the focus and discipline needed to excel in athletics as a metaphor of spiritual effort.  “Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Cor 9:25).

However, anything can become sinful if we allow it to compromise our spirituality.  Some teach their children that athletics take precedence over worship and Bible study.  Others may spend too much money on their sport.  Hobbies can rob us of time and opportunity to serve the Lord.

2. Where does the Bible specifically endorse or authorize the playing of sports?  This question is misguided in its demand for specific authority.  We may as well ask for specific Scriptural endorsement of taking out bank loans to buy a church building or singing hymns in four-part harmony.  Sports are recreational activity, and surely God generically approves of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation of our minds and bodies (the Sabbath; Jesus’ time away from the hustle and bustle with His disciples; etc.).    

Further, Jesus acknowledged the games children play in the marketplace (Mt 11:16-17), thereby implicitly recognizing the natural value of such activities to mental and moral development, societal acculturation, practical learning of concepts such as teamwork, sacrifice, self-control, winning and/or losing with grace, respect for rules and authority, etc.

3. Isn’t watching sports tantamount to supporting the gaming industry?  I believe this is a non-sequitur.  It is true that many sports are used as a basis of gambling – billions of dollars annually by conservative, informed estimates.  There are many legitimate elements of life that are used in illicit ways by the unscrupulous.  Is it wrong to buy a car from a dealer since dealers are notorious for deceit and taking advantage of unwary buyers?  Is it wrong to see a clean, positive-message movie when my ticket purchase supports a predominantly ungodly industry?  Is it wrong to attend a golf tournament or football game when the venue is a prime purveyor of alcoholic beverages and vulgar language? 

Granted, some otherwise innocent activities might need to be avoided by Christians due to a deleterious influence upon our morals, but this is a matter of individual judgment and self-evaluation.  Casual connection with something unseemly doesn’t make an activity sinful per se.

4. Doesn’t watching sports promote violence?  This may be the most legitimate consideration of the four.  Society is grappling with brain injuries associated with football but is sorely inconsistent on the matter (the UFC is celebrated without a peep of concern).  When Dale Earnhart, Sr. was killed at Daytona in 2001 a safety overhaul of the sport led to changes that have not seen a NASCAR driver killed since.  Risk is inherent in life, and just because a sport is dangerous does not mean it is spiritually illicit.  For me, two issues are paramount:  flagrant recklessness and deliberately inflicting injury.  Some sports are a blatant temptation of fate (wingsuit flying; extreme skiing; etc.).  Success in other athletics is measured by maximizing harm to an opponent.  Such “sports” are difficult to spiritually justify.