When It Comes to Sports, What Is Missing is Sportsmanship

Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl last night to Oklahoma and my Facebook feed blew up with people either bragging or griping or being defensive toward others, as though they were the ones on the field playing the game. When Auburn beat Alabama over a month ago, Christians who were Bama fans in our state were afraid to go to church the next day because of the ragging that that they would get from Auburn fans. They knew that they were going to hear it because, in many cases, they had been dealing the same ridicule to Auburn fans over the past few years – or, they had relationships with Auburn fans who they knew would target them for insult and they didn’t want to go through it. Families are often divided and friendships end. A group of 18-22 year old kids that you have never met play a game on a field far away from where you are that you get to watch on a box in your house and you feel even better or worse about yourself depending on the outcome. It is silly on a massive scale.
The worst of it, though, is the way that sports fans crow in victory over others and cower in defeat. Why do we rub a win by our team in the face of fans from the other team? Why do we feel the need to throw our fandom around as a badge of honor? Why are we so critical of our team when they do not play well? I was watching LSU (my team) play Iowa in its bowl game the other day and I realized that I had been shaking my head in disdain nonstop for about 10 minutes because they were struggling. It was just my natural reaction as I was critical of everything that LSU did. I realized what I was doing as my neck began to hurt from the constant motion and I stopped. What was wrong with me? I was falling for the lie again – the lie that unless my team plays perfectly and destroys the opponent, there is something wrong.
What is missing from the equation is sportsmanship. The fine folks over at Wikipedia define Sportsmanship thusly: Sportsmanship is an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors. A sore loser refers to one who does not take defeat well, whereas a good sport means being a “good winner” as well as being a “good loser.”

We have a lot of “sore losers” in our midst. Sore winners, too. I can be one myself. We live in a culture where personal exploits and competition have been ground down to the mere level of being a spectator. We live in a virtual world of TV watching, armchair political punditry, video games, and watching other people play sports. We do not know what it means (or, we have forgotten) to personally engage in the arena – any arena, really. So, we have no respect for our opponents or opposing fans and we live vicariously through people that we do not know, both praising them and criticizing them mercilessly. We forget that our favorite team is going against another worthy opponent who has also worked hard and is laying themselves out there to win. We forget that opposing fans are people just like us who have rooted for their team, often for their entire lives, and are happy when they win just like we are. We forget the humanity of the sport and reduce it to what will make us most happy in the moment irrespective of the involvement of real people playing on real fields of competition. Our selfishness is projected onto the box we watch or the arena that we attend and our sense of worth and identity rise and fall based on what others do with a ball. We have become bad sports all around.

This is, of course, a form of idolatry. When our emotions are affected by a game that we watch and we take it to the level of being in conflict with others over it, we have not just taken things too far in our response, but we have become corrupted ourselves. We have let a game dictate our lives, emotional well-being, and how we interact with other people. Games are meant to be enjoyed and I think that God created us to play games and engage in recreation and to cheer and join together with others in competition. There is a really good side to it and I think that it can be healthy. But, the old fashioned, out-dated concept of Sportsmanship is necessary to enjoy sports in its proper perspective. Respect your opponent. Appreciate good play from all sides. Don’t take your team losing personally. Find a way to congratulate others for their own accomplishments. Instead of seeing Sportsmanship as weakness, we should see it as strength and an expression of a proper perspective on life.

Engaging in good sportsmanship also takes humility. Perhaps our real problem is our pride and the fact that we seem to get our sense of personal worth and identity from all the wrong places. As a Christian, good sportsmanship is a manifestation of me getting my worth and identity from God and not from what happens in a game. Good sportsmanship, for the Christian in the arena of sport, is a picture of what it means to be a citizen of Heaven instead of Earth. I never really saw it that way, in the past, as I thought that the goal of good sportsmanship was to simply be nice for the sake of being nice. But, now I see it as an expression of what I really value and what I think is most important in life.

Games are fun and are meant to be enjoyed. But, without good sportsmanship, they just become another idol that corrupts us. And, they also become a massive waste of time and energy.

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