The smell of barbecued beef, chicken or hot dogs sizzling hours before that first kick. Grown men collapsing on the floor because of the shanked extra point. The possibility that your team could beat any given team on any given week. A variety of ages and ethnicities, shirtless and bundled, team logos and body paint, all chanting in unison.
To call it an emotional sport would be an understatement. To say it’s a roller coaster might be cliché. But to say it captures the hearts and encapsulates the season of fall for many Americans would be nothing short of the truth.
In fact, as much as that might sound like hyperbole, the narrative of football actually has the ability to fundamentally shape who we are, especially as we watch the games, read the articles and listen to sports radio week in and week out.
You see, we live as disciples formed by the narratives of our culture. So, whether it’s shows like The Walking Dead, songs by Adele or the weekly rhythm of the football season, what we consume shapes how we think and feel. As we engage ritualistically and regularly, what we watch, read and listen to begins to form a lens by which we see and view our world.
The Christian’s call isn’t to avoid these mediums all together but to engage them proactively. So, as we get closer to bowl season and then into that horrific hibernation from CFB, here are three false narratives we need to be cognizant of regarding this favored sport.
In October, I was depressed when my team lost their first game. I couldn’t stop thinking about our (the team’s) future once we lost again. Stop judging me! Whether crimson red, burnt orange or neon green, there are times when those shades seemingly and sadly color everything about our lives. College football fans, like myself, run the risk, admittedly like any sports fanatic, of flying like a kite after a win and/or sinking like a dead weight after a loss. We run the risk of shortsightedness not only with wins and losses, but even toward the heart of the game.
Likewise, shortsightedness on the field can creep and seep into the way we live our lives throughout the week. As believers, we are called to evaluate all in light of eternity, and, in that light, sometimes our greatest act of faith is faithfulness, whether it’s studying for one more test, changing one more diaper or filling out one more tax form. Faithfully being a disciple and making disciples—and fighting to not forget both—are all works in progress. We have the tendency to want to crank up the oven and be baked into perfection in 30 minutes, whereas the truth is a transformation from one degree to another (1 Cor. 3:18). We want every minute to be epic, and our God is calling us to see that every minute is when lived faithfully for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31). If we're not careful, we’ll let this narrative of college football become the narrative of our lives.
2. Seeing People as Objects
The New York Times recently ran a great piece on fantasy football and the tendency to dehumanize the players. But we do this, too, when we yell at 19-year-old men in spandex throwing pigskins from our living room couches, as our friends and family look on in horror. We have a bent to see coaches only through a wins and losses column. It’s why a kicker fears for his life in some college towns after missing a field goal or why a quarterback may return to his apartment to find it trashed.
This same tendency can find its way into our churches and the way we interact with other members of the body. I heard a story this year of a coach who told a kicker before a possible game-winning field goal, “I love you whether or not you make this kick.” That sounds crazy in our sports culture, and at the same time this communicates the good news of Jesus. Our identity isn’t based in what we do or what our teams do.
JR Vassar has said that, in a culture of utility, the people of God must prioritize loving people over using people. Every person you interact with in the body of Christ is someone Jesus laid His life down for (John 21:17). And every person you interact with is a potential future heir of the kingdom, made in the image of God. While the game of football might be an avenue in which people are seen as objects, we can’t allow ourselves to fall into this pattern; we are called to unconditional love that values people over performance.
3. Spectator Mentality
One of the mantras our community uses to curb overzealous football outbursts is something along the lines of, “Remember, these are 18-year-olds in tights, throwing around a pigskin!” In other words, the anger, intensity and emotion from fans doesn’t match the reality of the situation. It becomes easy to criticize and not create, as we watch others engaging and playing. It’s easy to become experts on everything that is wrong with a situation, especially from the vantage of our high-definition TVs.
The beauty of hearing, speaking and singing the good news of Jesus is that it reminds us we have not just received the kingdom, but we are now called to be participants of the kingdom. We don’t just point out darkness; we are called to push back darkness (1 Pet. 2:9-10). We aren’t just the people that advocate against abortions; we are the people that engage in adoption, foster care and all issues of life. We don’t simply speak out for community but we invite the least and the last to our dinner tables. This is also true for our worship gatherings: We gather to take part in the service, not to just sit back and watch. In a world consumed by entertainment, especially college football, we must remind ourselves that we are caught up as participants in the grand gospel narrative, not spectators.
A Grander, Shaping Narrative
So, here’s my confession: I’m obsessed with college football. I know the top 10 recruits for my team. I watch multiple games every Saturday. I lose my cool over these pigskins and field goal posts. But I am slowly and steadily becoming aware of the primary narratives that are shaping my life. And becoming cognizant of them has brought a push to be courageous enough to reprioritize them, as well. (My family collectively shouts “Amen!”) This, of course, begs the question: What about you? What are the narratives you are buying into? What needs to change? How is the gospel shaping and changing you?
The beauty of the good news of Jesus amid roasting barbecue, flying pennants and game-day talking heads is that it reorients and reshapes what we love and what we do. We can freely trade in shortsightedness for a vision of faithfulness, renounce viewing people as objects and announce the freedom of serving divine image-bearers, and gladly participate and not simply spectate. In light of that shaping narrative, Saturdays have never felt so free.