Across the United States of America, athletes of various ages are strapping on their helmets, administrators are coordinating pep rallies and fans are clearing their weekends—football season is in full swing. Our schedules are filled with football on many different levels: Thursday night NFL, JV and freshman games; Friday night high school varsity games; all of Saturday college games; and Sunday and Monday night NFL games. But before we jump in headlong or continue in our fandom, we need to ask ourselves, “How do I enjoy football season as a Christian?” Most of us probably haven't given this any serious thought. Some of us even think it’s overboard to ask.
Because football is so ingrained in our culture, we subconsciously place it in its own category apart from Christianity. But if we're Christians first, everything is affected by the truth of the gospel—even football. In this season, we have an opportunity to show our communities and the culture around us that Christ is better than football. In Jesus, we have freedom to enjoy football but also to submit our enjoyment of it to our heavenly Father. From my perspective as a high school football coach, there are a few things I think can help us remember to keep the gospel central while we savor this beloved fall season.
Wins and Losses, Nothing Lasts Forever
Christians can live in and appreciate moments better than any other people on this earth because we receive everything as a gift from God. We don't worship football; we worship the God who gives it to us freely for our pleasure. This means we process wins and losses differently than the world does—everything is temporal. In the end, losses and perfect seasons will be forgotten.
We can be the most dedicated fans—cheering faithfully regardless of our team's win-loss record—unlike our bandwagoning counterparts. We can be dedicated players—approaching every workout and game with faithfulness to crafting our athletic gifts. We can be faithful and creative coaches—producing ingenious game plans and risky schemes to help our players enjoy the game. And in all situations, we hold the results loosely and consider them opportunities to behold the beauty of God through sport.
But if we find ourselves motivated or devastated by the result of a game—if the outcome of our day hinges on a group of coaches and athletes “succeeding” or “failing” in a mere game—we might want to ask ourselves if we’re participating and engaging with sports as faithful Christians.
You Are Not Your Team
Football is unique in its ability to bring people of all ages, races, genders and religions together for a few hours. Our team loyalty is tied to memories of cheering with family and friends; it represents our hometowns and reminds us of our high school and college years.
That same loyalty can become obsessive, and we can feel entitled to complain and develop a disgust for our coaches, programs, owners or organizations when they don’t perform as we thought they would.
But does our loyalty give us the right to act in these ways? Furthermore, does our loyalty vindicate us to agitate and lord our wins over people who don't cheer for our teams? Christian, we already know the answer: Love does not boast, is not rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
But if we're Christians first, everything is affected by the truth of the gospel—even football.
A lighthearted rivalry with close friends can foster camaraderie and wholesome fellowship, but if our records consume us and we purposely annoy people with our fandom or become depressed because of how our team performs, we should think deeply about the messages we are communicating to our culture and what that conveys about the state of our hearts. Without being rooted in the gospel, our hearts attach their worth to something we have no control over and owe no allegiance to.
Players also grapple with worth—worth in their team, how well they contribute to that team, if and how they play—but this, too, is counter-gospel. God has already placed us on His team because He loves us as His children, even at our worst (Rom. 5:8). This has been settled by Jesus’ perfect performance that makes us righteous. So, whether players play a little, a lot or not at all, their actions and attitudes should all flow from a forgiven state of grace and humility.
We Are All Image Bearers
And that grace and humility must extend to everyone. In a game, a kicker will miss a game-winner. A defensive back will whiff on a tackle. Your favorite running back might fumble at a crucial moment. Your team's receiver will drop a pass when you're counting on him. In the world of fantasy football, one of your players will have a poor performance. A referee is going to make a questionable call against your team. A coach will make a bad decision that puts the players in a tough predicament. It’s all inevitable. But we can’t forget that each of these folks are human beings created in the image of God—they’re people too.
I remember watching a game and becoming so enthralled that I wished one star player's leg would get blown out. When my friend's mom rightly scolded me for the comment, I was convicted. I wasn't being love. I was envious and rejoicing at wrongdoing (1 Cor. 13:4, 6). As a coach, it is easy to find myself doing the same thing. I sometimes see my players as objects and not persons, especially as I spend hours and hours on a game plan they may or may not execute. This way of thinking denies my players the love and value that they are due because they, too, are image bearers.
So, when we become frustrated with players, refs and coaches and even wish ill upon them, we set our faith aside and forget that these individuals are created in the image of God. But when we uphold their value and dignity, we communicate what matters more to us than a game: Jesus.
A Better Football Season
The truths of the gospel free us to approach every practice like preparation for a state title, anticipate every game like a Super Bowl, and treat every play like a new exciting gift from God. We get to live in and enjoy all of these moments and share more of Jesus while we're doing it because we don't live in our wins and losses. Whatever the outcome of a game or season, we do it living in and for the glory of God. We serve a gracious God who allows us to enjoy His mission through the game of football. Let's use our behaviors and attitudes this season to communicate whom we treasure as we show the world that there is more value in Christ than there ever will be in the wins and losses of football games. Football is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.