Sports and Struggle

Did you hear what Clemson University coach Dabo Swinney said after his football team’s decisive victory over Alabama? On national TV, he said his word for the year was JOY: Jesus, Others, and You—as in the order of whom we serve first. After being asked about how it felt to be college football national champions, he chalked it up to the grace of “the good Lord.”

Have you ever wondered why there is so much Christian expression in sports? Players from opposing sides huddle midfield after games to pray. Bible verses are visible on wrapped wrists and tattooed arms. Signs of the cross are made after big plays.

Why is faith woven into the sports culture in America?

Because sports has become one of our culture’s epicenters of struggle. And struggle brings us to our knees.

A friend of mine who played for the Dallas Cowboys said, “It’s not an easy thing to have your entire career rest on sixteen chances to prove yourself.” He was referring to the number of games in an NFL regular season. The pressure to be great is immense and concentrated. The risk of injury is high. The rigor of workouts and the high expectations of both coaches and the public create a weight of concentrated anxiety that can leave a person broken. Even the all-out exertion of the game itself—a battle to win or lose—is rare in our culture of convenience and ease.

Sport is a cultural location where truth shows up. Sports pierces the thin veil of human invulnerability with anxiety, trouble, temptation, and failure.

So players pray. They foster communities of faith. They seek their refuge and strength in times of trouble. They lean on the One who overcame the world. They cling to unchanging JOY in the midst of temporary abilities and fickle audiences.

Sports isn’t the only place where the struggle of our fallenness shows up. But in a culture that is skilled at masking the effects of our sinful brokenness and justifying our ungodly rebellion, the Illusion that everything is okay and that we can be anything we want holds fairly firm. Until you’re crushed by struggle.

It is then that you are not only ready for but crave lasting hope in the midst of hopelessness. So Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Find where people struggle—articulate it, reveal it, understand it with compassion—and you will find a place to bring the gift of the Gospel, the person of Jesus, the blessing of baptism, the comfort of the Lord’s Supper, the lifeline of prayer, and the support of a community. Let the veil of invulnerability be pierced regularly for all of us so that we may cry out with the thief on the cross, “Jesus, remember me.”

By Rev. Michael Newman

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