A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.

Why Rowing Is God’s Favorite Olympic Sport

Today, the U.S. women’s eight rowing team won Olympic gold for the second consecutive time. The U.S. women have established a sort of dynasty with this win. Their eight has won six consecutive World Championships since 2006. After watching this race, I’m taking a trip down Memory Lane and re-posting what I wrote about rowing during my one-year study-abroad at Exeter College, Oxford. For those of you who don’t know, I rowed and coxed at Oxford for one year, and coxed at Williams College for two years prior to that.

The Urban Dictionary flippantly defines Crew as “the sport of gods, requires constant physical exertion, perfect poise, balance, timing, awareness, brute force, and a sensitive touch. To err is human, to erg is divine.” But in all serious jesting, I am convinced that if God had a favorite Olympic sport, it would be rowing. Here’s why:

PERSEVERANCE

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” -Romans 5:3-4

Rowing is among the highly selective group of athletic activities that involves all of the major muscle groups in the body. In fact, rowers have one of the highest power outputs among athletes of all sports, because the standard race distance of 2,000 meters is short enough to feel like a sprint, but long enough to have a huge endurance portion. Moreover, the rowing motion compresses the athletes’ lungs, which limits the amount of oxygen intake forcing the rowers to adjust their breathing to the cadence of the stroke. This sets rowing apart from most other sports where one can breathe without any inhibition. Rowers have often been called the most physically fit athletes in the world—and for good reason.

The ESPN Magazine said this about rowing in May 2000:

“The athlete’s anaerobic threshold, the point at which the body’s muscles have exhausted their oxygen store and start burning other fuel. For regular folks, reaching that threshold is quitting time; anaerobic work is 19 times harder than aerobic work. But rowing is all about harder. Elite rowers fire off the start at sprint speed — 53 strokes per minute. With 95 pounds of force on the blade end, each stroke is a weightlifter’s power clean. Rowers cross their anaerobic threshold with that first stroke. Then there are 225 more to the finish line.”

Rowing is about persevering, continuing when both your body and mind demand that you stop and cave in, compromise, conform. Christian life is also about persevering. Just as rowing is not a one-time performance but involves constant exertion, becoming a Christian does not merely involve a one-time recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer but perseverance in faith (Philippians 2:12-13). Being a Christian is about denying yourself (Matthew 16:24)—denying your degenerated flesh which is prone to lust, greed, anger, envy, slander and hubris (Colossians 3:5-10). It’s about refusing to conform to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2)—holding firmly to truth in an increasingly relativistic world. It’s about having compassion and executing justice in a cruel and unfair world (Amos 5:24), and “defend[ing] the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain[ing] the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82:3). Every sin is rooted in some form of unbelief in God and His promises, so every Christian must persevere in faith.

DISCIPLINE

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” -1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Rowing is all about discipline. Rowing practices often take place very early in the morning, because the water traffic is not as busy and the water is often most calm at that time. This is the reason for the saying that rowers do more before 7AM than most people do all day.

Rowers do not train aimlessly, and they do not beat the air. They go into very strict training and spend thousands of hours on an erg (short for ergometer, an indoor torture, I mean rowing, machine). They beat their bodies and master them in order to win that prize.

Furthermore, once on the water, only the coxswain (the driver of the boat whose role I’ll explain later) is allowed to talk in the boat, and only the coxswain gets to look around outside of the boat. In a race setting where a split second could make a difference, by looking outside the boat, a rower could tip the balance of the boat and compromise the motion and timing of the stroke. Also, talking in the boat can create confusion and disorder that can be dangerous. All of this requires great discipline.

INTEGRITY

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” -Matthew 6:1-4

You probably did not watch the U.S. women’s 8 win the Olympic gold medal. I understand, because rowing is not exactly a spectator sport. Only those who have rowed understand the thrill of a regatta. From the outside, it looks tedious and monotonous. For this reason, rowing requires a lot of integrity. Once the flag is dropped and the horn signals the beginning of the race, everybody is watching from a distance. The coach is not next to you to see how hard you are rowing or how well you are rowing. In the end, no one will know who was slacking. The quality of the race depends solely on the integrity of you and your teammates.

In the headwind, when the wind rushes you toward the catch, you have to control your recovery, stay up tall, and swing back powerfully against the wind. The temptation to compromise the integrity of the stroke is constant and ever-present: To stretch a bit less and lose an inch of water with each stroke, to not push hard through the water and finish the stroke late, to lose focus and rush to the catch and disturb the flow and set of the boat, to not swing back and lose power, to bring the blade out of the water early, possibilities are endless, but a good rower puts everything into each stroke and maintains the integrity of every stroke, not for the pleasure or praise of spectators, but for his teammates, for integrity sake. Results will tell.

Likewise, a Christian lives for the invisible God, not to impress people. Whatever a Christian does, he must work at it with all his heart, as working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23).

UNITY

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” -Ephesians 4:3-6

I dare say that rowing, more than any other sport, emphasizes teamwork and unity. Rowing is not the sport for athletes wanting MVP awards and individual recognition.* A rower who tries to stand out or do something differently will only hamper the speed of the boat. Every segment of the stroke must be matched in time with exacting unity. The individuals who sacrifice their personal desires and ambitions for the sake of the crew will win races as a team.

Similarly, every Christian belongs to the Body of Christ–the Church. He does not live to build himself up, but to build up the Church.

*Rowing, by the way, is different from sculling, which one can do alone with one oar in each hand. In sweep rowing, you use two hands to hold one oar, so you need at least two rowers. Each rower takes one side (port/starboard) in a boat of either 2, 4, or 8 rowers.

SYNERGY 

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” -Proverbs 27:17

“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:12

“Marathon runners talk about hitting ‘the wall’ at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole – an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker but an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the five-hundred-meter mark, with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable…Therefore, you are going to die. Welcome to this life.” -Ashleigh Teitel, Rower

“Lay it on the line for the guy in front of you and the guy in back of you.” -Peter Cipollone, the coxswain of the 2004 Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. men’s eight rowing team

The unity and teamwork discussed above contribute to the synergy of a crew. Each member of a crew pushes each other to be faster and better, and, as a team, for the sake of the team, the individual rowers can push themselves far beyond their normal limits. As my Williams coach used to say, in an eight’s race, it’s the eight rowers of the crew versus one rower of the opposing boat, the crew needs only to crack one rower of the opposing crew, and they could seize the victory. This kind of mentality drives a crew race. Analogically, one might break a Christian, but one cannot break the Church, for the Lord promised that “the gates of hades will not overcome [the Church]” (Matthew 16:18).

HUMILITY

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” -Philippians 2:3-8

This bit applies more specifically to coxing rather than rowing, so I will take the time now to explain the role of a coxswain.

The word “coxswain” comes from the Saxon “cockes” (‘for or of the boat’) and “swain” (either ‘lover’ or ‘servant’), and thus means, “Servant of the Boat.” A coxswain is usually small and light, and sits in the stern of the crew shell (boat). The role of a coxswain can be compared to that of a conductor in an orchestra. Coxswain is the heartbeat of the boat, as a conductor is for the orchestra. He does not row himself, just as the conductor himself does not play an instrument, but rather, he is the on-water coach of the boat who sets the stroke rating, makes all the commands, gives technical advice, carries out the practice, determines the power and execution of each stroke, and steers the boat, taking into account wakes, wind direction, and other crews (the boat, by the way, does not go straight when you do not steer). It’s a very versatile, high-pressure role, since a coxswain is responsible for the safety of the Crew and the $30,000 boat, and also because he is the only person that is allowed to talk and look outside the boat in a disciplined crew. The coxswain also motivates his crew through the grueling races, while informing them of the position of the boat vis-à-vis the finish line and other boats. His words and the tone of his voice inspire the trust, confidence, and performance of the rowers just as every stroke of the conductor’s baton sways the orchestra.

This combination of responsibility and simultaneous separation from the rowing itself means that the coxswain often takes a little more than the due blame, and little less than the due credit. This type of servant leadership requires great humility and resembles very closely the Christian model of leadership. Jesus Christ bore the full penalty of our disobedience to God so that we can enjoy the rewards of His perfect obedience.

Ultimately, every Olympian strives for a medal that will not last, but a Christian lives for a medal that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). This eternal medal, however, cannot be earned with our own strength. No matter how hard rowers row, without a good coxswain, they will steer headlong in the wrong direction. Likewise, no matter how hard we work in our lives, we cannot attain eternal salvation unless we humble ourselves and surrender our control to Jesus Christ. Do you have a coxswain for your boat? Is Jesus Christ driving and directing your life? I sure hope so.