The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

A Covenantal View of Sports Mania

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In January, 2007, David Beckham, an aging European soccer player, signed a contract worth a quarter of a billion dollars to play soccer in the United States. There is something fundamentally at odds with common sense here. In the same month, the University of Alabama, a tax-funded university, agreed to pay a new football coach four million dollars a year, plus bonuses if his team gets into a bowl game. How could this happen?

Odd as it may seem, there is a theological issue here: the doctrine of representation. The biblical doctrine of representation says that every man is represented judicially before God by one of two men: Adam or Christ. Either Adam's sin is imputed judicially by God to a person or else Christ's perfect humanity is imputed. There is no third choice. To use the analogy of a race, life on earth is a two-man race. Each of us is represented by one of two runners. Your representative finishes either first or last. So do you. There are no second-place or third-place medals.

Men want to avoid thinking about time and eternity in terms of judicial representation before the throne of God. The stakes in such a race are too high. The doctrine of judicial imputation is too theocentric. It places too much authority in the declarative acts of God. So, men seek to be represented in other ways. The most popular ways are corporate more than individual. Men gain representation by participating in corporate liturgy.

Somebody must represent the public. Politics is a popular means of representation in democratic societies. We have seen more than our fair share of messianic politicians in this humanistic century, each promising the advent of a golden age. But the public's faith is waning in political salvation. President Jimmy Carter seriously damaged the American democratic religion with his famous pre-election words, "Trust me." The phrase became a cynical joke once he was in office. Anyone who trusts a politician is setting himself up for a disappointment.

Sports and Representation
The American South had no public schools until after the unfortunate unpleasantness of 1861-65. Today, they are part of the South's way of life.

It is a well-known fact that if every high school football game in Texas would end in a 0-0 tie for just one year, Christian high schools would fill up the next year. Texans would see this as the judgment of God against public education. But if AIDS were an epidemic in a public high school with a 15-0 football record, there would be no drop in enrollment at least until the team started losing the following year.

Support for state universities in the South is derived more from the voters' enthusiasm for winning football teams than from Nobel Prize winners on their faculties. This is reflected in the won-loss records of Southern universities compared with Nobel Prizes granted.

In recent decades, we have seen a new phenomenon: the rise of the professional athlete as a public representative. This has paralleled the waning of faith in politics. "All politics is local," said the late Tip O'Neill. Spoken as a Boston Irish pol! In fact, the Presidency is the focal point of American politics -- "the greased pig of American politics," as Ambrose Bierce wrote a century ago in his cynical Devil's Dictionary. But as men have become skeptical of Presidents, they have become skeptical of politics generally. Meanwhile, they have become sports fanatics.

Men cheer for sports teams that they believe in some way represent them. Professional sports teams are seen as representing entire cities, though rarely towns. An urban fan is an emotional participant in the affairs of his local major league team. He sees himself as part of a larger enterprise. If his team wins, he wins in some emotional sense. If his city's team is the best, someone may notice him, he may think. "We really did well yesterday," he tells his male companions after a vicarious victorious day on the playing field.

The appearance of the multi-millionaire professional athlete is a very recent phenomenon. It has taken place since the mid-1960's. In the United States, only major league baseball provided significant income opportunities to athletes prior to World War II, and only to white superstars like Babe Ruth. (When it was pointed out to Ruth by a reporter that he had made more money in 1930 than the President of the United States, he replied: "I had a better year than he did." He was correct.)

Why professional sports? Why now? Because the United States is suffering from a collapse of covenants. There is no escape in this life or the next from the doctrine of covenantal representation. This representation is both personal and corporate. Deny either aspect of representation, and covenantalism becomes lopsided or even perverse.

Professional football has become the most representative professional sport in the United States. Why? First, because the number of games is limited. Each game counts for more in the outcome of the league's standings. Second, and more important, because the games are usually played on Sunday. Monday night football is an anomaly: the one national game each week that has no competition from the other teams in the league. Sunday games are an alternative to attending church services. Watching televised professional football on Sunday has become a form of communion. Men get together weekly to celebrate the sport's sacraments, beer and pizza. They cheer or moan, depending on the outcome of the "big play."

Men have searched for new forms of representation as they have lost faith in the older forms: church, family, and state. Mainline church membership has shrunk since 1965, divorce rates have risen, and voters stay home by the tens of millions on Election Day. They would stay home in greater numbers if the elections were held on Sundays.

If the Presidential election were held on Superbowl Sunday, I wonder how many men would show up. I know this: Women would take over American politics.

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