The Idolatry of Sports
by Jon Payne
A few years ago, a friend treated my son and me to a tour of St. James’ Park, the home grounds of Newcastle United F.C., a famous English Premier League soccer club. Having spent a good portion of my life on the soccer pitch, I could not help but be impressed by the beautifully manicured (and heated) playing surface, palatial locker rooms, and illustrious trophy collection. St. James’ Park is truly a first-class stadium. As the tour continued, however, I began to feel uncomfortable. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Newcastle United was more than just a soccer team to the tour guide. The team was his identity, his religion, his life.
After the tour, we hunted for a souvenir in the stadium shop. Sadly, we found a shirt that audaciously declared, “St. James’ Park is My Church & Newcastle United is My God.” Not only was this declaration blasphemous, it was a stark reminder that idolatry comes in all forms; yes, even sports.
Idolatry is the replacement of God with something else, the yielding of our primary devotion and chief affections to anything or anyone besides the Lord. It is the “giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 47; see Isa. 42:8). Indeed, the first commandment unequivocally states, “You shall have no other gods before me. . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Ex. 20:3, 5). Dear believer, God will entertain no rivals—sports included.
I grew up the oldest son of a prominent sportswriter and have been around sports for as long as I can remember. For many years, my dad was the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. He covered major international soccer matches and multiple college sports. He introduced me to dozens of famous athletes, many of whom inspired me to pursue and realize my own athletic dreams. As a result, I am very thankful for sports. They have played an important and valuable role in my life. Sports bring people together. They encourage health and fitness. They cultivate grit and discipline. They provide an array of life lessons. They can also be a wholesome source of entertainment. Sports are a gift from God. However, as with anything, if we are not careful, the gift can supplant the Giver. Sports can become a golden calf that leads us down the path of idolatry.
A friend and former college football star told my son, “Sports are great, but they make a terrible god.” This is a message that athletes and sports fans need to hear today, especially since sports are given such an inordinately prominent status in our culture.
Do sports hold a higher priority in your life than Jesus? Is God on the sidelines of your heart? Have your Lord’s Days morphed into sports days? May sports never take precedence over your relationship with or devotion to the living God. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).