Recently, international students stayed with us at Christmas.
Toward the end of their stay, we had a luncheon with host families, the students, the Christmas international house team, and some folks from the congregation. The students introduced themselves and talked about their home countries and their experiences in this country. People asked questions, which were readily answered. The opportunity was given for the international students to ask questions of the Americans.
The entire luncheon conversation had been polite, subdued and enjoyable.
Then one of the students asked a question, “So what is the meaning of sports in this country?” The place went wild.
People spoke of learning about teamwork, competition, winning and losing. They spoke of learning appropriate ways to deal with aggression. They spoke of exercise and fun. There was a lot of energy in the responses, mostly from the men in the room, interjecting one idea after another. They spoke of learning lessons in sports that were helpful in business.
Interestingly enough, most of the responses were about playing sports, even though most of the people in the room are no longer athletes, if they ever were. One of the men admitted he had no interest in sports whatsoever, and that was the reason his wife married him. One of the women in the room confessed her husband’s lack of interest in sports, was one of the things that attracted her to him, although now instead of being a sports widow, she’s a hunting widow.
Later, as my husband was watching Duke basketball on TV, our guest Lina asked, “Why do you watch the game? Why don’t you just wait until it’s over and find out who won?”
I fell over laughing, waiting to hear what my spouse and son would say. They talked about enjoying watching the finesse of the players, understanding the intricacies of the plays, and the rivalries with friends about the games. Their rivalries are not just about wins and losses, they include arguing about calls.
In our congregation, there are a number of folks with season tickets for Panthers games. On afternoon game days, sometimes their seats are empty on Sunday mornings, sometimes they add to the numbers of the 8 o’clock service. One of the men in the congregation even made me a Panthers stole, which I wear whenever I’m not afraid I’ll be struck by lightning. During football season, Fort Mill Rotary meetings are alive with people testing each others’ mettle around the college teams.
I have a brother-in-law who’s depressed for days if Duke loses a basketball game, and the loudest football fan I know is a woman who graduated from Auburn.
As much as we argue about whether the United States is a Christian nation, I think it can reasonably be argued that sports are our national religion. Amazing amounts of money, time and passion are invested in sports in the United States. I really enjoy going to live sporting events, and having lived in many number parts of the country, have been privileged to see many college and professional teams play-especially baseball, football and basketball.
But I do think this question is a good one: what is the meaning of sports in this country? There are many possibilities, lots of them offered by members of our congregation in response to her question. I think one of the other possibilities is idolatry, investing our interest and passion in sports rather than our relationship with God.
The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, near the intersection of Hwy 160 and Gold Hill Road. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.