When you are the father of an athletic twelve-year old and eight-year old, you know more than you want to know about gyms, football fields, baseball diamonds, and soccer fields. You know how time consuming those places are. You know how much gas it takes to get to them. You know how much it costs for your kid to not only be there but be wearing the cool garb all the other kids are wearing. You’re life is not your own. You lost it all over again when they handed you the latest schedule. Of course, it’s been so long since you had it, you barely remember those days anyway.
A Christian with any degree of spiritual discernment can understand that sports has reached the status of idolatry in this country. But what many don’t understand is just how far down into the age brackets the idolatry has worked itself. A World Series in which the President throws out the first pitch and each player on the field is a millionaire is just the tip of the iceberg. A Super Bowl that offers Bruce Springsteen as halftime entertainment doesn’t paint the full picture. Neither does a Final Four where hundreds of fans have spent a couple weeks worth of paychecks just to sit in the nosebleed section of a dome and watch the games on a big screen. The fact is, the idolatry is in early bloom all the way down into the youth leagues.
The same parent who doesn’t mind calling in sick to work over a mere sniffle turns into Indiana Jones to get a kid to a game early Saturday morning. “Here’s the assignment, Dr. Jones, should you choose to accept it: Drag your child out of bed over protest (no bullwhip, please), get a uniform on the deadhead, grab a few Pop Tarts (the real breakfast of champions) on your way out the door, climb into the family truckster, exceed the speed limit, commit at least two cases of road rage, get to the site one minute after you were supposed to be there, watch the game and see your kid not do what he has been coached to do, drive back home as you fuss at the kid for not doing what he has been coached to do, and then spend the rest of your Saturday collapsed around the house trying to recover from the assignment.” Any takers? The hands of parents go up all over the countryside.
You say you are up for a sequel? Fine, let’s toss around a few more ideas. We could have Indy be forced to hunt down and buy a new, expensive football helmet because the one they gave his kid for standard issue looks like something Dick Butkus turned in at the end of the 1967 Chicago Bears season. Or we could have the coach of Indy’s kid suggest that Indy buy a lighter bat for the kid because the team has only three bats and none of them is light enough. And then, after Indy has shelled out $250 for the new bat, we’ll have three or four other kids on the team want to use it. Now we’re talking! And Indy will have to teach his child the lesson of sharing with those who haven’t contributed one dime to the cause. Oh, baby, I smell Oscar!
If I sound like I have an intimate knowledge of youth league sports, it’s because, for years now, I’ve moved through my calendar year by rotating from one youth sport to the next. In the spring and summer, it’s been baseball. In the fall, it’s been soccer and football. In the winter, it’s been basketball. I’ve been a head coach and an assistant coach. I’ve been a parent and a fan. I’ve been involved with everything from recreation league teams that didn’t win a game to “travel” teams made up exclusively of all-stars. And what has all of my experience taught me? I point you back to my earlier assertion: Youth sports is oftentimes nothing less than idolatry in early bloom.
I really don’t know what else to call it. One of the definitions that Webster’s Dictionary gives for “idol” is: “Any object of passionate devotion.” One of the definitions it gives for “idolatry” is: “Excessive love or veneration for any person or object.” An idol doesn’t have to be a graven image standing in your backyard. It doesn’t have to be a golden statue in the midst of an elaborate temple. An idol can be anything upon which you pour an inordinate amount of time, energy, money, and zeal.
Show me a father who won’t put a dime in the church offering plate but will gladly pay $175 for his kid to have that hot new pair of Nike basketball shoes, and I’ll show you an idol worshipping father. Show me a mother who won’t volunteer to do anything at church but thinks nothing of working the concession stand at the ball field or baking cookies for the fundraiser for her child’s soccer team, and I’ll show you an idol worshipping mother. Even if the father or mother is a Christian, it’s hard to deny that their purest worship goes to youth sports, not Jesus.
Just as some churches have “children’s church” or “wee worship” to train their children how to worship in the sanctuary with the adults, our society does the same kind of thing with the worship of sports. We use youth leagues to get our children ready to worship at the larger athletic stages. When a child never sees a parent praying, but often sees the parent arguing umpires’ calls, the child gets the message: Arguing umpires’ calls is important; prayer isn’t. When a child never sees a parent reading the Bible, but the parent knows the league rulebook from A to Z, the child gets the message: Knowing the rulebook is important; knowing the Bible isn’t. Kids aren’t stupid, and they pay more attention than we realize. It doesn’t take them long to figure out where our priorities lie. Once they’ve done this, all they have to do is embrace those same priorities and grow up. That’s how you build adults who worship sports more than Christ.
So, what should you, as the Christian parent of a child involved in youth sports, do about this problem? Let me suggest three things. Bear in mind that I don’t pretend this is an all-inclusive list. I offer it merely as an attempt to help you put on your thinking cap.
First, do an honest-to-goodness self-evaluation. Be real as to how big the problem is in your life. I know some Christian parents who genuinely have youth sports in a right perspective and balance. On the other hand, I know others who are way out of the banks on this issue. Where are you? Compare what you do for youth sports to what you do for your Savior. As the old saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem. If you have one, admit it.
Second, sit down with your child and ask questions you never ask. “Do you still enjoy playing this sport?” “Are you playing because you want to play or because you think I want you to play?” “Do you dread going to practice or the games?” “Has playing this sport made you more confident or less confident?” You might be surprised at the answers you get. Never take away a sport your child enjoys playing, but don’t make the child keep playing if the experience has turned painfully sour. It’s true that kids sometimes need to be pushed, particularly kids who are naturally lazy. But it’s also true that some parents keep their kids playing because to let them quit would be embarrassing to the parents, not the kids.
Third, get your worship back into proper alignment by rededicating yourself to Christ. This will knock youth sports off the throne of your life and give Jesus back His rightful place. If you will make this one big decision, it will take care of so many little decisions. Does Jesus want you to make a fool of yourself by arguing with an umpire? No. Does He want you to pull your child away from church Sunday after Sunday because your travel team plays in weekend tournaments that keep you constantly on the road and out of town? No. Does He want you to make your child keep playing a sport simply because if the child doesn’t keep at it he will never make the high school team? No. You see, once you have rededicated yourself to Jesus, that familiar question, “What would Jesus do?” takes on a whole new importance. If Jesus wouldn’t do something, you shouldn’t do it.
Perhaps by now you’re thinking that I’ve been reading either your mind or your mail. I haven’t. It’s just that, as I said, I know this subject very well. And, despite the conclusion you may have already drawn about me, I do know that sports doesn’t automatically equate to idolatry. Sports is fine when kept within acceptable parameters. It can even be a great thing. It promotes exercise, teaches teamwork, and rewards extra effort. It’s only when sports gets taken to the point of fanaticism, craze, and downright absurdity that it becomes idolatry. In that case, it has no place in the life of the Christian.
In the end, I certainly don’t expect our society to repent of its ways. I’ll bank on seeing a stadium full of people, on a Sunday at 1:00 p.m., in frigid weather, cheering wildly at a Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers game this season. Those folks won’t all have just come from Sunday morning services either. We Christians, however, must reserve our worship for Jesus. More than that, we must show our kids just how devoted we are to Him. If that involves adjusting our mindset, so be it. If it involves missing a game, so be it. If it involves the extreme of quitting a sport, so be it. We must do whatever is necessary to bring every area our lives, including the area of youth sports, under the lordship of Christ. This won’t just help our kids; it will help us. And, after all, aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be molding and shaping them?