The Vanity of Sports

For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23, N.K.J.V.)

Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts all-pro quarterback, retired last week. He is 29 years old and had one of his best seasons last year. Between the contracts, contract extensions, and endorsement deals he would have enjoyed over the next decade or so, he left a ton of money on the table. One estimate put the possible overall total at a half a BILLION dollars.

So why did this relatively young superstar voluntarily quit the sport he had played since he was a little boy, the sport that had made him rich and famous and promised to make him more of both? His stated reason was that the constant injuries he received while playing professional football, coupled with the mental drain of the seemingly endless cycle of injury-rehab-injury-rehab-injury-rehab, had taken all the joy out of the sport. In case you are wondering, the list of injures Luck incurred while playing in the NFL reads as follows: torn cartilage in two ribs, a partially torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, at least one concussion, a torn labrum that required surgery on his throwing shoulder, and a calf/ankle injury that is still currently plaguing him.

The day after Luck’s press conference another NFL superstar, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired at the age of 30 immediately following last season, commented on how he too had felt robbed of his joy by football. As for his injuries, he had no less than nine surgeries as a result of playing in the NFL, and that’s to say nothing of the multiple concussions and back-related issues he also experienced. It was pain, intense bodily pain, that forced Gronkowski to retire. That relentless pain was the byproduct of a wrecked body that could no longer endure the rigors of America’s most popular sport.

Now, I’m certainly not writing this post to get you to feel sorry for Andrew Luck or Rob Gronkowski. Both men are multimillionaires who, if they manage their money well, will never have to work another day in their lives. For decades to come they should be able to enjoy the good life that most of us can’t afford. No, I’m writing this post in the hopes that you will see what sports have become in America: taskmasters that demand your body, soul, mind, and spirit if you want to succeed at the highest levels.

I first experienced this with my two sons, Ryan and Royce. Each year both of them played three sports (football, basketball, and baseball) as part of their childhood. Ryan went on to play all three sports at the varsity level in high school and also played some college baseball. Royce played four years of baseball, two at the varsity level, in high school.

But those brief descriptions leave out all the gory details. They leave out the travel ball tournaments in basketball and baseball. They leave out the summer workouts in football. They leave out the personal instructors in baseball and basketball. They leave out the time and gas spent on getting the boys to all the practices and games. They leave out the the zillions of dollars spent on equipment. They leave out all the trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods. They leave out all the hotel rooms and meals at fast-food restaurants. And most importantly to me, they leave out all the times Tonya and I died a little (or oftentimes a lot) on the inside whenever either son didn’t get the playing time we felt he deserved.

Yes, we lived all that, and we did it just to get our boys a taste of athletic success at a small 1A high school. And you know what? That made us normal in the insane world of sports, players, parents, and coaches. Seriously, if you think that what I’ve described means that we were crazed parents who were totally delusional about our sons’ size, ability, and chances of playing pro ball, I’m sorry but you really don’t have a clue as to what passes for average in the realm of sports in 21st century America.

Long gone are the days when a kid with some athletic ability could just roll out of bed, show up for his school’s practice, and expect to make the team, let alone get playing time. If a kid tries that today, he or she is going to get passed over for the kid who has bettered his or her game by playing on travel teams (typically costing more than $2,000 per team), received personal instruction from a paid instructor (typically costing more than $50 per hour), and slavishly put in all the hours required for the workouts (typically more than three days a week). Yes, it takes all of that just to get to do the bare minimum of running with the herd these days.

Actually, Ryan and Royce were dinosaurs in that they played three sports. The trend now is to pick one sport early on and stick with it exclusively year round. Despite the fact that many experts bemoan this strategy and say that it produces not only lesser athletes but also lesser human beings, that’s little consolation to the kid who lost his playing time in football because he spent his summer playing baseball instead of playing his football team’s seven-on-sevens. In the eyes of most football coaches, a kid like that just isn’t willing to “buy in” enough to the football program.

This brings us back to Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski. I’ll guarantee you that at some point in their lives both of those players bought in lock, stock, and barrel to football. Even more than that, they were in the elite 1% that had the size and talent to make it to the big time. And that big time rewarded them with the best it has to offer: money, fame, accolades, magazine covers, fans wearing their replica jerseys, etc. Unfortunately for Luck and Gronkowski, however, it all came at the expense of their physical health, mental health, and the simple joy of playing a kid’s game.

King Solomon lived life to the fullest in a way that perhaps no other person ever has, and the book of Ecclesiastes reads like his personal diary concerning everything he tried. But what did he surmise about all his efforts? He summed them up as being “vanity.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “vanity” is hebel and it literally means “breath.” Since a person’s breath is such an transitory thing, hebel can rightly be translated as “emptiness,” “purposeless,” or “meaningless.” Solomon is saying, “I tried it all, and I’m telling you it all ends in an emptiness akin to a breath of air that is gone in a second.”

It sounds to me like the football playing of Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski ended in this kind of emptiness. Obviously, the emptiness didn’t apply to their bank accounts — for that matter, Solomon was richer than either of them — but it did apply to their joy account. That’s why both of them retired. They had reached the highest level of their chosen sport, but what it took to get them there and keep them there stole their joy to such a degree that it trumped everything else.

Let this be a lesson to all of us. Any pursuit that doesn’t have God as its front, center, and back is doomed to end in vanity. Am I saying that sports are inherently evil? No. What I’m saying is that sports have now reached a stage where the player is required to more or less sell his or her soul just to be pretty good. (Being great, of course, requires even more of a sacrifice). Just about every sport now demands a full “buy in” from the participant if that participant wants to get anywhere in the sport. Sadly, however, the problem with that kind of “buy in” is that it doesn’t leave much room for God. You see, that’s why the joy ends up missing in action. The deal is, no God, no joy. As Solomon says at the close of Ecclesiastes:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. (Ecclesiastes 12:13, N.K.J.V.)

Here’s hoping that Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski can find their way to Jesus Christ and the inner artesian well of joy that He offers (John 7:37-39). This is the only way the two players will be able to experience spiritual healing to go with whatever physical healing their doctors can produce. As for football and all the other sports, business as usual will no doubt continue. To use the old cliche from football, the “next man up” mentality will prevail. And you can mark it down that there will always be a “next man up” who will step into the shoes of a Luck or a Gronkowski and gladly come under (at least for a while) the whip of the taskmaster that is the sport. Taskmasters are like that, you know. They don’t stop the work to mourn the fallen; they just keep laying into the new recruits and demand that production be not only met but increased.

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