"If somebody offered you $2 million, could you give up sports for two years?" This was the question a sports radio station recently asked its listeners. No games on TV, radio, or in person. No sports page. No ESPN highlight films. No Tuesday morning arguing about Monday Night Football.

One fan phoned in and said no, he would definitely not give up sports, not even for $25 million. "It's where I turn when I pick up the paper in the morning," he said. "It's where I go when I'm on the internet. It's what I watch on television. It's what I listen to on the radio in the car. Everywhere I go, it surrounds everything I do."


I read about this incident in a recent article in Sports Business Journal that profiled 24/7 fans. The article also notes the time commitment of the sports fan. The average American spends eight and a half hours consuming media, but the average sports fan does so for nine hours and twelve minutes each day. Assuming eight hours of sleep a night, that leaves less than eight hours a day for work, meals, dishes, vacuuming, FreeCell, and sex. No doubt we're talking about some multitasking here (ESPN and sex?). An advertisement for Sports Illustrated in that section includes this line: "I love that SI fuels my passion for sports every day of the week."


Another fan who recently moved from his hometown in Kansas said, "I don't think I could've moved around the country like this and kept my sanity if it weren't for DirecTV. I have to stay in touch with my home teams. Have to." He records games he "absolutely can't bear missing," and "uses his cell phone to check scores when he can't wait to know the result."


One theme of e-mails I receive is this: "Sports is nothing but idolatry." Though I disagree with the "nothing but," it's not hard to see the point: Professional and college sports have become for many not a celebration of God's creation, an epiphany of God's goodness, but the purpose of life and the measure of meaning.

Then again, idolatry cuts two ways. On the one hand, it can be used to knowingly deny the living God. Some, impatient with God's timetable for their lives, set up a golden calf to worship—like the Israelites in the wilderness. Some find God's ways unbearable, so they seek out a religion that gives them a little more space (some sex with their ESPN)— like the people of Israel did time and again. One should not mince words when addressing this brand of idolatry: "If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish" (Deut. 8:19).

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On the other hand, idolatry can be rooted in ignorance, an ignorance that is best met with understanding. Note how Paul affirmed the pagan Greeks: "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way." He goes on to gently explain how God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17: 22, 26-27). Though Paul eventually exhorts them in the strongest language, overall it's a generous speech given the state of their idolatry and cynicism.

Perhaps for some 24/7 fans, sports is the way to avoid God. Lord, have mercy on their souls. Yet others may find in sports things like community or hope or joy, moments that mysteriously suggest a larger Order in life. Maybe this is as close to God as they've ever come, and they simply don't know how to draw closer—maybe they just need someone to introduce them to the reality of which sports is but a shadow.

While we're thinking about idolaters, though, we are wise to look in the mirror, at the logs in our own eyes. "One can love religion like anything else in life: sports, science, stamp collecting; one can love it for its own sake without relation to God or the world or life," wrote Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in his journals. "Religion fascinates; it is entertaining. It has everything that is sought after by a certain type of person: esthetics, mystery, the sacred and a feeling of one's importance and exclusive depth, etc. That kind of religion is not necessarily faith."

We believers have a knack for making idols out the most sacred things: the Bible, objective truth, pro-life causes, evangelism, hymns, prayer, good works, worship, missions, justice, to name a few. Anything that replaces a vital and humble relationship with the living God—well, that's idolatry.

And because we too are tempted, sometimes we unfortunately offer idolatrous sports fans nothing but another form of idolatry when we scold in the name of Christianity. Schmemann adds, "People expect and thirst after faith—and we offer them religion—a contradiction that can be quite deep and awesome." The 24/7 fan can smell another religion, and he will have nothing to do with that contradiction.

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Still, he thirsts. And if he can be shown that it is in Jesus Christ and nothing else that "we live and move and have our being," he may realize that he's been chasing a shadow, and will turn around and worship the real thing.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.

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Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no end—thank God.(Mar. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (Mar. 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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