When my wife told me that my son received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at his football game, I was enraged. He’d aggressively thrown the ball back to the official he believed had missed a call. I flew into a lecture about leadership, respect for authority, and composure. I even called friends and family to register my disbelief and embarrassment.

But before I got too self-righteous, my parents—always eager to come to their grandchildren’s rescue—reminded me of the times I was far from a model of sportsmanship. I’ve had my fair share of penalties and made hotheaded remarks. I’ve come a long way, but I still haven’t fully mastered the art of balancing passion and prudence in the arena.

Accordingly, I beg your charity as I explain (and preach to myself) why I believe sports can be a helpful servant for Christians—and an awful master. We can value the virtues that sports teach and be encouraged when players like Justin Fields and Paige Bueckers boldly proclaim their faith while being wary of the culture of idolatry, pride, disrespect, and selfishness that crops up in every level of American sports, from peewee soccer to the NFL.

As a former college football player and a current Little League coach, I’m convinced sports are a great way to build character in children and teach the value of leadership and institutions. Youth sports provide social proof that diligence and teamwork are essential aspects of improvement. Children learn real-world lessons by overcoming the mental and physical obstacles sports present. Truths that are difficult to communicate in theory suddenly make sense on the field.

Sports are particularly valuable in a culture where children are being stunted and harmed by coddling. They can help us cultivate courage and mettle. Today, many seem to think that all toughness is toxic and that avoiding risk is the primary objective in childrearing. Some of us have deluded ourselves into believing society has evolved to the point that our children will never have to invoke a primitive grit or fulfill the role of brave protectors and watchmen (Deut. 31:6; Ezek. 33).

We live in relative peace and prosperity, yes. But we should avoid raising cowards just as intently as we avoid raising predators (Rev. 21:8). We can value our emotions without forgetting that fortitude is still a virtue (Prov. 31:17; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:3; 1 Pet. 1:5–6). A tackle won’t be the biggest hit our children take in life. We’ll need to train them to be tough as well as compassionate, and that involves risk. The controlled risks of sports afford us the opportunity to exercise love and discipline and to test our children’s resolve (Prov. 13:24).

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Yet my lifelong love for sports has also shown me how sports can become idolatrous and appeal to our worst instincts. Since the ancient Olympics, sports have been connected to idols, and we continue that idolatrous tradition if we make more of sports than we ought, like Israel in Isaiah 44. Sports can be profitable as tools but are disastrous as gods.

Concretely, this means we shouldn’t encourage young people to center their lives around sports. An idol can never love you back (Isa. 44:18), and, like Gomer, sports are a promiscuous partner (Hos. 1). At some point, they will abandon (or betray) you. Whether through injury, team politics, roster cuts, or some other misfortune, everyone’s days on the field will end. The band stops playing for you; your jersey bears the name of another; and fans quickly move on. The transition from exceptional athlete to common person is disheartening and painful. It’s not so dissimilar to the experience of a forgotten Hollywood child star.

Too many athletes find themselves unprepared for this harsh reality, and some never recover. After sports, many spend their days haunted by a mixture of shame, regret, and bitterness about what could have been. How I wish they knew there’s always purpose and a future for those who know Christ Jesus (Jer. 29:11–14). But I understand how they become deluded. Without a redeemed perspective, the applause, recognition, and rivalry can be intoxicating. In the worst cases, sports can displace our devotion to God, ruin parent-child relationships, and make us selfish, prideful monsters. Jock mentalities void of discretion and humility don’t serve athletes well in the real world, and the formative aspects of youth sports can instill vices just as well as virtues.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen in pro and college sports numerous examples of the kind of inexcusable behavior I have in mind. During the Super Bowl, Chiefs star Travis Kelce pushed and screamed at coach Andy Reid. Players cursed at coaches and brawled during March Madness. After former NFL MVP Cam Newton was jumped at a 7-on-7 tournament he was hosting, sports analysts lamented the disrespect endemic in sports culture.

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And the problem isn’t confined to the pros. Our youth sports culture is completely out of control. Not only does it monopolize family time and eat into church schedules, but it can disfigure whole families’ relationships to authority and institutions.

Far from being a friendly neighborhood game, modern Little League is the transfer portal on steroids. Kids jump from team to team to team to win championships or play a different position. I’ve seen children quit two or three teams in a single season because their parents’ expectations or demands weren’t met. Just like those who “church hop,” we’ve become consumers of institutions, and we don’t contribute or serve in turn.

As Yuval Levin explains in A Time to Build, we’ve lost our appreciation for institution building, because every establishment is now viewed as a platform for our personal ascendance. Like free riders, we use institutions without ever taking ownership, sacrificing anything for the greater good, or letting the institution shape us. We leave institutional maintenance to someone else, selecting what suits us best, just like an Amazon purchase, then throwing it away when we’re done. This teaches children nothing about overcoming adversity or sticking with their communities despite their imperfections and brokenness.

Sports can bring the worst out in players, parents, coaches, and fans. It can reflect the most negative aspects in our culture and cause disordered priorities. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Christians can make sure sports are serving us rather than us serving sports.

Let’s reclaim our Sunday mornings for God and reassert the limits of this tool of character building. Let’s keep our public witness at front of mind and ensure even our trash talk is without contempt or vulgarity. Let’s teach youth how to win with grace and lose with honor. Let’s use sports to grow more like Christ instead of making him compete for our affection.

Justin Giboney is an ordained minister, attorney, and the president of AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. He’s the co-author of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign's Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.