By Pastor Matt Troupe
Football is a lot of fun. I am writing this on a fall Saturday, and I plan on watching some college football today. Last night I attended a high school football game with my son. He is in the marching band and I was one of the chaperones for the game. I love hearing the fight songs and cheering the team. In the past couple of weeks I attended 2 Fresno State home games. I really like football. So I am going to speak up about being obsessed with football not as an angry critic but as a lover of the game. Please hear me out.
Is it possible to love something too much? Is it possible to love even a good thing too much? Clearly the answer is yes. As an example, money is a good thing, and you can do a lot of important things with money, such as paying your bills, feeding your kids, being generous to the poor, etc. But is it possible to love money (a good thing) so much that it becomes a bad thing? Yes, if your efforts to earn or keep money come before your love of God (or even your family), then you have managed to turn it into a god-substitute. And this is a serious problem. Though often misquoted, this passage is still true, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” (I Tim 6:10, ESV) It is a short step from the love of money to the dark side. People that serve money are often willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill for it. What we love will always shape our lives, and in this, the love of football can be like the love of money. Though it may not lead to murder, (though it has lead some fans to assault on several occasions, see here, and here for recent examples) it can lead to other evils.
Tomorrow is Sunday, and the whole day will be full of NFL games. TV, Internet, radio, and social media will buzz with the headlines and highlights. For many men (and some women) this love affair with football will come at a cost. Their devotion to the sport can only be maintained by making sacrifices to other areas in their life. The world is full of good things. But there are only a few great things. There are only a few matters of ultimate importance (Luke 10:41-42). And it should be clear that football, as good as it can be, is NOT one of them.
For many men (and some women) this love affair with football will come at a cost.
I started thinking about this recently when a friend made a Facebook post referring to her husband’s love of the game. She called herself a #FootballWidow. She was only joking, but many others have said it seriously. In fact, a side industry has blossomed around this reality. It seems that when fall arrives, football casts a spell on souls of men. It hijacks their capacity to think, care, or even understand what is important.
John Maxwell tells the following story in his book Today Matters:
‘A man went to the Super Bowl and climbed to the top row in the end zone section of the stadium to reach his seat. After the game started, he spotted an empty seat at the 50 yard line. After working his way down to it he asked the man in the next seat, “excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?”
“No,” replied the man. “Actually the seat belongs to me. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she died. This is the first Super Bowl we haven’t been together since we got married in 1967.”
“That’s very sad. But still, could you find anyone else to take a seat – a relative a close friend?”
“No,” replied the man. “They are all at the funeral.”’
That is funny. But not really.
Its strange how many time-strapped families that can’t find time to come to church on Sundays from February through August, suddenly have 8 extra hours every Sunday for watching football. Many folks don’t even attempt to hide this reality. Human nature is predictable, we always make time for what we value. “Football is a religion.” These words are spoken often. They are true, but they are not happy. Football may be good, but it is not God.
Football may be good, but it is not God.
And my point in taking up this topic is not because I feel like I have to compete with football as a pastor. No, I have seen the sad impact on marriages, children, and the souls of men who worship sports. I want the best for people, and this is not the best. Idols never keep their promises.
Nicholas Frankovich recently wrote in National Review,
“The NFL is more popular than organized religion by two measures: the number of us who make time for it in our lives, and the amount of time we make for it. Consider that 34 percent of men and 18 percent of women spend six or more hours a week watching professional football (to say nothing of college games), according to an Adweek/Harris poll in 2011. Six hours is a lot. The typical church service lasts only about one hour, and the best estimates based on headcounts — not, as in Gallup, on self-reporting — are that less than 20 percent of American adults put in any pew time at all on the Christian Sabbath." (emphasis added)
Church attendance dips during football season. While this phenomenon varies by region, and by poll, the sad truth is many people choose football before Christ. A 2015 Lifeway study said, “About 1 in 4 church-going men (22 percent) say they’d skip church to watch football. That drops to 1 in 10 for women churchgoers. Catholic football fans (20 percent) are more willing to skip church than evangelicals (12 percent)."
If our traditional American obsession with football weren’t bad enough, it has been weaponized by fantasy football. The revenue from fantasy football is now expected to be more than the revenue of the NFL itself. In the workplace, researchers suggest that businesses are loosing 1 billion dollars a week as employees spend on average 2 hours of their boss’ time working on their fantasy teams. The average fantasy football player is spending 3 hours per week managing their team, and another 9 hours reading or watching content related to fantasy sports (see this article for more info). According to Mashable, the average person playing fantasy football is spending $467 per year to play.
Here’s the point: All of this time and money has to come from someplace else. And when you take money from something important to give it to something else that you value more, we call it sacrifice. And sacrifice is the business of worship. For a growing number of men, football is a religion. Football is their sacred devotion. And while football is a great sport, it makes a horrible God. And sadly, some churches instead of seeing this for what it is, are willing to accommodate this affair of the heart. Instead of confronting men about the danger of childish obsessions, churches play along so as not to offend. But here is the truth: If football is better to you than Jesus, you don’t know the real Jesus. You either need a new heart or a new church. Maybe both.
If football is better to you than Jesus, you don’t know the real Jesus.
It is instructive to see how often Jesus addressed common problems in terms of ultimate priorities. For instance, he once spoke about anxiety like this: “22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22-23) If you believe that the meaning of life consists in your basic bodily necessities, you will be driven to anxiety if there is even a chance that those needs may not be met. Jesus doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious, its bad for you.” Or “I will provide for you, so don't worry.” Indeed he does say both. But he doesn’t leave it there. He gets to the root of the problem. Our anxiety comes from a lie, and we need to stop believing that lie. We need to stop believing that life is all about what we eat and what we wear. The NFL has a series of videos called a “football life,” and that title suggests where they want to position their sport in your thinking. Incidentally, you should remember that the NFL machine is a business. And like any good drug dealer, they want your whole life to revolve around their product. Thank God, Jesus can save you from that mindset. Is not life more than football, and the body more than your fantasy team?
Our hearts have a limited capacity. They can only love and focus on one thing. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matt 5:24)
Why would Jesus say that no one CAN serve two masters? Because almost everyone tries to do this at some point. “I can serve Jesus and money…” We believe that by our will and wisdom we can manage this. But Jesus tells the truth. When the claims of 2 competing god’s want the same time slot, you will end up loving one and hating the other. The sad truth is that lots of men claim to love Jesus and football. But the truth is… they love football. And you can always tell this by looking at the scoreboard. Who is winning the battle of claims on the heart, wallet, and calendar?
How can you know if football is a false idol in your life? Here is the big idea, and I will try to expand on it in another post. If you are giving to football what belongs to God it is an idol. If you are giving to football what belongs to other priorities (like your family), it is an idol. In the next post I will offer some diagnostic questions and give some direction on what to do.