The moral value of sports: lessons for the church

Sunday morning. Mom and Dad load the kids in the car and drive away from their comfortable suburban home. A typical scene throughout the country. What's becoming even more typical is that this family is on their way to a soccer game -- not to Sunday School and church.

More and more parents encourage their children to participate in organized sports, even when practice and game times conflict with religious services. Those of us concerned about over-programming our young people might view Sunday sports as further erosion of the sabbath rhythms that keep us sane and healthy as a society. And we might well be right.

Yet could it be that organized sports are meeting some deeper need that is not being met by contemporary religious communities? Is it possible that parents are relying more on sports than on faith traditions to form their children morally? What is the moral value of sports? And what can the church learn by paying attention to the lessons of athletic competition?

The Olympic Games have long shaped public imagination -- from 776 B.C. to the modern Centennial Games held in Atlanta this past summer, so it's no wonder that biblical authors referred to sports when describing the life of faith as Paul told Timothy to "fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith (Timothy 4:7-8)." Sports analogies are convenient currency for illustrating virtues such as courage and perseverance, or vices such as cowardice and cheating. We recognize the endurance a marathon runner must have simply to finish the race. How similar is the endurance needed to be faithful over the long haul, to remain steadfast day after day -- particularly on days when life seems more like a treadmill than a pilgrimage.

To view sports simply as a metaphor for some deeper spiritual truth is to overlook the way a sport itself forms people morally. Jeffery Stout, building on the work of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, portrays sports as complex social practices that shape our moral vision and character. In his book, Ethics After Babel, Stout contends with cultural critics who claim that the American moral landscape is hopelessly fragmented. Instead, argues Stout, we can discover the moral language of America by observing how parents devote long hours and go to great expense to conscript young people into social practices such as chess, piano lessons, tennis and baseball. We do this because we trust that each practice will form their character in particular ways.

To claim that a sport invites participants into a particular way of life is not to claim that a sport functions as a religion or ought to replace religious devotion. The moral value of a sport is in the sport as sport, not as ersatz religion. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was ambivalent concerning this point. On the one hand, Coubertin advocated the detachment of the Games from commerce and politics. On the other hand, he compromised his vision by encouraging athletes to compete "on their country's behalf" and by investing the modern Olympics with an abundance of quasi-religious ritual and an aura of transnational harmony. "The first and essential characteristic of both the old Olympian-ism and the new is that it is a religion," he said in 1935.

Most parents shuttling their children to soccer practice are going to organized leagues where "if you don't practice, you don't play." These adults care about the moral formation of their children and are eager for the dependable lessons children can learn from participating in sports. This is basically a pragmatic approach that views life experience as our primary teacher. Religious communities would do well to reconceive their educational strategies in light of sports and the performing arts. For example, Christian congregations can begin by identifying aspects of faith that have a "practice-like" quality. We are not born knowing how to pray or read the Bible or extend hospitality to strangers. These are historic practices of the church that have a long history and tradition. We need to become as intentional about teaching children the practice of prayer as we are about teaching them how to play the piano. People don't just pick up a practice without some intentional, sequential, structured learning.

The other lesson the church can learn from sports is to conduct a "practice inventory." Congregations can examine the status of fundamental Christian practices within their local faith community. It is difficult to teach something that we do not practice. Even though we maintain that faith is a gift from God -- and not our doing -- we will find our faith deepened and enriched as we embrace the way of life that these practices invite us into.

Families will still drive past our churches on Sunday mornings on their way to soccer games. But Christian communities will be more self-confident in the realization that the church too, can initiate young people into a set of life-giving practices that will form their moral character as deeply as -- and ultimately deeper than --sports.

Don C. Richter is associate professor and director of the Youth Theology Institute in the Candler School of Theology.

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