Once more, I am submitting a previously written note about the perils of celebrity for Christian leaders and for sports chaplains in particular. This one is from March 11, 2011. I promise, I will get off this topic shorty. I hope we are all reviewing our hearts’ desire for fame and taking appropriate action.
Sports Ministry and Celebrity Culture
One needs only glance at almost any daily newspaper or turn on the television to nearly any channel to encounter one of the most pervasive, and I believe destructive, elements of popular culture in the USA, the western world and beyond – Celebrity Culture.
We are flooded daily by information which we neither need nor even desire. We hear about the latest celebrity break up or hook up. We read about the newest “It Girl” or “Sexiest Man on Earth.” We are suddenly aware of the exploits of people who are seemingly famous for being famous, unencumbered by personal achievement or strength of character. Paris Hilton and others of her dubious distinction are emblematic of this wave of media inundation and the growing need to fill air time with some sensational story about just about anything lacking substance or significance. The USA has reached new lows in this regard as we even create celebrities ex nihilo. “American Idol” is the most obvious example of this self-absorbed, self-perpetuating celebrity machine.
A quick reading of Acts chapter 14, verses 8-23 will provide a biblical example of celebrity culture in the Apostle Paul’s day. At first (verses 8-18) the crowd sees Paul and Barnabas as idols to be worshiped and the next (verses 19-23) they are objects of derision to be stoned to death. It is the same crowd of fickle people. We are just like them, but we use mass media to assassinate people rather than stones.
Sadly, we in the world of sport are not exempt of this culture and its insidious drive to make celebrities of those whom we serve and love. Professional sportspeople are easy and often willing participants. Their flesh is gratified and their wallets are often fattened by the process as they sell their dignity, honor and even their relationships with team and family to this foolish industry. Their privacy is laid on the altar of popularity and Q ratings, which they trust will result in the growth of their “brand,” further resulting in greater profits from endorsements, appearances, publishing and more.
We who serve in ministry roles with people in sport walk a fine line between wisdom and foolishness. We swim in a river of powerful currents which can easily pull those whom we serve and even our ministries toward a tragic drowning. We sometimes trade on the public profiles of those whom we serve and that is a real issue to be faced. Some of our ministries in sport were founded on the principle that just as high profile sportspeople use their popularity to sell shaving cream and beer on television, they could speak of their love for Christ and thereby “be used” to grow the Lord’s Kingdom. Such strategies are perilously close to the edge of manipulation and prostitution of the people we claim to love.
One of my colleagues who serves very faithfully with a number of high profile Major League Baseball and National Football League players has a very wise approach to this issue. I asked him sixteen years ago when we were both new to sports ministry about his policy re: requests for players to make appearances at area events, schools or fund raisers. He said that he never makes such requests of active players because he’s more interested in serving them than in asking them for favors. He said, “If every time they see me coming across the clubhouse, they think here he comes to ask me to do another talk, I forfeit my opportunity to lovingly serve them and to impact their lives with the Gospel.” He gets it! We must not forfeit our ministries of love and service in order to trade on the celebrity of the player with people in the community and even with the donors who fund ministries.
It seems to many that the high profile, celebrity player owes something to the adoring public. It’s counterintuitive for us to prefer to keep our relationships with such players and coaches private and to not drop their names at every turn. It’s even seen as selfish or snobbish by some when we protect those whom we serve from the provocative paparazzi and the ogling eyeballs of television cameras. To protect the player, to withhold information given in confidence and to value the coach’s privacy is still the right thing to do.