Friday, March 24, 2017

Sport and Identity

During a recent FCA Coaches Ministry event, the presenter made an excellent statement regarding the power of sport in cultures. He said that it was a matter of identity and tied it to three specific dynamics in which people find identity.
1.   Sport gives people a sense of belonging to something.
2.   Sport gives people a cause greater than one’s self.
3.   Sport gives people a sense of purpose.

That idea immediately resonated with me and I’ve been thinking about it for the two weeks since I heard it. Let’s think about each of these ideas and draw some ministry points from them.

1.   Sport gives people a sense of belonging to something. This is certainly the case for the countless young people who come to sport from terribly fractured backgrounds. It’s common for them to feel terribly alone since the normal structures to which they could belong are broken. Family, church, community, and other support structures, for them, are either shattered or absent altogether. Some of the things in which they may find this sense of belonging are pernicious: gangs are far too common on the margins of society, and they prey on the lost sense of belonging in young people. Sports teams have been a redemptive factor for generations of young people, providing a sense of family, a set of adults who genuinely care about them, loving nurture for their young souls, and safety for their entire vulnerable selves. This is even true for sports fans as it’s rather common to see middle-aged men wearing ridiculously expensive, “authentic” game jerseys of their favorite teams emblazoned with the name of their favorite player on the back. To identify with the sports team gives these people a sense of belonging to something, even more, something successful and socially prominent. Just watch your social media feeds for posts re: “_____________ Nation!!” Many fans find themselves being identified by their favorite sports teams. Many sportspeople wear their team gear in public, away from sporting environments, primarily because their identity is directly tied to their belonging to the team.
2.   Sport gives people a cause greater than one’s self. To be a part of a sports team gives people the sense of being caught up in movement. As a part of the team, there are other people working with the individual, there are coaches giving leadership, there is a specific goal at hand that we all strive together to accomplish. The cause, pursuing a victory, building our team, developing our teamwork, and more is the stuff of inspiration and motivation. Many young people move from a sporting experience in video game form, where the individual controls everything, to a genuine sporting experience where he or she is a part of a larger movement of people, and many find it liberating. Others obsess over the loss of control. In either case, they find that sport gives them a sense of being a part of a cause greater than themselves. Sports fans also connect here as they will often see themselves as a part of the team and its cause. You’ll hear fans say, “We won by 14 points yesterday.” As if they had anything to do with the victory, they use first person pronouns to describe the event. They feel that they’re a part of the cause. A sportsperson’s mood, the ones actually engaged in sport, is often directly tied to the results of his or her most recent competition. The success or failure of the cause is felt deeply as the person is so tightly identified with it.
3.   Sport gives people a sense of purpose. One of the best things about sport is that it engages all of the sportsperson’s life in it. When sport is at its best, body, mind, spirit, and social elements of each person is deeply involved in the pursuit of excellence and a goal. This gives the sportsperson a great sense of purpose. It helps one feel like his or her life matters. We feel like we fit in the world. This is true for the 60 year old team chaplain standing on the sideline of a college football game, chatting with a Women’s basketball coach at practice, leaning over the rail at a swim meet to encourage a swimmer, or leading a Bible study between batting practice and game time. I have a great sense of purpose in these sporting environments and there is no place I’d rather be. I believe this is also part of the reason people engage in “fantasy team” leagues and others wager on sporting events. Surely greed and the love of money is a part of it, but some find these activities to provide a personal sense of purpose for each week’s NFL game. They don’t even follow their favorite teams, they root for the statistical performance of individual players or for the teams on which they bet to achieve relative to the wagered point spread. Sport can provide a great sense of presence, often wisely for the sportsperson directly involved, but often less than wisely for those living through it vicariously via fantasy teams or gambling on it.
The whole discussion of one’s identity being found in sport has to be tempered by the understanding that it is inherently limited and even dangerous. To tie one’s sense of identity to an activity that will be ultimately posted on a scoreboard has real problems. It’s too flighty and insecure to be healthy. To be identified by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, to be found in Him, to be crucified with Him, to be raise up with Him, to be His workmanship, to be His joint heir, is much more secure and much more fulfilling.
May I challenge you as I do myself? First and foremost, rest your identity fully in the personal work of and relationship with Christ. Secondly, find great joy, fulfillment, sorrow, loss, exhilaration, and grief in the daily experiences of sport. The security of the former allows us to take the risks of the latter. It’s reasonable for us to find a sense of belonging, a cause bigger than ourselves, and a strong sense of purpose in sport, if it is subjected to the rock solid sense of belonging, cause, and purpose we have as being a child of the Living God. There is no need to reject one to hold to the other. Hold your life in sport loosely, it is fleeting and temporal. Christ Jesus holds your life in Him tightly, it is secure and eternal.

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