Saturdays in the South. The air crisp, a cool breeze blowing, cathedrals of the gridiron filling with tens of thousands of the faithful. Colors unfurled, meat cooking over open fire, families and friends congregating over 3 months of festival, fanfare, and sport. Pilgrimages back to college campuses where lifelong bonds were formed and nurtured and new memories are made with upcoming generations. Legends and heroes rising from the sod fighting for the line and trying to advance a ball.
It is time for football. Saturdays now have meaning again.
I am a HUGE football fan, both college and professional. I am from Louisiana and South Mississippi, so I grew up an LSU and New Orleans Saints fan. I have witnessed two national championships for LSU (2003,2007) and a Super Bowl victory for the Saints (2009). I went to school at Mississippi State, who I pull for every game but one (against LSU) and was one of the guys who painted their chest and didn't wear a shirt on the front row of the student section even when the temperature was below freezing. My son is playing football and his practice starts tomorrow. I participated in my annual fantasy football draft with a group of guys from around the country last night. We have been doing this for years. I love the game and love watching and following it.
But, it is easy to love it TOO much. Football is a sport. It is a game. And, as a game, it is a good thing. I think that God made us to engage in recreation and to play. I see nothing wrong with games and competition and having fun. Getting together with family and friends is also good. The pageantry and celebration of game day weekends also has its place in our development of and experience of culture. But, we can love it too much. It can become too big of a deal to us. This can be especially troublesome for Christians.
I like to write about the non-obvious and seeing "football as an idol" falls into that category, I think. Perhaps the idolization of a sport is obvious to some, but it isn't in the South. In the South, football, no matter what level of devotion is attached to it, is sanitized as always being good, wholesome fun as long as you stop just short of killing your rivals hallowed trees on the edge of their campus (Alabama fan Harvey Updike and his take-down of Auburn's Toomer's oaks boggles the imagination). So, we do have our limits. But, I am talking about the day-to-day and how good clean fun can turn the corner of our hearts and end up as part of the idol factory. An "idol" would be something that we look to and trust in to give our lives meaning and significance and to make life better for us. It does not have to have "ultimate" significance to be an object of worship. If you study religious devotion around the world, there are ultimate and lesser gods/goddesses/idols. Football would qualify as a lesser idol, but it could be an idol nonetheless.
How to Know that Football Is Becoming an Idol (most of this is from my own personal experience, by the way):
1. You spend a great deal of time thinking about the upcoming season or game. Hobbies are good. They can be fun. Following football can be a fun hobby and there is a need to know about the team/players if you are going to follow it intelligently. Fair enough. Knowing everything about the lives of 18-22 year old college guys is not just a fun hobby though. It is weird. Be honest with yourself. Get a life. And, never again make fun of people who follow the ups and downs Hollywood celebrities. You are doing the same thing.
2. You know a great deal about not just your own team but about every team. You follow the whole sport incessantly. Again, some of this is necessary because you need to know what is going on to be an informed fan, but there is a limit to how much of this is productive or helpful in life. You are not ever going to get a job for ESPN and your blog/Facebook posts on the state of college football are not going to change anything. Hobby = good. Obsession = bad. Only you can know where you are on this.
3. You spend a combined 18-20 hours or more watching football on Saturday-Sundays in the Fall. That's A LOT of time to watch sports. Enjoying your team play is fun and it is great to cheer them on with friends. But, that is at least 6 games, and at that point, you're just obsessing. Or escaping. Or entering an alternate universe. Engage in some moderation here. Go outside. The weather is probably beautiful. Get persepctive.
4. You spend thousands of dollars each Fall going to games when you don't really have it. Thousands and thousands of dollars. I am not one to tell people what to do with their money. If you have it, you can spend it how you like. And, going to games and playing dress up is fun. If you are wealthy and this is how you want to spend your money, so be it (as long as you think about other things and are generous elsewhere, but that is really between you and God). But, when you don't have it? When your kids need shoes and you are already in debt? We have a name for this kind of behavior when it comes to gambling and there is usually an intervention involved. Going to games can be a lot of fun. I LOVE going to games. Sometimes you can get good deals on tickets and it isn't that expensive. Just think about how much you are spending and where else the money might go.
5. You are really HIGH after a win or really LOW after a loss. If your emotions AFTER the game are affected by whether you team wins or loses, you might have an idolatry problem. I get that your emotions go on roller coaster rides DURING the game. That is part of the fun. You cheer and yell and maybe you even throw things when you are mad (all in fun, of course). But, if those emotions are following you after the game, you need to check yourself. Repeat after me: It. Is. Just. A. Game. No matter how much meaning you try to invest in it, you can't. It cannot bear the weight that you are placing on it emotionally. You don't know the players and it has nothing to do with real life. It is just a game. Step away. Enjoy the day. Laugh again.
6. You fanhood affects your relationships with others who do not share your allegiance. If you are having relational problems with people who are fans of other teams, you really need to calm down. Maybe it is there fault and you can't stand how obnoxious they are. I get it. You are seeing their own idolatry come out and it is pretty sad. Make sure you don't contribute to it. If your team wins, be gracious. Be a good sport. Move on. If your team loses and someone is gloating over you, bless those who persecute you - not that football fandom equals persecution. This is all quite ridiculous, isn't it? Let it go. It doesn't matter. You sporting your colors after your team wins the big rivalry game is a fun thing to do because you are happy, but be sure that you aren't doing it to rub other's nose in it.
7. You get your identity from your team allegiance. This is a hard one to judge, but LOTS of people live vicariously through their favorite team. They feel better about themselves when "their" team wins. They feel stronger and more powerful and more fulfilled when they are following a winner instead of a loser. This is subtle, but it is the most dangerous trait of all. What happens on that field has NOTHING to do with you. You are the same person whether your team wins or loses. NOTHING changes about your life. Enjoy the game, but do not identify yourself with your team to the point that you feel better or worse about yourself in relation to others after your team wins or loses. In the vast scheme of things, it doesn't matter.
8. Not trying to "Jesus-Juke" here, but you spend WAY more time reading about and watching football than you do studying Scripture, in prayer, worship, or Christian service/ministry. We only have 168 hours in the week. How you spend your time speaks to what you love. Just think about it. As Christians, God is to be the source of our joy, our strength, and our identity. When you let other things move into that space, even good things, the effect on your soul can be degrading.
Now some will say that I am being judgmental and that I should not write about such things and that I am being legalistic to say that watching 20 hours of football over a weekend is a bit much and that you shouldn't run others down for their team allegiance and that your identity shouldn't be tied to your favorite team and you shouldn't run up the credit cards to go to games, etc, etc. Ok. Only you can know where your heart is. But, if this post makes you angry, you might want to think about why.
Think about how you treat others. Think about how you spend your time. Don't blow up your Facebook/Twitter feed constantly bragging about how awesome your team is and how terrible other teams are (some of this falls into the category of "fun." But, it can go past that - you know what I mean). As Christians, we can have fun and play games and watch games. But, they are just games. They are not real. The time, money, energy, and relational focus that we put on football, especially in the South, is vast. I am not saying that we cannot or should not enjoy this aspect of life. I am saying that it should not become an idol for us. We should be able to let it go. We should not be defined by it. We should not get transcendental highs or lows from it. We should not ignore loved ones to focus on this or use our team's victory to put others down or our team's loss as a reason to avoid relationships. Yes, it is exhilarating to be with 90,000 strangers screaming over the athletic exploits of a 19 year old stranger carrying a ball. I get that. But, it is transitory. It will turn to dust. We know that, of course. But, we don't always act like it.
Let's have fun. But, let's not let it affect us or our relationships. It is just a game.