I don’t think being a huge football fan is automatically, or even normally, idolatrous. I’ve loved watching football as long as I can remember. It’s one of the many habits of sports fandom I picked up from my dad. Each year when I start to get sad about the inevitable ending of summer, I am cheered to think that with everything we start to lose in the month of September–daylight, heat, leaves, pool time, vacations, sleeping in–at least we gain football.

Americans love football like the rest of the world loves. . . .football. Except in our football the actions takes place six seconds at a time and the players pretend they are NOT hurt.

Wherever there is a consuming passion for anything that is not God there is the danger of idolatry. And football is certainly a consuming passion for many in this country. So what are some of the signs that football has grown to idolatrous proportions in the heart of the Christian?

Here are three questions to help in your self-diagnosis:

1. Is ministry and worship on the Lord’s Day compromised by my allegiance to football on Saturday and Sunday?

It’s a bit of common grace goodness to unwind during part of your Saturday watching college football. My Sunday scruples are even sufficiently lenient that a little football on Sunday can be enjoyable (and usually a nice precursor to a nap). But let’s keep our priorities straight. And twelve hours of football on Saturday, only to be dead tired for church on Sunday, is not the right priority. Some Christians drive hours every Saturday to watch their team live on the field. If that’s a way to spend time with your family and enjoy being outside seven Saturdays this fall, that’s great. If it means you miss attending your own church for the next three months, not so great. And when it comes to Sunday, football should not dictate whether we can attend a Sunday school class, whether we stay for the missionary potluck, whether we can invite a new family over for lunch, or whether we can come back for evening worship. Football is fun–in its place. Football in the place of worship is, well, worship.

2. Are my emotions all out whack?

This was a bad weekend for my football teams. The Spartans lost a marquee match-up to the Oregon Ducks. The Big Ten embarrassed itself all day Saturday. And on Sunday the Bears looked bad in losing to the underdog Bills. The only bright spot was tight end Julius Thomas going off against the Colts–a three touchdown performance which allowed me to beat my 11 year-old son in fantasy football. Talk about a Pyrrhic victory.

How do you feel when your team loses? I don’t think you have to feel especially chipper about it. We root for our teams for all sorts of reasons: regional pride, family tradition, loyalty to our alma mater, comradery with friends. A little bummed-out-ness is fine. The opposite of idolatry is not emotional detachment from most of life. And yet, some of us need to get a grip. It’s a game! A game with a ball, played by men in tights. Caring about your son’s JV scrimmage is no excuse for berating other grown men (let alone children).

Go ahead and root your guts out for the Fighting Turkey Vultures but don’t be a bore to your wife and a louse to your kids just because they lost a nail-biter to the Flying Turnips in overtime. If the good news of Jesus’ resurrection can’t outweigh the bad news of your team’s minus 3 turnover differential you’ve got some heart work to do. Cheer when your team wins and kick the dirt when they lose, but don’t show up to church a sourpuss and don’t sit their emotionally unengaged during the worship of our Triune God when everyone knows how you can jump, jive, and wail for a perfectly placed pooch punt. Where your heart leaps out of your chest, there your treasure is also.

3. Can my conversation go deeper than football?

Sports is a great entry point for many conversations. It’s more interesting than the weather and safer than politics. And in a town like East Lansing, virtually everyone knows something about Michigan State football and basketball (even my wife knows a little!). I don’t feel bad talking about sports in the church lobby or across the lawn in the neighborhood. But the point of wading through the shallow section of the pool is to get to the deep end. Don’t stop at sports. Don’t settle for being the guy who knows only one question: “Did you catch the game?” Press on to more important matters. Redeem the time in between commercials. Don’t waste your tailgate.

I see no problem in caring about football. But the man or woman who cares only about sports doesn’t care about nearly enough. Go ahead and give football a little bit of your weekend. Just don’t give it your worship.

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34 thoughts on “Three Questions to Help Diagnose Possible Football Idolatry”

  1. Andy says:

    For everything we’re so rigid about it amazes me sometimes we turn blind eyes to the evil of football and other professional/college sports I guess. And this is more of a personal inventory I guess because I know something about recruitment practices for college and I suspect if more people did it would make them sick. Money, sex, drugs, alcohol you name the sin it’s used to recruit young men to programs and, honestly, people could care less and I’m not really much different and that’s not really even mentioning the meat grinder that a lot of high level athletics is. Kids being pushed through school, fraudulent academics and not just fraudulent but when kids are on track to graduate that can barely read or write there are some real issues. But, hey, as long as he can run or tackle or throw or catch? No problem.. It’s not all like that of course but there’s enough there, for me at least, to take a bit of the enjoyment out of it. Sorry to pee on lots of Wheaties this morning.

  2. Alex says:

    These diagnostic questions are easy to ask when your team is doing poorly. The problem is when your team is doing great. Winning doesn’t it lend itself to introspection.

  3. Ethan Johnson says:

    Love the idea of your closing, but you left us hanging :) “I see no problem in caring about football. But the man or woman who cares only about sports doesn’t care about nearly enough. ” Care about what enough? Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Alexis says:

    Hello, I’m looking for a good book that can addresses the topic of “Our Union with Christ”… Can you recommend me one? I’ll be very thankfull for that! Kevin, you are a very good writer. God bless you!

  5. Curt Day says:

    We might want to add to this list how football interferes with us loving our neighbor as ourselves. Does being a football fan in particular, and a sports fan in general, lead us into tribalism where we learn to only care about those in our group and rights and wrong depends on who does what to whom?

    Also we might ask do we know more about our favorite football team than we do about a fellow Christian or neighbor who is struggling. In addition, do we know more about football than the world?

    Finally, is football part of the entertainment mix we spend too much time in?

  6. Melody says:

    Ethan, “But the man or woman who cares only about sports doesn’t care about nearly enough [things in life]”

  7. Rachael Starke says:

    If football was a some kind of wholesome, neutral activity, then these exhortations would make a great list. But when at both the college and the professional level,

    it treats its young men like little more than glorified gladiators to be discarded when their bodies are used up,

    it enables and covers up the physical abuse and sexual assault of women *and* children,

    I think the idolatry is already entrenched in the system. The question is how Christians call it out and combat it, or whether they simply passively participate in it in the name of all the purported wholesome, character-buildling it promotes.

  8. Kyle Curtis says:

    I manged to find this website through a Facebook friend commenting on it. I thought for a second this was the onion. (It’s a sitire website for all you old timers) Do any of you realize what idolatry is? You all do it. You’re doing it by writing this article or reading it and agreeing with it. Like, seriously. This is 2014 and you people honestly believe in this fairlytale. Read a book. Take a science class. Use that brain. And take a step back, think about it, and make educated decisions on stuff not by what some 2000 year old book says, or doesn’t say, or how it’s interepted. Make decisions on fact and not what your grandmother or parents told you to believe in. Seriously. C’mon.

    Oh, and kettle, meet pot.

  9. Ian Shaw says:

    Shame on you living in Michigan and not mention the great Lions win yesterday…… :)

  10. Chris Coleman says:

    Kyle, I think we’d both agree that the comment section of a blog post isn’t the greatest place for an in-depth, intellectual discussion; additionally, your derision and condescension leads me to think you’re not interested in such a discussion in the first place. That being said – it seems that you either don’t know any Christians under the age of 45, or those that you do know are shallow, unthinking idiots. While the tenor of your post is that of a troll, surely you must know that many Christians (especially those that you will encounter on TGC) are in fact deep, intellectual, widely-read thinkers who strive to engage in current events and don’t shy away from debate; cf. Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, etc.

    I don’t expect a response, nor am I trying to stir up an argument; this isn’t the correct context for that. You seem to hold truth and right knowledge in high esteem; I urge you to explore the ‘other side,’ if you will, before resorting to the very ignorance that you decry in your comment.

  11. me says:

    Thank God someone wrote an article on the tgc blog or I never would have been able to discern how to feel about my football watching…

  12. Mike Myslinski says:

    Well-said, Chris Coleman. P.S. – throwing around barbs about “fairytales,” the age of someone’s belief-system, or one’s intellect doesn’t do much to make an argument.

  13. Chris Coleman says:

    Right, Mike. Thanks for your comment.

    If we are accused by outside observers of being “idolaters of God’s Word,” as it were – of placing the Bible supremely amongst our authorities and affections – we must be doing something right.

  14. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Regarding union with Christ: I have a chapter on the subject in The Hole in our Holiness, For book length treatments see the volumes by Letham, Campbell, and Johnson.

  15. Suzanne T says:

    What an excellent, well balanced read..thanks for imploring us to think rightly about these things.

    But the point of wading through the shallow section of the pool is to get to the deep end.
    Great reminder!

    and..GO Vikes!!

  16. Charley says:

    I think Kyle’s accusation of fetishizing the Bible is valid. Does anyone have a substantial response for somebody outside of your group, or are you just talking amonst yourselves? Chris seems interested only in evading the issue and being a pompous tone nanny.

  17. Chris Coleman says:

    Charley, given that this discussion isn’t taking place face-to-face, I strive to write in such a way as to promote clarity and eliminate confusion. Meaning can easily be lost in the midst of sarcasm, idiom, exaggeration, etc., which requires further clarification and results in a loss of time productivity on both sides.

    Before we begin a discussion about “fetishization of the Bible,” it would be helpful to know where you’re coming from on this. Are you a follower of Jesus? What’s your worldview? Why do you care?

  18. Theo K says:

    From a different point of view, this approach could be seen as idolatry management.

    Why not ask the more foundational question and try to find what God thinks about it:
    “should Christians support a sports team in the first place?”

  19. JohnM says:

    Speaking as a football fan I would concur and would sum of these three points as:

    1. Don’t be a heathen.
    2. Don’t be a drama queen/king.
    3. Don’t be an idiot savant.


  20. JTapp says:

    I would add an exhortation that the believer would investigate whether football is ethical and right. I have found I can no longer enjoy football with a clear conscience, and to do so would be sin for me. (Romans 14). There have been some very recent books and articles published by both Christians and non-Christians alike. I wish we would have more conversations in church in regards to the ethics of this aspect of our culture. I would encourage other believers to consider the literature and prayerfully consider whether he/she can continue to enjoy the game with a clear conscience.

  21. krakkers says:

    Another question to ask yourself in light of the concussion and CTE related controversy surrounding the NFL – by actively viewing Football, are you not a passive contributor to the machine that is “potentially” killing people?

  22. PreacherWhoAlsoLikesFootballaLot says:

    I really appreciated this brief post. I have been trying to be spiritually proactive over the last few weeks concerning my football viewing habits, and how they shapes my relationship with my wife–who hates football–and also just being mentally prepared on Sunday. This post helped a bit.

  23. John Geiger says:

    I think a good point to be made as well would be your knowledge of scripture and the Gospel compared to your knowledge of your team and its players stats…

  24. Rick Phillips says:

    You think you had a bad weekend, try being a Michigan grad these days! But the Lord is freeing up my fall Saturdays, so that is good. I agree very much about “how you feel about losing tells whether your heart is in it too much.” I make it a rule never to discuss Saturday’s games at church on Sunday, with Isaiah 58:13 in mind. We have far more exciting business at hand on Sunday mornings. I was particularly grateful for that teaching this last week…

  25. Holly says:

    Great Article. Good points. If you’re going to write an article, even for a website, please use proper grammar! The last paragraph under number two, you use the wrong form of the word “there”.

  26. Scott says:

    You could replace “football” with literally anything and give the same caution: other forms of entertainment such as movies, tv, video games, latest trendy book series…shopping, eating, children’s activities, sleeping in, relationships, sex, church hopping rather than finding a home church, staying up late partying, etc.

    While Sundays are important, believers should also know that spiritual life does not consist of 1 hour on Sunday, but is a way of life throughout the week as well. It’s always a good idea to re-prioritize how we spend our time and what we give our hearts to…… why single out football?

  27. Alan Dueck says:

    Scott, you asked why focus on football. #1, because it’s football, so this is timely and relevant. A lot of people are pouring a huge amount of time, energy, and money to the game, and will for the next several months. #2, because football is a Saturday & Sunday (and yes, Monday too) event. Saturday and Sunday events can directly affect our Lord’s Day worship, right?

    Football is by no means the only, or even the greatest, threat to our worship or devotion to God, but it is a very significant one for many folks this time of year.

  28. Alan Dueck says:

    Ha, left out a key word: it’s football SEASON! That’s the reason!

  29. Kevin – appreciate your thoughts. Our mission at CSO (Church Sports Outreach) is to redeem the idol of sports and those who play them by leading a global movement of gospel centered sports ministries in local churches. Would love to talk with you about this some time.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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