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Have sports turned into idolatry?

While approaching this subject, let us first define both sports and idolatry.

Sport as a noun with the plural being sports can be defined as a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other or even a physical activity that is done for enjoyment.

(keyword here being I would say "enjoyment")

Idolatry as a noun can be defined as the worship of a physical object as a god or the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.

(if long blogs bore you please feel free to skip to the *)

{Definitions taken from Webster's dictionary which any of us can easily look up these days within seconds. Now, before I proceed, let me be clear on my approach to this topic. First of all, I am a Christian and believe that the creator of all that exists is what we call God the Father. Within this context, idolatry connotes the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God. This belief of idolatry is also shared in islam and judaism. Other theistic and non theistic belief systems carry various ideas on the meaning of idolatry but most of them consider idols as a symbol of the absolute and not the absolute in and of itself. Phew...this stuff can get heavy...

Now, let me move quickly from what I believe and others believe and get into the very basic subject matter at hand. I have been involved with sports and most directly with youth sports as an athlete and coach since the mid 80's. Of course, I along with others in this same time frame have watched sports evolve from the more recreational type of activity done mostly with classmates and friends into the big business of club and academy participation with other "elite" athletes chosen through tryouts and other elimination factors(sometimes co$t). Also, during this same time frame we have seen sports go from a mostly seasonal to a year round pressured activity. As I have matured as a coach and a person, I really try to look into the motivating factors of any activity which I and/or others participate in. What I hear more often than not around the youth sports world is the pursuit of scholarships or the potential of going "pro" someday... And to borrow a measuring stick from the sports world itself, statistically speaking, the percentages are not in favor of our children accomplishing either. As a 23 year coach in a couple different sports, I have seen many of my athletes attain scholarships and even a handful make it to the professional or world level of their respective sports but this is just a small number of the very many that I have been Blessed to be able to coach. Even when looking at fandom of professional or collegiate sports, it seems to me that an evolution of taking pride into the local culture of a team has evolved into a 'fantasy' of somehow being able to predict and therefore win or profit from this predictive ability or knowledge. Perhaps I digress here...

So, if we are looking at sports in a more realistic manner. What are the benefits that we are hoping to gain from participation and what are the consequences of these activities? Because, let us not forget, everything has a consequence.

I believe we are only given 3 things in this world, namely, time, talent and treasure. Please correct me if I am wrong here but it is something I strongly believe. I tell my students not to waste any of them because quite frankly, we never know when they are going to run out. First of all, time, look at all the time we devote to sports, practicing, competing, driving to and from the aforementioned, watching on screens, listening on the airwaves, studying our fantasy reports, being fixated to the seemingly never ending drama of the reports of sports stars fallen from perfection, etc. etc. And one thing we all can agree on about time is that once it has passed, we can never get it back. So, ignoring most of the pro sports stuff I just mentioned(perhaps in another blog we will continue to address these ideas) and focusing on our youth from here on out within this blog although I think the two are increasingly linked due to factors such as social media...anyhow...}

*What do our youth benefit from the amount of time we or they put themselves through in regards to sports? In developing the wrestling with virtue program I looked into this at great length. I believe that character development is the single most important item that they can gain. Because someday when the time for active participation in sports comes to an end, then I believe it is these traits that they can and will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives. This is why it is so important that these experiences are both positive and kept in a healthy context. The consequences of this 'positive' experience can greatly enhance their chances of success in all they do for the rest of their lives. However, I believe that not every athlete has walked away from sports having had a 'positive' experience and this can be for a number of factors. And unfortunately the consequences of 'negative' experiences will also carry with them throughout their lifetime. We have all seen "star" athletes who achieved the most they can within their respective sports end up not living post-sport productive and healthy lives. From this I think we can easily deduce that winning and losing in sports does not equal winning and losing in life. So, as a result I do not think it is healthy to focus our time in sports on winning and losing but rather on the development of the virtues or character of each individual within their respective talents.

Which leads us to the 2nd thing I believe we are given in this life, namely, talent. I think everyone can agree that no 2 persons on the entire earth are exactly the same. And so, from this, we can safely say that we all have different talents to some degree or another. Within the context of our youth training in various youth sports settings, I believe that talents can be discovered, uncovered, developed, and used to enhance one's life. Consequences to this type of growth hopefully is very obvious to most of us as an opportunity to learn more about oneself and use these traits or talents to become a good contributor unto society. Of course, we also see that often in sports many want to compare or judge talent or traits against others which I believe amongst children is not only unhealthy but unfair because children develop at drastically different rates. When subject to these types of comparisons and judgements many children can begin to lose the self confidence needed to continue to develop their very own talents. Focusing on comparisons from where oneself is when they start and where one is currently in the context of their own development is the better way I believe to 'judge' ones own level of talent and the treasure they will receive and or contribute.

And the last thing we are 'given' in this life, treasure. I often ask my students what they believe treasure is? Is it gold medals, is it money or any other types of physical rewards? After discussing it, we often come to the conclusion that it is none of the above but rather it is our faith, family and friends that we gain along the journey of our life. The other things we mentioned such as the medals, money and awards are just consequences of our time and talent that we put into the various activities of our lives.

Finally, let me make an attempt to give an answer to the title of this blog. My conclusion is that when all of our time, talent and treasure that we put into sports is for some false or fleeting hope of stardom, scholarships and professional sports dreams without regard to the more lasting things in life such as our faith, family and friends then yes. In these cases, sports has become a distraction from the reality of our lives and is nothing but a false idol to waste our time, talent and treasure on and can lead to disaster even when the stardom, scholarships and sports dreams have been accomplished. However, our involvement in sports does not have to be this way, if we keep our minds and hearts on the ultimate prize of becoming the greatest person that our own individual potential will allow then no matter the outcome of our sports careers we can become highly successful within the context of faith, family and friends!

I will also share a link I greatly enjoy about a Saint who I believe touches on this subject in his writings from the 7th century.

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