Sports and religion have some eerily similar aspects to them. Arenas in sports can act as places of worship; the crowd can look like a congregation; there are rules to follow (for both athletes and fans); Hall of Fame’s and local trophy cases are like ‘shrines’; faithful fans are like true believers. You get the idea.
Sports have been elevated to a kind of ‘divine status’ in our culture, and I don’t believe that is a far out statement. Think about the media. Most media outlets cover sports in one-way or another. There are even specific media outlets designed only for sports. Why do these outlets exist? Because there is a large sports following in our culture. During a college football season, fans orient their entire semester around their team’s games. They devote their attention to certain players and change their appearance by wearing jerseys, hats, shirts and face/body paint. Our identity changes in seasons, and I’m not talking about the weather.
Paul Tripp argues in his book A Quest for More, that we are all seeking to be a part of some kingdom. The problem is, and this is my argument with sports, we often live for the wrong kingdom, our little kingdom.
In Acts Paul sees this same problem with the people of Athens. He notices in the Parthenon lots of images of idols, or as the Greeks saw them ‘gods’. Paul addresses this with concern in the Areopagus by pointing out;
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For . . . I passed along and observed the objects of your worship. . . The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Acts 17: 22b-25 ESV
Just like the people of Athens, we have put our satisfaction and hope in things that God has created, rather than God the creator.
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Acts 17: 29 ESV
Again, we see that just like the people of Athens we are living for our own kingdom when it comes to sports. We have replaced our Creator with the sports he created.
So can sports be a form of religion? Yes. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. I’m not saying that sports are bad, what I’m saying is that our hearts are bad. Our hearts elevate sports above the One who allows us to participate or spectate.