The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.

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The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

Three Reasons Not to Gamble on Sports

In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court effectively struck down federal laws against sports gambling. While the full implications of the ruling will probably take time to realize, most states in the US will likely sanction and promote (though, according to this ruling, they wouldn’t have to) betting on professional sports, such as NFL, NBA, baseball, etc. It’s a major ruling for every professional sporting organization and for millions of Americans—mostly men—who gamble on their favorite sports.

I should be honest: This is the only type of gambling that’s ever slightly appealed to me. I’ve never taken the lottery seriously. I’ve never ever been to a horse race. For reasons that have to do with my personality more than my piety, I’ve just never really had any inclination to try my hand at slot machines or stuff like that. But my personality does like sports, and I’ve thought more than once that my knowledge of pro football might make me some easy money. I’ve never done it…but I’ve thought about it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that God doesn’t want this for me. I’ve never been able to mine anything out of Scripture resembling encouragement or even permission to gamble my money on sports. I don’t want to be heavy handed or legalistic here. I know that not all “gambling” is alike, and that not every Christian will see things the same way on this. There’s no chapter-and-verse proof text. But in my own life, every time I’ve felt the appeal of sports gambling, I’ve felt it wither next to my conscience.

Let me offer three reasons I think Christians are better off without sports gambling.

1) The Christian attitude toward money is not easy. If you’re not careful, words like “stewardship” can become meaningless platitudes that merely serve to disguise what’s being talked about. The reality is that Scripture has some difficult things to say about our money, and not just how we use it, but how we feel toward it (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The desire to make money apart from honest labor (and here I mean both physical and intellectual labor, the latter of which would include things like investing) is not a desire that gets an easy time from the Bible (Proverbs 10:2).

In Ephesians 4:28, Paul gives a somewhat counter-intuitive command: He tells the one who steals to stop stealing and work for money instead. Makes sense. But then he says that the purpose of such work is to make money that can be shared with others in need. In other words, it’s not just honesty that matters when it comes to money, it’s intentionality. Money that’s honestly gained does not thus become autonomously mine. There are moral obligations attached even to money honestly gained.

I don’t think sports gambling fits this bill. At least in my own heart, I feel the temptation to sports betting most powerfully when I am wanting some money to protect from God. My job and my writing gives me money that I use to pay bills, tithe, buy groceries, etc. Where is my money for MY stuff? Rather than either indulge this impulse or stiffly condemn it (after all, having a little spending money isn’t a bad thing), I try to bring this desire to Jesus and tell him what’s going on in my heart, what I think I need, and ask him to align me with his kingdom.

Often, these prayers have been met with unexpected opportunities to earn. Sometimes my lack of generosity has been exposed, and what I thought would be good fun money turns into money I need to give away. I think this dynamic honors the purpose of money more than the raw logic of sports gambling.

2) Sports gambling is foolish risk. Sometimes people respond to this point by saying that investing is risk, or hobbies like football cards are a risk (aren’t you paying for the chance to pull a really valuable card?). But not all risk is the same. There is inherent risk to even holding down a job—I might get injured, or miss out on an opportunity, or be fired. Those risks are real but they are not foolish risks.

The risk of sports gambling is unlike those risks because it demands far more than it gives. The rewards of sports gambling are rare, but the costs are plenteous. In fact, it’s the high degree of risk and the high probability of losing that makes sports gambling fun and intense. Addiction is a real threat in sports gambling precisely because there is so much loss and so little victory. Does that sound like an institution whose economics make kingdom sense?

There are better ways to spend my money. What if I took the 50 bucks I want to put on an NFL game and took my wife out to a special dinner? What if I gave it to friends who are raising money for an adoption? What if I simply invested it in a company whose values I believed in? All of those options carry inherent risk, but the rewards easily outweigh them. This is the path of wisdom, not to mention love.

3) I think there’s something about sports gambling that would sully my enjoyment of the game. As a Los Angeles Rams fan, I watch football each week in hopes that the Rams win, their rivals lose, and my team eventually wins the championship. While fandom can be taken out of hand and sports become an idol, there is something inherently healthy in the coming out of myself that happens when I cheer on a team. Cultivating this private pleasure can be a sanctifying way of learning to love things because they are lovely, not because I want people to like me for the things I love.

I wonder if people who regularly gamble on sports really can enjoy sports this way. Isn’t there something pure about being a fan that being a speculator would take away? If my money is on the line, so, in a way, is my sense of peace, joy, and security. A big day of losses for me as a gambler is devastating and potentially life changing, while a day of losses for me as a fan is unfortunate but nothing that a better week can’t fix. That football is unpredictable is good news for a fan but the worst news for a gambler. I want to take the fullest joy possible in the game, not my cash.

So there you are, three reasons to avoid sports gambling. Again, some Christians may not agree, or may not agree completely. That’s fine. These are just the reasons that operate in my own life, and I commend them to you.

Quote of the Day

An NFL player’s wisdom.

“This is a wonderful country, and I think everybody agrees on that. There are things that in our country that can improve, and I don’t think that by acknowledging as a white male that America isn’t the same for me maybe as it is for everybody, the same great place, that we’re complicit in the problem or that we’re saying America isn’t a great place. If we’re saying there are incidents of oppression, systematically or individually, in this country, I don’t think saying, ‘Well in Country X, Y or Z it’s 10 times worse,’ is making things any better. I think that may be true, but why can’t we improve?

“I play in a league that’s 70 percent black, and my peers, guys that I come to work with, guys that I respect, who are very socially aware, intellectual guys, if they identify something that they think is worth putting their reputations on the line [for], creating controversy, I’m going to listen to those guys. And I respect the anthem, I would never kneel for it, and we all come from different walks of life, and we think differently about the anthem and the flag and what that means. But I think you can respect and find a lot of truth in what these guys are talking about and not kneel. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas.”

-Patriots defensive end Chris Long, giving what I think is the most balanced and helpful perspective on the national anthem protests that I’ve seen yet.

14 Worthless Predictions for the NFL Season

  1. Dak Prescott (QB, Cowboys) will win the starting job in Dallas and be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
  2. Dallas will win the NFC East.
  3. Jeff Fisher will be the first coach to be fired this season, after the Rams start 2-6
  4. The Houston Texas will win the AFC South.
  5. Jimmy Garoppolo (QB, Patriots) will go 1-3 as a starter.
  6. The Cleveland Browns will go 10-6, make the playoffs, and Robert Griffin III will be Comeback Player of the Year.
  7. The Oakland Raiders will win the AFC West.
  8. The Carolina Panthers will win the NFC South.
  9. The Vikings will end the season with Shaun Hill at quarterback, after another season-ending injury for Sam Bradford.
  10. Falcons QB Matt Ryan will be benched before Week 8.
  11. The Green Bay Packers will win the NFC North and the NFC Championship.
  12. Aaron Rodgers will be the 2016 NFL MVP.
  13. The New England Patriots will win the AFC East and the AFC Championship.
  14. The Patriots win the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady announces his retirement.

On Religious Liberty, the NFL Fumbles In Their Own Endzone

As a lifelong fan of the NFL in general and the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams in particular, the months of March through July are not my favorite sports cycle. There are still, however, things I look forward to from my favorite sport in its offseason–the drama of the draft, the excitement of free agency, and the revealing of the upcoming season schedule. When it comes to giving its fans fun and entertainment off the field, few organizations do it quite like the National Football League.

But yesterday, Roger Goodell and the league made me wish football had been a bit quieter this spring.

News broke on Sunday that the league has threatened the city of Atlanta with losing its potential bid to host a Super Bowl, if Georgia passes House Bill 757. HB 757 is a religious freedom bill which stipulates that pastors and other religious clergy cannot be sued for refusing to perform services (such as a same-sex wedding) that violate their religious beliefs. The bill also extends this protection to “faith-based organizations,” closely held, IRS-designated religious institutions that would likewise possibly be pressured to lend services to events or products contrary to a confession of faith.

This law is, of course, a response to recent court cases that have found bakers, florists, and other professionals liable in discrimination suits because they would not create for or participate in a same-sex wedding. Similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, HB 757 is designed not to empower discrimination against particular groups but to preemptively protect religious organizations and individuals. There is absolutely nothing in HB 757 that enables public services to deny access for LGBT citizens. Rather, the law would force the government to demonstrate a compelling interest when seeking to punish conscientious Georgians.

The NFL, however, disagrees. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the league publicly implied that passage of HB 757 would disqualify Atlanta from hosting football’s biggest night:

The statement from league spokesman Brian McCarthy reads, “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

As a pundit on Twitter paraphrased it: “Lovely representative democracy you have there, Georgia. Shame if someone manhandled it.”

To be fair to the league, their statement doesn’t explicitly deny that there’d be a Super Bowl in a state where religious liberty is taken seriously. But the NFL’s statement was in fact a reply to a question posed by the Journal-Constitution, and it’s difficult to read it as anything but a veiled threat against the state. It would have been quite easy (and very NFL-like) to not comment publicly on ongoing legislation, or to simply observe that the league doesn’t itself dictate political beliefs to its 32 teams and owners.

And it would have been much better for the NFL to have done that. The league’s moral grandstanding here borders on the ridiculous.

First, it should be noted that the NFL’s appeal to its own policies is hypocritical at best. Current NFL policy, for example, prohibits the use of recreational marijuana. Yet the NFL continues to field teams and host events in states where recreational marijuana is legal, like Colorado (which hosts the newest NFL champion Denver Broncos) and Washington (home to the recent Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks). The NFL has shown no urgency to make sure its internal policies align with state law up until now. I highly doubt this is an earnest change of heart.

Secondly, by implicitly threatening religious liberty, the NFL is turning on many of its most legendary and important people. Pro football has benefited enormously from the platforms of religious athletes, whether old-timers like Reggie White, Herschel Walker and Tony Dungy, or younger players like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Indeed, the NFL, far more than major league baseball or the NBA, depends on the employment and performance of religious players and coaches throughout its organization. The Atlanta Falcons, like other teams, have featured their chaplains in their organizational literature and PR. There’s no question that the NFL and its member companies have marketed themselves as friendly to the people they now imply may be bigots.

Third, the league is really not in a position to lecture taxpayers about their ethics. Pro football owners are notorious for passing along the costs of exorbitant new stadiums onto cities, while the NFL, which makes sure to get its cut of everything licensed by the “shield,” files with the IRS as a “non-profit” coalition of 32 individual businesses. In other words, the NFL reaps the financial harvest that comes when taxpayers–the same taxpayers who elect representatives, who then sponsor and pass legislation like HB 757–are asked to subsidize pro football, and don’t see any of the enormous profits come back to them via taxes.

If the NFL wants to criticize Georgia’s politics, it should first profusely thank Georgia and several other states for essentially sponsoring pro-football at taxpayers’ expense and the owners’ (and commissioner’s) profit. As it stands, if the NFL wants such a one-sided relationship with cities, it should probably abstain from farcical moral grandstanding on representative politics.

Lastly, pro football is not really in any position to wax ethical about…well, anything. This is the league, after all, that is facing a tumultuous legal and cultural battle over concussions, and recently settled with former players over accusations that the league withheld information about the effects of concussions on mental health. This is the league, after all, that until 2 years ago repeatedly turned a blind and apathetic eye towards domestic abuse, changing their tune only when media pressure was applied in the Ray Rice case. The NFL is good at entertaining and competitive sports, but it’s lousy at giving lectures on morality and decency.

As a football fan, I enjoy the league, even while I have criticized its flaws and hypocrisy. If the NFL wants to learn from its past failures, I am happy to hear it. What I am not happy to hear are lectures from an organization that profits from people with a conscience and taxpayers who let it skate. If the league wants to make leftist culture warring its newest offseason activity, count me out.

My Super Bowl Preview

Here’s what you need to know for Sunday’s big game:

On Sunday evening, the NFL will play its final game of the 2015-16 season to determine its league champion. Super Bowl 50 kicks off at 6:30PM ET. CBS has exclusive broadcast rights to the game, though NFL.com has said it will stream the halftime show (performances by Coldplay, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars) online.

Here’s what you need to know for the big game: Continue reading “My Super Bowl Preview”

The Future of Football

At the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss surveys the ongoing debate over football’s merits (or lack thereof). He evaluates the dialogue between two books, one by Steve Almond titled Against Football, and a response by Gregg Easterbrook called The Game’s Not Over. Continue reading “The Future of Football”

Be Better Than the Bengals

In sports, character and self-control matter every bit as much as talent. You won’t see many demonstrations of that truth more glaring than Saturday night’s NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

In sports, character and self-control matter every bit as much as talent. You won’t see many demonstrations of that truth more glaring than Saturday night’s NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. Continue reading “Be Better Than the Bengals”