My wife often jokes to our friends, “We do two things on Sundays in the fall: go to Mass and watch the Broncos game.”
As a lifelong fan of the Orange and Blue, the fall Sunday ritual has been a mainstay for as long as I can remember. For most of my life, I lived and died from August through January on Terrell Davis touchdowns, Jake Plummer bootlegs, Al Wilson sacks, Tim Tebow (yes, Tim Tebow) scrambles, and the Mile High Salute. Whether Denver won or lost usually determined the mood I was in for the rest of that day, and sometimes that week. It was heartbreak when they lost (a lot of heartbreak particularly in 2009 & 2010), and heaven when they won.
Throughout that time, I still went to Mass and watched the Broncos game on Sundays, but for the most part I might as well have only been doing one. I understood fully why I was watching Broncos games, but I didn’t fully understand the importance of Mass. I was faithful to both, but I wasn’t sure why I was faithful to the latter.
About two years ago, that started to change. I still loved the Broncos as much as ever, but I began to seek out and understand more fully why it was important to love Mass as well. This is what I’ve learned:
1. NFL players are no different that you and I.
Well, at least on the level of our souls and worth as human beings we’re no different. As I began to learn more about the faith, particularly my Catholic faith and the idea that God created everyone in his image, I started to place it in the context of my love for watching football. I realized quickly that glorifying a sport or a team like I had been doing automatically included the glorification of some (if not many) of the players playing the game. They were made out to be gods by the media, fans, and companies, and I bought into it.
Buying into that glorification always involved thinking highly of that player when he did well, but denigrating him and calling his worth into question when he stunk it up. It was a rude awakening when I realized how gross of an offense it was against not only his dignity, but my own dignity as well. I was basing a fellow human’s worth off their performance in a game, and I was hurting my own soul in the process.
2. There’s a difference between pleasure and joy.
It’s nearly impossible to describe with human words the burst of emotion that happens when Peyton Manning connects with Demaryius Thomas on a 50 yard bomb for the score, or when a receiver running across the middle gets lit up by a roving middle linebacker. It’s also hard to describe the disbelief, say, when the center snaps the ball over your quarterback’s head on the first play of the Super Bowl (but we don’t need to bring that up…)
That euphoria is a good thing. Make no mistake, God created pleasure. Pleasure is, by it’s very nature, a good thing. BUT, pleasure, like anything, used in the wrong context or elevated to an unsustainable level is no longer good. Pleasure is good as a means, but not as an end.
Joy, on the other hand, is an end that should be sought instead of pleasure, and, quite honestly, the distinction is very difficult to wrestle with. It came natural to me to put all my stock in a game that exacted such a visceral and enjoyable reaction each week, but the high, inevitably, was followed by a crash. Every time. Without fail. It felt, likewise, very unnatural (and often uncomfortable) to go into a quiet place and quiet myself for an hour.
The problem, I began to notice, was that hedging my happiness on the next game not only was unsustainable, but it was, more importantly, unproductive in terms of my overall well being. I was self-focused and seeking my own fulfillment, instead of looking outward and offering my life to Christ through helping others and being attentive and intentional at Mass. Trying to see what people and things could do for me were shallow waters. I learned that it was through the action of self-giving, on the other hand, that a person ultimately attains joy within their own life.
3. It’s okay to love football but…
…not more than your relationship with the Lord. Sports have a place in living a virtuous life, without a doubt. Pope Francis himself is a huge sports fan. The training of one’s body to compete at a high level, the dedication to doing so for the good of the team, and the parallels sports offer to essential lessons in life all come straight from Scripture. After all, it was St. Paul who said in 1 Corinthians, “Run so as to win.”
But sports, the NFL in particular, have stopped occupying merely a place in life and have become its center for so many people in our country and around the world. And, in many cases, who can blame them? Often, sports is the only stable thing in a kid’s life. Other times people have little in life to look forward to other than rooting for their favorite teams. Still, for these cases especially, it’s important for every athlete, coach, and fan to recognize that sports must remain just a way of learning to live life well, rather than becoming the end-all be-all of life itself.
After instructing the people of Corinth to “run so as to win,” Paul says this:
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.
No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9.25-27; emphasis added)
As much as I loved them, I realized that the Broncos, the NFL, sports in general, only offer perishable crowns. They still have value for my life, but they aren’t the value. A “relationship” with or a devotion to sport could never, ever measure up to the relationship and devotion I began to experience at Mass and in my growing relationship with God, the Creator of the imperishable crown.
The devotion you hold most dear is sometimes obvious, but more often, as it was in my case, it’s hidden and harder to see. So I challenge you, as another football season begins, to take a hard look this fall and ask yourself one question:
Which crown am I seeking?
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