The Scars of Competition

With each passing day, I wonder more and more why I waste even one second worrying about competitive sports. This may seem silly or absurd to most people, but it’s as though the world of competitive sports regularly and deliberately gives us more fodder to help us realize our idiocy when it comes to our obsession with the industry.

I had the opportunity last night to attend the University of Maine hockey game against Merrimack College. It was the deciding game in the two schools’ three-game series. The night before, the game was so raucous that, with 184 combined penalty minutes, the two teams set a Hockey East tournament record for most penalty minutes in a game.

Fortunately, last night, the two teams were a little more well behaved, although in the second period it did get a little rowdy. What got me thinking, however, was what happened after the game. I attended the game with my brother-in-law, who serves as one of Maine’s consulting physicians. He attends to various medical needs players may have when the game ends, which left me waiting in the stands. As I waited there, a number of the parents of the Merrimack players stood around, waiting to console their beloved sons who were on the losing end of the tilt. After a few minutes, a few of the players slipped out and I noticed one of them, as he embraced his parents, got very teary-eyed.

My heart sank.

I will be the first to admit to you that I have been very wrapped up in the winning-and-losing ledger of the world of sports. Having played varsity sports myself, and being fully enamored with the world of professional – and to a lesser extent, collegiate – athletics, I understand the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” It comes with the territory.

But it all has me wondering: as a Christian, who bases his decisions on the principles of heaven, are the scars that competition leaves worth it? Can I justifiably say that the world of competition – of the desire to beat an opponent, sometimes at the expense of that opponent’s physical well-being – aligns with the ways of heaven, where cooperation is the modus operandi, where no one is a loser in the economy of grace?

This past week, we saw all too acutely the heights to which people will go to gain a competitive advantage. Though some may think it is an extreme example, the New Orleans Saints mercifully pulled back the curtain (or the NFL kindly did so for them) on the logical outworking of a philosophy of competition. With coaches not only fully aware, but fully supportive, players were offered monetary “bounties” to injure their opponents. Imagine the even greater scandal had it been found that a player they had injured got paralyzed – or even worse (though something tells me we probably would have – and will – simply roll our eyes and tune in for opening night on September 5).

Need we anymore evidence?

We already know that playing professional football literally kills you (studies have revealed that an average NFL player who plays five years will have a life expectancy of 55 years – 20 years less than the average male American). How much more like ancient Rome – with its gladiatorial combats and animals ripping apart humans – must we become before we realize the folly of our ways?

And all this we call “recreation,” or literally “re-creation.”

It sounds more like “de-creation.”

The biblical witness has a different take on the ways of life. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul writes, “but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than Himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3, 4). Jesus, Himself, had these poignant words, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Something tells me neither Paul nor Jesus would have thought this philosophy could be shelved for a 60-minute game.

Thus, for the Christian – and for anyone who strives to be loving and other-centered rather than self-serving – the goal of life is to build others up, rather than tear them down; to serve, rather than exploit; to encourage, rather than diminish.

All this is not to say that every single aspect of competitive sports is wrong. Nor is it to say that anyone who is involved with sports on a competitive level is hell-bound. I stand in judgment of no one. We are all at different places in our journey. Nor is it to say that you will never see me lacing up my skates or shooting baskets in innocent recreation. It is simply an invitation to raise the bar when it comes to what we value in life; to allow God’s gracious spirit to be woven into our lives so that our ultimate and constant goal is to ever lift others up.