Thinking Theologically about NFL Playoff Games and Other Sports

Last night I watched the AFC playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. My dad was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area and he raised me right, so I was thoroughly pleased with the game’s outcome—a Steelers victory. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one watching. The game turned out to be the most watched prime-time game ever in the NFL’s Divisional and Wild-Card Playoff round, with more than 37 million viewers tuning in.

Like it or not, sports—professional, amateur or recreational—are a big deal in American culture. Yet, most Christians haven’t given much thought about the intersection of their Christian convictions with sports. Some quickly dismiss it as another form of mindless entertainment, while others mindlessly over-consume sports and over-identify with their favorite franchise. So, how should our theology inform our view of sports? Is the image of God reflected in sports? Or is the fallenness of man on full display? Or is it some of both? As Christians who desire to see and understand all of reality in light of God’s truth, we had better do some good theological thinking about the massive cultural activity of sports. Unfortunately, I haven’t found much serious theological reflection on sports by clear-thinking Christians, but let me point to a couple of good resources. 

First, philosopher Michael Austin offers some deeper thoughts on football in a piece titled "Football, Fame and Fortune," where he reflects on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods to help develop a Christian approach to football: 

In sum, this approach to the intrinsic and extrinsic goods of football will not only help players flourish on the field, but off the field as well. It will also enable them to focus more on the common good rather than their own narrow self-interest. Fans of the game who seek to understand the athletic and moral excellence that can be developed and displayed via football will have more valuable experiences compared to those who are merely seeking entertainment at the expense of excellence. This is not only a properly Christian approach to football but also to life.

Austin also discusses “Cultivating Faith in Sports,” and suggests that the context of sports can help us develop the virtue of faith. 

Second, philosopher Jim Spiegel discusses the benefits of sports (see page 4). According to Spiegel, the benefit of sports are: 

  1. Professional athletes provide clear examples of excellence. 
  2. Sports have aesthetic value. 
  3. Athletic competition builds character. 
  4. Sports can point us to Shalom. 

Spiegel concludes, 

But the good news of the gospel is that Christ is a thorough redeemer. He has come to transform human nature itself and thus to redeem all of our undertakings, including our work as well as our leisure. By the power of the Spirit we can demonstrate how to be balanced and virtuous athletes and sports fans. And we can demonstrate grace even in athletic competition. That God has blessed us, even in this fallen world, with the privilege to engage in and observe athletic competition is an aspect of his common grace. We Christians should respond in kind by being gracious in competition and when rooting for our teams. Even in such apparently small ways, we can live redemptively.

Third, “A Theology of Sports” from Matt Chandler’s church, The Village Church, provides a great overview of a basic theology of sports, offering some helpful categories in which to think theologically about sports: common grace, image of God, spiritual formation, signposts of God’s glory, and human fallenness. 

Whatever you think about sports, my main point here is to encourage more careful thinking about sports by all Christians. Sports are a massive part of modern American culture, and as Christians who desire to live faithfully to God in our cultural context, we must think theologically about every facet of reality. Doing so will give us a greater ability to see the relation of Christian truth to all of reality. Plus, an additional benefit may be the ability to more thoroughly enjoy the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over the New England Patriots in next week’s AFC Championship game! 

Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

Brett Kunkle