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Volume 15, Issue 3: Recipio

Contact Sports

Ben Merkle

A theology of contact sports is desperately needed within the Church. On a broader level, we must admit that athletics have been a tricky thing for Christians to interact with, particularly within Christian schools. After all, how many Christian schools have sold their academic birthright for the red stew of a state championship? Their name is Legion. So, as usual, discernment is necessary.

But many objections to athletics go even deeper than just the battle between athletics and academics. In particular, many Christians have a deep emotional reaction against the mere idea of athletic competition, particularly as the competition grows more intense, as with contact sports. Is it really Christian to teach your boys to put on the football pads and hit one another? Aren't they supposed to be learning to turn the other cheek? Why do Christians want their sons to play football, hockey, lacrosse, to wrestle or learn to box? What place does physical strength and violent competition have in the life of a young Christian man who is being brought up in a faith that teaches that the meek will inherit the earth?
Christian justifications of contact sports often do more harm than good as many Christians end up sounding more Nietzsche-like than Christ-like. The sword is, of course, necessary and there is nothing sinful about martial strength and ability. But in the end, it is the Gospel that will conquer, not the USMC. So an answer to the dilemma, in order to be distinctly Christian, ought to be able to go beyond just martial confidence. It is certainly useful to be the biggest kid on the block. But in the end, there is always someone bigger. Every Napoleon has his Waterloo.
As always Christ ought to be our example, so we can ask how Christ pursued strength. Nowhere is Christ's physical strength more prominent than in His work on the cross. Christ received blow after blow, sweated blood, was pierced and wounded, all the while crushing the serpent's head with His heel. But the way Christ exercised His strength was so different than what we see in athletics today. The meek, humble, and crucified Messiah offers such a stark contrast to the image of the braggart Muhammad Ali. One lays His life down for another, while the other has a difficult time acknowledging the existence of others. Christ gives His life, while the pagan athlete attempts to seize everything for himself. And in the great Gospel paradox, Christ receives the world for His labor, and Ali receives a thick fog in the head and a dead idol for a god.
Christ's work becomes the model which we are to follow as we take up our crosses to follow Him. And in Christ's work on the cross we find a perfect blend of physical strength and courage mixed with meekness and love, the two things that we seem to have such a hard time blending in our pursuit of athletics. Pagans can't conceive of humility and love displayed in the midst of an intensely physical trial. But Christ gives the perfect example. If we want to teach our sons to follow Christ's example, we must seek ways for our boys to learn this art.
And contact sports offer the perfect venue for this. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. And how will you teach your son to practice this? What better opportunity than on the athletic field? How many opportunities are given per football game for a young man to lay down his body in a block or tackle for his friends? The ground ball in a lacrosse game offers such a wonderful chance for a boy to sacrifice himself in a well-placed (and hopefully bone-crushing) hit, for the sake of his teammate, who is now freed up to take possession of the ball. Every pick, every block, every tackle, every play that sacrifices one player's body for the good of the team is a chance to grow in biblical manliness and portrays the Gospel.
This opportunity to sacrifice tends to focus sideways, on one's teammates. A boy learns to look to the good of others as he sacrifices for his teammates. But not every play looks sideways. The time will come when all eyes are on just one player and his opponent. Perhaps it is easy to see Christian character when a player selflessly gives to his teammates. But can we see Christianity when two players face off against one another? Individual sports like boxing or wrestling highlight this element (but all team sports will have elements of this) and many Christians wonder how can God be glorified by one boy punching another boy in the face? But Scripture doesn't shy away from glorifying this sort of work.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, and the Church is destitute of true friends. The Church desperately needs a Jeremiah or a John the Baptist, someone to stand and give us our rightful licks, but instead we call for more Promise Keepers and Willow Creeks, soft words for our hard hearts. We have no conception of how to stand, as Athanasius did, contra mundum, because conflict scares us. But it is exactly this sort of conflict that is trained for in these one-on-one situations. Everyone knows what it is like to see a glaring problem in the Church that everyone ignores, because no one has the guts to address it. And every time a young man steps up to square off with his opponent, with all eyes on him, he practices being Athanasius. Every time he pounds his opponent, he practices being the friend who is faithful to wound. Our pietistic fear of contact sports is merely an attempt to paint our vices as virtues.
Of course athletics offers pitfalls and temptations. But what doesn't? Pride, arrogance, and tempers are always rampant. But someone who is drawn towards these sins will not cure himself by abstaining from sports if he is not willing to address the root of the problem. And these sports offer the opportunity to identify both the problem and the cure at an early age.

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