Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Here in The Coach’s Box, we’ve explored sports fandom and its role in our Christian witness as we address athletes, coaches, and game outcomes from a distance. So it’s saddening to see the depths of our depravity in the recent news of a New England Patriots fan who lost their life after a Miami Dolphins fan hit him. The Patriots fan, Dale Mooney, a 30-season ticket holder, was at Gillette Stadium with his son when he was struck, hit the ground, and never regained consciousness. (The latest reports indicate that Mooney did not die as a result of the punch, but from preliminary “medical issues.”)
Mooney’s death aside, there’s been altercation after altercation in football stadiums since the NFL’s first week, with instances of fans coming to blows incessantly. You might think it’s opposing team fans fighting one another, but that’s not always true. This problem extends beyond the scope of live sports entertainment. Watching people disregard the sanctity and image of God in one another in public gatherings can make you question your fandom and enjoyment of sports. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and Christians of all people can be the peacemakers exemplifying the love of God through the enjoyment of sports.
According to Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, our minds are wired to crave these large social gatherings whether we recognize it or not. Gabriel calls it “collective effervescence.” She told Vox, “Collective effervescence is the way we feel connected when we’re in a crowd of other people, even if we don’t know them. When we’re all focused on a concert or a play or a movie, we feel a sense of social connection and it makes us feel really good.” Gabriel also goes on to explain that it’s the reason why we’re so disturbed when altercations disrupt these gatherings. Large social congregations are vital to our intellectual and emotional selves.
Coupled with Gabriel’s research, these gatherings can also be necessary for our spiritual selves. It’s why Jesus was so adamant about the world recognizing his disciples by their love for one another and his desire for believers to be of one accord (John 13:35). It’s what made David gush into a psalm at the recognition of God’s people being together (Psalm 133:1). By acknowledging our desire for social connection—which is, indeed, a good desire from God—we can take principles from the word of God and show the world the love of God through the medium of sports fandom.
Anyone who’s been a fully invested fan knows how much of an emotional (and financial) investment goes into cheering for the home team. It can be pretty easy to forget that your favorite team isn’t your identity and that they owe you nothing except entertainment. Similarly, we treat other players, coaches, and opposing fans as if a defeat or disparaging remark is an assault on our identity. Some of these feelings may stem from what we perceive as a disturbance in our desire for “collective effervescence,” but we don’t have to let these things ruin our Christian witness.
So, to help us avoid the travesty of denigrating our neighbors (be they opposing fans, athletes, coaches, or organizations), here are three keys to the game that can help us be better fans and show the world what true enjoyment of sports can look like.
1. Take deep breaths. When the game is down to the wire and your favorite team makes a big play—or loses—take ten deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This step reminds me of the scene in the movie Anger Management when the Philadelphia 76ers lose on a missed Allen Iverson layup at the end of the game. It’s a bit exaggerated, but taking deep breaths can be a helpful reminder that you’re enjoying a game and other people might have the same feelings as you. You’re not in this alone.
2. Watch with someone who will hold you accountable. Last week, when my favorite player, Lamar Jackson, missed a pass, I threw my hat down in our living room in frustration. My wife gave me that look she usually reserves for when I start acting ridiculous. So I sat down and re-centered myself, remembering it’s just a game. Watching my favorite team with my wife subdues all of the boyish, immature emotions that I want to emote during the game. It isn’t enjoyable in the moment because I want to act however I want without judgment. Still, it’s a much-needed reminder that watching the game is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, not one where I’m free to throw temper tantrums.
3. Show good sportsmanship. At the end of games, both teams come together to shake hands in a show of sportsmanship and respect. Sportsmanship takes immense humility, but it’s an excellent place for the people of God to be. Humbling yourself to acknowledge a good play by the opposing team rather than scold your favorite team’s poor play is good practice in this area. Also, recognize when trash talk crosses the line into abusive speech. Don’t talk trash to people you don’t know. Your playful intentions might not bode well for a stranger who may misinterpret your intentions. So, extend a “good game” text or tweet to an opposing fan. It can be a great way to express good sportsmanship publicly.
The next time you’re at or watching a sports event, remember some of these strategies. More than a win or loss for your favorite team is on the line. Your Christian witness might express more about the God you serve in your reactions to the wins and losses.