Why sports matter


Sports are recreation. They are entertainment. But they are much more than that. It is an easy thing as a writer, preacher, or observer to use sports as a metaphor or an analogy for various aspects of life. Sports are so prevalent throughout culture that even non-fans can relate, but that is only part of the reason sports are so often used to paint a picture of life. There are traits of athletic competition and performance, both obvious and less-so, that equate to the multifaceted nature and depth of life as a whole.

Sports are easy to relate to life because they offer pure action with no filters. There is the simple and recognizable drama of competition. The tension is palpable and the conflict is overt. For literature and drama lovers it may look mundane or barbaric, but the simplicity of sports is relatable to people. We know what is happening and are drawn into the unfolding action. We connect to the emotions, the ebb and flow of the action.

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Humanity, the relating of one person to another, is the essence of sports. Teams work together—or they don’t, and they fail. Coaches exhibit leadership, both strong and weak. Individuals seek to best their rivals, sometimes in friendly competition and sometimes in a bloodbath. Referees enforce rules and maintain order between competitors. Ownership and management make business decisions, sometimes to the detriment of the people involved. And in all of this there is a clear relational connection to real life—to the relationships we have all around us each day.

Beyond the metaphorical, though—beyond the comparison to the personal—sports are an exposé of the heart. Emotions, and expressions of them, are unveiled in the midst of competition, both for good and ill. Nothing brings out praise and curses like a tight game with the season on the line. Sports bring out the visceral in humanity, the gushing positivity and railing hatred in consecutive breaths. When we play sports our opponents aren’t just opponents—they’re enemies. The rawness of the emotion of sports is both refreshing and frightening. It is both humanizing and dehumanizing, exposing the deep ability to enjoy and the underlying ugliness and idolatry of the heart.

On top of all this, sports provides a litmus test for growth. As people grow in maturity—spiritually, mentally, and intellectually—sports actually become more enjoyable as the metaphorical and subtle bubble to the surface. Even as this is happening, the dependency on sports for identity and joy decreases. Losing, whether it is our own or our favorite team’s, becomes less defining (even though it is still disappointing). As we grow we gain the ability not just to root, but to appreciate. All of a sudden we recognize the magnificence of the performances and the beauty of the created athlete. Instead of sports defining us or exposing us, we become free to explore its many facets and learn from them.

Barnabas Piper
Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.


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