Not just a game
Picking sides isn’t limited to being a sports fan
The arrival of another Olympics invites us to care about televised gymnastics, track and field, synchronized diving and, well, ping pong. It also reminds us how international athletics provide an amplified example of sports allegiance.
From a Mennonite angle, some sports connections make sense. The traditionally hapless Chicago Cubs, without a championship for 103 years — longer than any other North American professional sports team — own a brand of baseball attractive to Mennonites accustomed to martyrdom.
Other times, geography rules all. Many an Anabaptist in northern Indiana proudly wears the colors of that Midwestern mecca of Catholicism, the University of Notre Dame. Sweatshirts emblazoned with a leprechaun poised for a fight likely have more to do with football than any courses taught by John Paul Lederach or John Howard Yoder.
In the Olympics, regionalism becomes nationalism — the not-so-subtle chest-thumping of the opening ceremonies and majesty of the medal ceremonies. Other times, a primal identification with physical prowess supersedes. We’re awed by those who run really fast, vault really high or hit a little plastic ball with a little wooden paddle just so.
Take it from Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and father of the modern Olympics, who said, “For me, sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual.” From the Pentecostal ecstasy of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Leap to pre- and postgame prayer, to instilling character and discipline, to heavy doses of faith and devotion, sport indeed is a lot like religion.
True, some take no interest in any sport or contest. More refined pursuits occupy their interest. That’s still picking a side.
Then there are the contrarians who refuse to allow Team USA to pull their heartstrings because of drone warfare, corporate bailouts or that fellow with a flag just down the street who must be jingoistic. That, too, is picking a side.
Others just want everyone to do their best and have a good time — also a side. But the rest of us make like Rev. 3:16 and spit out that which is neither hot nor cold.
Some sports allegiances carry a dose of theology. Just as it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, some cannot support the New York Yankees and their payroll nearly quadruple that of the least of these: the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres.
In faith, everyone picks a side, and some likely enjoy the rivalries. Attendance and revenue are tracked, coaches are scrutinized, calls are second-guessed and venues are venerated.
Like other Christians, Mennonites pick our churches, our conferences and our denominations on a variety of factors. Sometimes tradition, sometimes heredity, sometimes geography. Sometimes even theology. Most of all, we choose whom we will serve.
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