I was talking with my friend John White the other day about the subject of his PhD dissertation at the University of Edinburgh – a Christian ethic of sports — and John made some interesting statements about the ideal of sports. His logic went something like this:
- God created everything good.
- Mankind has sinned and, thus, perverted God’s good.
- Humans, even sinful ones, are still capable of doing good things, because of God’s sovereignty.
- Artists, even sinful ones, are able to make good art, because God created a common good.
- Musicians, even sinful ones, are able to create good music, because God created a common good.
- Humans, even sinful ones, are capable of displaying moral actions.
But does this logic apply to the world of sports? John says yes. Athletes, even sinful ones, are capable of doing good in sports. And sports, when played in the ideal way, will bring glory to God, the good Creator.
This glorious reflection in sports takes place, specifically, when competition is ideal. John noted that the word “competition” comes from the Latin word competere which means “to strive together.” In the ideal, John argued, competition in sports is an important environment where all the competitors get qualitatively better at their sport through the process of striving together.
To illustrate his point, John described a tennis match. If a weaker tennis player, like me, is competing against a stronger tennis great, say Rafael Nadal, then there is an inherent benefit to Nadal besting me in the tennis match. Let’s say that my forehand is strong, but my backhand is particularly underdeveloped. As Nadal learns this in the course of competing, he will likely serve to my backhand over and over again. Even if he constantly wins the point by serving to my backhand, I benefit from this exercise in trying to develop a backhand return. He benefits with the exercise of strategy, execution, and the win. I benefit from exercise and development of my backhand.
In competition, we strive together and both get better.
In other words, competitors, even sinful ones, can participate in good things from their mutual competition. Why? Because sports find their ultimate origin in the good Creator God. Genesis 1:27 tells us that mankind was made in the image of God. And men are good because of God’s involvement in creating them. When sports competitors do good things, they do so because they are imitating the Creator God, who Himself plays and creates. Thus, Sports, when played in the ideal way, will reflect the image of the good Creator God.
I was pondering John’s argument about the good of sports recently as I watched the Indiana Pacers compete against the Miami Heat in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. In particular, I witnessed an act that reflected the glory of the good God during a competitive moment between LeBron James and Paul George.
During the last 15 second stretch of the 3rd quarter of game 2, Paul George crossed over LeBron James and then drove to the basket in traffic for a monstrous dunk over Chris “The Birdman” Anderson.
On the very next play, LeBron drove across the half court line and put up a spectacular long, long range 3 point shot that banked in at the buzzer.
LeBron defended George and George dunked on him. George defended LeBron and LeBron scored on him. In competition, we strive together and both get better.
But if those two plays were all that transpired, I am not sure it would be anything out of the ordinary in playoff NBA basketball. We have seen plenty of brilliant one-on-one performances where competitors push one another to higher levels of performance.
No, what was truly remarkable and, dare I say it, revealing of the glorious Creator of the Universe, was what happened after the end of the 3rd quarter. LeBron and George walked over to each other and exchanged a fist bump so as to say to each other, “Thanks for the competition that makes us both better.”
It was an act of character.
It was an act of honor.
It was an act that revealed the goodness of a Creator on display in His creatures (whether either one of them is a born-again believer or not).
On that night, LeBron and Paul George reflected the image of the Creator God in the way they competed, whether they intended to or not. While they may have not taken the time to worship God because of that moment, I found it to be a perfect opportunity to praise God that in the midst of playoff basketball His glory was clearly on display.