The demonic forces of the universe try to distort what is good and make something that is destructive. So it is with sports. The games that can prepare us for life by teaching us how to compete with fairness and how to handle defeat and victory can also become preoccupations that distract us from some of our most important responsibilities.
Teenagers who ought to be home studying are often out on asphalt courts playing “hoops” way into the night. Adults who ought to be paying attention to their children and to one another are too often glued to television sets watching an endless succession of “bowl” games. Many young athletes who ought to be living balanced lives are giving most of their waking hours to practicing their sports. Sports can be a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
In trying to inspire urban teenagers to envision lives of service for others, we are constantly running into counter values promoted by “principalities and powers” of the sports world. The glamour and glitz of the superstars is incredibly seducing. We have to struggle against them to inspire young people to spend their lives in sacrificial service to others. The big money of professional athletes’ contracts provides fallacious goals and leads them to believe that if they work hard enough at practicing, they will one day reap the millions of dollars that go with stardom. Too often they see sports as their ticket out of the ghetto, refusing to face the fact that this is a one-in-a-million possibility.
The salaries that pro-athletes are getting also pose a problem. Given our free market economy, I suppose they are entitled to all that the market will provide, but there are consequences for teenagers who pick up from those publicized salaries unrealistic ideas about what is a good-paying job. I took a group of kids from the housing projects to meet lawyers, doctors and other professionals in Philadelphia. I was hoping to stimulate them with vocational options that they might consider for themselves. But when it was learned that the doctor who was interviewed earned “only” about $150,000 a year, they all agreed that they would not want to work for “small peanuts” like that.
On top of all these negatives, many idolized superstars live out lifestyles that stand over and against all that we’re trying to teach teenagers that the Bible says about immorality. In spite of disclaimers, athletes are role models for teenagers and the consequences of this are easy to predict. When Wilt Chamberlain claims to have had 30,000 sexual partners and Magic Johnson has had so many one-night-stands that he cannot say from whence he picked up the AIDS virus, a message is sent out that stands in diametrical opposition to the “faithfulness values” of monogamous marriage.
Recently, in basketball, Latrell Spreewell of the Golden State Warriors team assaulted his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, and held him in a painful headlock. To add to this criminal behavior, Spreewell threatened to kill him. The Warriors immediately ended Spreewell’s contract and the National Basketball Association suspended him for a year. Amazingly, the player’s union claimed that the punishment was too severe and that he did not have “due process.” Don’t these guys realize that “due process” according to the law probably would have landed Spreewell in jail? The answer is, “No!”
The unreal world that these overpaid players live in keeps them from believing that they are like the rest of us and have to live by the same rules that govern other people. What does all of this say to that host of teenagers who want to be just like them?
Ephesians 6:12 says: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.”
There is no doubt that in trying to help urban teenagers to “press towards the work of the high calling of God,” (Phil. 3:14) sports has become one of those principalities and powers against which we must wrestle.
Author and speaker Tony Campolo is a professor of sociology at Eastern College in St. David, PA.