In the year 1617, King James issued his famous Declaration of Sports, a document which would be controversial due to its encouragement of the English to participate in certain sports on Sundays and Holy Days. This document, also known as simply the Book of Sports, enumerated a number of licit sports, which were fair game, as it were, for Sundays, and also listed several illicit sports in which subjects to the crown were forbidden to participate. Prior to this legislation, participating in sports on Sunday was not only discouraged, but in fact illegal. King James’s decree permitted recreation through approved sports after, and only after, the satisfaction of one’s obligation for liturgical Sunday worship. The Declaration was issued as a challenge both to ultraconservative Puritans, who considered any sporting activity to be a profanation of the Sabbath, as well as those slothful Catholics and Anglicans who preferred to spend Sundays playing sports in lieu of attending Church. The King’s emphasis: sports are good, but they ought not take the place of worship.
Statistics show that less than 20 percent of Americans attend weekly Sunday Church services. On the other hand, last year’s Super Bowl was viewed by well over 100 million people, claiming portions of the total population as high as 58 percent in certain parts of the country. When more people tune in to a football game than set foot in a house of worship on the Lords’ Day, it seems devastating clear what America really worships on Sunday. The Super Bowl, in turn, will deliver for us exactly what we ask of it. It will create a sense of community among us. It will entertain us. It will tell us who we are and who we want to be, from the parade of idols on the field, stands, and half time show, to the seemingly endless stream of commercials for which advertisers are willing to pay small fortunes, in the hopes of grasping larger ones in return.
The gigantic spectacle that is the Super Bowl serves is a microcosm of the larger world of popular sports. In it we see an amped up exhibition of what happens throughout not only the professional football season but many other sports as well, professional and amateur alike. Fans near and far will spend hard earned money and precious time following what they consider to be “their team,” willing to put their emotions on the line in hopes of vicariously winning a game; a game which was created for leisure, recreation, health, enjoyment of nature, and the love of playing (the true meaning of the word amateur), but which has been more commonly used as a tool in pursuit of money, success, popularity, and the addiction to “win” which is so alluring to our hyper-competitive mindset.
The word “worship” comes from the Old English term weorthscipe, used to designate an acknowledgement of value or importance of something. To worship something is to reverence it as being precious. We worship what we consider worthy of our devotion. We show something is worthwhile by being attentive to it; offering it our time, effort, and resources. Worship is not just one of the things we are supposed to do on the Lord’s Day; it is all we are supposed to do on the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath tradition teaches us that Sunday, centered on its particular obligation, is to set the tone for our entire week, which is itself given to us for the specific purpose of worship, in a more general yet still obligatory sense. Sports and other recreations can be a part of that worship, so long as they are oriented towards the higher purposes of prayer, community, rest, and relaxation. Sports, whether played or watched, can and should lend themselves to wholesome experiences of friendship, exercise, joy, and even beauty. Sports have these characteristics, however, only when they are exercised as means, pointed towards the ends of proper worship. When they are treated as ends in themselves, sports can quickly lead to vanity, unhealthy competition, vice (such as gambling, drunkenness, etc.), idleness (taking our effort and attention away from where it should be), and idolatry. That which has such potential for attraction to virtue can quickly be a distraction, and can even become itself a form of false worship.
That which is worshipped naturally sets the compass for our entire lives. We orient ourselves towards its pursuit and emulation. Our worship is something we do, in an immediate sense, but teleologically we see that we are made by our worship, not the other way around. Our worship is the framing story into which we are interjected as characters in a drama that has been written before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). The heroic witnesses we encounter in our liturgy call us up, along with them, in praise and adoration of the Eternal God. These heroes are men like us, yet have been exalted ahead of us by keeping their gaze fixed firmly on he who alone is worthy. They offer us a story which includes adventure, excitement, competition, and comradery, in which all things are done for the glory of God alone. This story includes both defeats and victories, but the sting of the former is soothed by our confidence in the latter.
Our idols, however, are just as close at hand, and if not more accessible in the modern imagination, at least more frequently accessed by popular culture. Idolatry is “divinizing what is not God,” and we commit it when we “honor and revere a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons, power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” (CCC 2113). Our idols offer us a false liturgy of secularism, which attaches worth to the created rather than the creator. The story they offer us is one of individualism, pride, and superficiality. When we worship these idols we worship also the gods to whom they are obedient: the false gods of power, pleasure, and image.
A seventeenth century Englishman freshly introduced to the possibility of enjoying sports on the Lord’s Day would have done well to consult a saint from the previous century for advice on how to properly exercise this newfound freedom. Francis de Sales also allowed and encouraged his spiritual directees to seek recreation. De Sales recognized, however, the potential of sports to become a distraction from a life of devotion. According to him:
You must, of course, guard against excess either in the time they occupy, or in the importance given them; for if you devote too much time, they cease to be recreations and become occupations; you do not refresh the mind or body—on the contrary, you overpower and stun both … if the interest of the game is too deep, it produces over-anxiety … especially avoid attaching yourselves to them, for however allowable such things are as amusements, they become evils as soon as they absorb the heart (Introduction to the Devout Life).
If Francis wrote this about the danger of sports in his day, I wonder what he would think about the danger of sports in ours. This Super Bowl Sunday, and in fact any time we either play or watch sports, we would do well to ask ourselves those questions: “is this taking up too much of my time?” “Is this refreshing to my mind and body or is it overpowering them?” “Is this a source of anxiety for me?” “Am I attached to this particular sport, team, or game?” “Is this merely an amusement, or has this absorbed my heart?” This sort of reflection will enable us to enjoy sports for what they are meant to be, and guard us against their less desirable tendencies. It will also remind us that no matter how big, how popular, and how extravagant the game is, it is still just a game, and who wins or loses doesn’t matter at all. Who does matter is the one who should be our model, who should occupy all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our strength (Deuteronomy 6:4). Let’s pray that this Super Bowl Sunday, the 100+ million Americans who tune in to the game do so as an act of recreation, and not as an act of worship.