Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Swallowing Sunday Whole

It was ugly, really ugly; five straight games, a sweep, the second Boston Massacre. And to the Yankees, the Evil Empire, the embodiment of all that is wrong with sports. Wait till next year! (For the unenlightened, the Yankees swept the Red Sox in five games last weekend all but knocking them out of post-season contention. This is all too familiar to a fourth generation Sox fan.) I must compose myself. Time to move on the college football—Hook ’em Horns.

Two years ago Rick Reilly, of Sports Illustrated fame, wrote an article for his regular S.I. column, “The Life of Reilly,” entitled, “Let Us Pray Play.” Did you see it? This is certainly not the way I would articulate the issue, but the fact that anyone from S.I. would even consider the Sunday-sports problem is surprising. With football on its way, this is an appropriate moment to look back on his perspective.

Another Easter Sunday in the Cathedral. Hushed voices. Amens. People holding hands and praying. At the end, all of them rising as one and screaming, "My God, it's a miracle!"


No. Augusta National. It was Phil Mickelson's win at the Masters.

Sports has nearly swallowed Sunday whole. Every pro sport plays on Sunday. The big day in pro golf and tennis is Sunday. College football started playing bowl games on Sunday. Here's March Madness: 10 NCAA tournament games were played on Sunday. Now more and more youth sports teams are playing on Sunday, when the fields are easier to get and parents are available to drive.

It's that kind of stuff that has really torqued off Pope John Paul II lately. In March he decried the fact that Sundays are losing their "fundamental meaning" to "such things as entertainment and sport." It's not as if he's antijock. The pope was a goalkeeper, skier and kayaker in his day. Hey, he just blessed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's right arm. He's just hacked at the way sport is crowding God right off the list of Sunday passions.

The first people he might want to crack down on are the Christians themselves. Think he knows that the Santa Clarita (Calif.) YMCA has youth hoops on Sundays? Think the pope would be down on Notre Dame if he knew its softball team will play more games on Sundays in May than on any other day of the week?

He's not the only one who's chapped about sports becoming this country's main religion. Priests and pastors across the country have noticed something lately: God is competing more and more with Sunday sports -- and losing. Especially with youth sports.

"It's only happened the last two years," says Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. "Coaches never used to schedule games on Sunday."

Says the Reverend Julie Yarborough of Summit (N.J.) Christ Church, "You see kids coming to Sunday school late and their parents coming early to get them for games -- if they come at all. Sports is really eating into our time."

Her colleague at Christ Church, the Reverend Charles Rush, knew there was a problem the other day when his 12-year-old acolyte lit the candles at the front of the church wearing his soccer cleats.

I'll tell you exactly what's going on here: the upping of American youth sports.

For some reason overcaffeinated parents feel they have to keep up with the Joneses. They used to do it with their cars. Now they do it with their kids. Upping means putting little Justin into not one soccer league but three, not one soccer camp but four.

Upping also means playing up, forcing a kid to play one or even two levels above his age group, so that little Benjamin, age eight, can sit on the 10-year-olds' bench, play three minutes a game and whiff in his only at bat. But, hey, he is playing up!

And upping means moving up. The local team isn't high-profile, so little Amber has to switch to an elite team, usually in another town. That means extended drives to and from practice plus traveling three or four or six hours to play in tony invitational tournaments on weekends. This way parents from far-flung towns can flaunt the status symbol of spending beautiful warm weekends in a freezing ice rink watching 14 mind- and butt-numbing hockey games.

"I admit, we're guilty from time to time," John Burrill, head of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, says of playing on Sundays. "We don't feel particularly good about it, but with today's busy schedules Sunday is the only time some of us have to do these things. And if you're going to travel two states away, it doesn't make sense to not play Sunday, too."

Well, religion bosses have decided that they're not going to take it anymore. Spiritual leaders in Summit got together recently and appealed for sports leagues to stop scheduling games before noon on Sunday. A meeting between them and area youth coaches is set for May. We'll see who kneels first.

Don't bet on coaches doing the right thing. If they could, they'd have your kids running stairs on Christmas morning. What has to happen is the parents have to start saying no. Not to their kids -- to their kids' coaches. "I told my boy's coach he wouldn't be playing on Sundays," says Cizik, "and he looked shocked. I said, 'You act like nobody's ever said that to you before.' And he said, 'Honestly? They haven't.'"

I'm with the holy men. Not that I'm the Reverend Lovejoy, but I just feel sorry for these kids who get nothing but organized sports crammed down their gullets 24/7. My Lord, even God took a day off.

Kids might weep with joy to get a day off from sports. If they don't spend it at church, maybe they'll spend it getting to know their siblings' names again. Or swing in a hammock without a coach screaming, "Get your hips into it, Samantha!"

Hey, you do what you want. Just remember, when little Shaniqua has two free throws to win or lose a game on some Sunday morning, good luck finding somebody who'll answer your prayers.


Anonymous said...

The power rests with the parents,of course. They drive the children to the games, and they are supposedly the ones in charge. But you are correct, these parents do not have the convictions of generations past nor the backbone to say no to their own children, much less the coaches. And somewhere in their egos, they see themselves as the parent of the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.Sports is the new idol for the twentfirst century in America. If you can't play, get out of the way.

Bradford Mercer said...

You make excellent points. My son is a college baseball prospect so this is not an "abstract" issue for me. This is yet another example of our misuse of one of God's good gifts. We certainly are "idol factories."

West Coast PCA said...

Thank you for addressing this poignant issue. I'm currently studying for my ordination exams and one of the questions asks, "Should a Christian watch the Super Bowl or the World Series on Sunday"? Personally, I don't see a problem with this because I don't think recreation and rest are incompatable, and thus I'm not convinced that it's a violation of the Sabbath. I also think there is a ceremonial as well as moral aspect to the Sabbath. Am I wrong? By no means do I think that parents should strip themselves and their children from corporate worship, and works of necessity, mercy, and piety for the sake of sports, but I'm not sure that kicking the ball or watching the game is subversive to the Sabbath. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Just say NO has worked before.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but in saying a simple no, one might hurt someon's feeling, make them angry or sad......... injure the child's psyche or mess with their self esteem.

Anonymous said...

It has become insane. My question is whether we expect Jesus to return to "The Grove?"

Bradford Mercer said...

Let's not pretend that this is an easy issue. It's not. But surely most of us would agree that most folks are starved for true fellowship, solitude, rest, and worship. But the "present evil age" conspires to snuff out these longings. If we are serious about living obediently and well, we must start by clearing out the clutter of Sundays: "In repentance and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength"(Isaiah 30:15). Remember, there are good things, and there the best things. "If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy" (CSL). It took me a long time to understand and love the Lord's Day. But I do. We are made to need and embrace a rhythmic Sabbath worship-wonder-rest. It is a "best thing." The Lord's Day is a weekly reminder that it is not about us. It's about God. Worship; go home; turn off the television, computer, and iPod; talk, listen, read, pray, rest. Believe me, you'll never go back!

Anonymous said...

You (and Reilly) make excellent points. As a southerner who adores Alabama Football, I often struggle with my passion for football and my lack of zeal for Christ. I have to ask (and often do) "why don't I/we get as excited about Jesus' work for us as we do when 'our' team wins?"

Harry Reeder has pointed out that our culture rewards playing and pretending (sports and acting) more than any other "profession." This is a very sad commentary on our culture. It may never be "overcome," but the Church should not be a party to the idol-making.

Preachers and parents need to model appropriate passions for their people. Very simply, we should take more care preparing for Worship than we do tail-gating for the big game(s).