Christians and Our Complicated Adulation of Athletes
One of my favorite bands from high school, Christian alt-rock supergroup The Lost Dogs, had a song on one of their albums titled “Jesus Loves You, Brian Wilson.” In a style reminiscent of the Laurel Canyon sound of which Brian Wilson (and his Beach Boys) were musical pioneers, the Lost Dogs sing about how influential Wilson has been for them and how heartbreaking it was to discover Wilson’s struggles with mental health. The song is both mournful and encouraging. It’s a tribute and a lament.
You may not know anything about Brian Wilson or resonate with the struggles of musical heroes, but I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced your own version of this hopeful mourning about a public influence or hero. I’d actually forgotten about the Lost Dogs’ ode to Wilson’s troubled genius for a while until I began reading all of the public wrestling with the legacy of basketball great Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash a little over a year ago. For whatever reason, the song popped into my mind.
For Christians of a certain age, Bryant represented athletic genius. He was for many the greatest (or almost greatest) who ever played the game. And yet there were those shadows from his past too. It complicates the mourning.
But I think the Christian’s adulation of public greatness is always complicated—or should be. Like the rest of the world, with hope and aspiration we appraise the work of politicians and pop stars, country singers and quarterbacks, and we celebrate success. And there’s a touch of worship in it. Sometimes more than a touch.
Nowhere is this more evident perhaps than in our reverence for athletes. Evangelicals in particular are not as taken with movie stars or politicians (as a class) to the extent that their neighbors are, but we do love our athletes. The most notable example of this is of course Tim Tebow, who turned a stellar college football career into a disappointing NFL career without losing the favor of American evangelicals because of his faith and family values. But we do it with unbelieving athletes as well.
They represent the best of us. They carry on their backs the projection of our selves. We wear clothing with their names on it. We sing their praises on social media. We buy their products. If they so much as mention anything positive about God, we invite them to speak at the men’s retreat and hire a ghostwriter for their Christian book deal.
God’s people have always had an inordinate bent toward strongmen, and athletes are the strongmen who have emerged from among us. (“I went to high school with Shaq!” “My cousin’s boyfriend’s veterinarian saw Tiger Woods at Starbucks!”) If there are any stars Christians will sell their left lung to meet, it would be sports stars.
My favorite athlete of all time is quarterback Tom Brady, who this morning is basking in the satisfaction of cementing his GOAT status with a decisive Super Bowl win over the favored Kansas City Chiefs. I love Tom Brady. But my love for him is complicated. He is not a believer in Christ. He is undoubtedly an idolater of his sport. And as with all idolatry, the gods will let you down in the end. The clock is ticking on Tom. The greatest QB of all time is still good even at 43. But for how long? I fear for Tom Brady.
A few years ago, when Brady only had three Super Bowl rings, he was on 60 Minutes, he said this: “Why do I still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.”
When interviewer Steven Kroft asked him, “What’s the answer?”, Brady responded, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”
Brady has seven(!) championship rings now. None of them was the answer. You and I know that. I hope that reality is dawning on my favorite athlete. Because bodies wither and rings fade, but there is a word that stands forever.
This was something I didn’t see in a lot of the evangelical tributes to Kobe Bryant a year ago—a fear for his soul. Certainly bringing up the possibility of his lacking a profession of faith in Christ at the time of fresh grief would be inappropriate. But it should haunt us.
Do we love these heroes? Or just what they do for us?
Is it possible we care about the stats, the talent, the influence, the success, even the legacy, but not their souls?
In the chorus to “Jesus Loves You, Brian Wilson,” the Lost Dogs tell Brian about the Man who can meet his needs and bring him peace. They want their hero to meet the real Hero.
As my generation gets older, our heroes will continue to fall (in more ways than one). Michael Jordan is going to die. LeBron James is going to die. Patrick Mahomes is going to die. Tom Brady is going to die. And what will it all be worth if we only cheered for their trophies on a shelf? “What does it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “to gain the world but lose his soul?” I fear this weightier business does not inform much of our adulation of athletes.
Let’s keep cheering. Sports are fun and a common grace. Let’s keep rooting for our teams and for our favorite players. Competition can be sharpening and athletic greatness is a testimony to the Creator’s design and artistry. But let’s remember all people are image-bearers—when they fail and when they succeed, when they’re in their prime and when their time is up. Will Christians only contribute to that which for the sports star will only dry up? Or can we carry them further? Athletes are more than the avatars of our tribal loyalties. They are men and women who need prayer far more than praise.
And Tom, if you’re reading this—Jesus loves you. When you get to the end of all you can do and realize it will never be enough, He will be there, more than enough for you.