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The NFL Draft and sports as religion

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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NFL 2015 draft held in Chicago (Credit: USA Today Sports)

Tonight, the NFL will kick off its annual draft, but instead of the familiar backdrop of New York’s Radio City Music Hall, this year’s draft will take place in Chicago. The culmination of the NFL’s offseason, the draft is when teams jockey for position in order to grab talented players at bargain prices. Under the current salary structure, the draft is the easiest and most affordable way for teams to improve year to year.

Because of the growing importance for each team to have a successful draft, every player is heavily scrutinized. Teams gather video highlights from a players’ collegiate career, combine those insights with measurable performance benchmarks attained at the NFL Combine or the equivalent “Pro Day”, and then synthesize the information through personality and character assessments.

The Draft is lengthy, covering three days, with 7 rounds and 256 overall picks. Whereas the first round of the draft has always received ample media attention, only recently has the entire draft been followed so closely all the way through the last pick. This level of attention has caught the eyes of NFL executives, and this year they are ready to up the ante on the NFL Draft, taking it from a singular event to a full-scale spectacle.

The draft will take place in Chicago, after scheduling conflicts forced the NFL to look beyond New York. This excellent piece in the Chicago Sun Times details the political hob-knobbing that went into convincing the NFL to give Chicago the opportunity to host the draft. Part of the lure was Chicago’s desire to make the draft a larger fan experience. The city has constructed a mammoth 900,000 square foot pavilion dubbed “Draft Town” that will host an expected 100,000 fans or more over the course of the three-day draft. Contrast that with the usual small, but raucous crowd at Radio City Music Hall, and you have what some have dubbed the new “draftapalooza”.

It’s pretty obvious why the NFL would want to make the draft such a spectacle: money. They are currently the richest of the Big Four American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL), and enjoy ratings dominance on television. While there are a variety of factors in the rise of the popularity of the NFL specifically, at a more general level sports as a whole has transformed from what used to be a side hobby of American life to one of the most dominating and important cultural systems that has, for all intents and purposes, become its own religion.

Ticket prices have skyrocketed across all-leagues, but while this has left many fans unable to attend games, it has helped sustain the fledgling television market, as live sporting events have become the crown jewel of many cable providers in search of advertising dollars. Revenues across the four leagues continues to grow, as does the overall cultural cache of sports. Youth sports leagues have gone from primarily local, volunteer-driven networks of families, to an entire industry that features traveling teams, national tournaments, and professional instructors. Mike Matheny, manager for MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals, outlines the negative effects of contemporary youth sports culture in his book The Matheny Manifesto.

Beyond the league revenues and youth sports culture, though, there is also the rise in prominence of the sports celebrity. Whereas in the past, relatively few players in a given sport reached the national level of fame, now it is commonplace for all players to think of themselves beyond their athletic value and to view themselves as brands. Superstar athletes like LeBron James, Tom Brady, and recently-retired Derek Jeter not only receive(d) massive paychecks from their teams, but also millions extra in advertising and promotional deals.

Each sport is trying to capitalize on the entire industry’s growth, offering more access to players and greater benefits to loyal fans. And in all sports, the common theme is that leagues increasingly want to keep fans’ attention beyond the traditional parameters of the season, and expand into the offseason as well. College football spring practice games are one example of this. Ohio State set a new record recently with close to 100,000 fans coming out to witness a game that has practically no significance for the upcoming season. Sports increasingly clamors for our undivided attention, and at the same time gives us little space for other pursuits. What once was a seasonal pursuit for many has become a year-long obsession for most.

So why has sports risen so much in popularity? One particularly salient reason is our culture’s overall shift in where we find our meaning. Philosopher Charles Taylor discusses the shift from a society where organized religion was at the center of life to a society where secularism is now at the center. In the shift from a religious to a secular society, people have also shifted the way in which they find meaning in life. Instead of finding meaning in what Taylor would term “transcendence”, that is, things that are more long-term in nature (family, marriages, community and civic involvement, religious involvement), people have increasingly relied on the “immanent”, or the short-term fleeting experiences of the moment (the spontaneous adventure, parties) to find meaning.    

We’ve become a society that overvalues the now and mortgages the future. “Live in the moment” philosophies take deeper root in a culture that has shifted from transcendent thinking to more immanent living, and as a result we find the most meaning in those events and experiences that have the largest sensory impact on us. Sports events fit perfectly in this new paradigm, and it’s no wonder they have skyrocketed in importance and popularity as the culture has shifted.

A friend of mine tweeted after the Super Bowl that it, the Super Bowl, is the greatest liturgical act of worship that our American culture has to offer now. Think about it. Sports is one of the few places where we can find a similar experience as the Church, but without the same effects. Sports offers the opportunity to worship and express devotion to a particular team or player. It offers a schedule of games and events much like the church provides a set calendar of weekly services and seasonal special events. It provides community in the form of other fans who share the same passion for your team and players.

All these similarities are what make sports so great, and what also make sports so dangerous. Sports has increasingly become one of our American culture’s most visible idols. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in all the leagues? Incidents like the Ray Rice domestic abuse situation or the Alex Rodriguez steroid scandal reveal the misplaced sense of meaning we have placed on sports. There is national outcry for athletes and leagues to have more just and responsible athletes and management, yet the leagues themselves are fallen, sinful enterprises mainly concerned (like most businesses in America) with making a few extra bucks. We have placed tremendous cultural demands on entities that do not have character-formation and community-care as strong values. Sports is full, like the rest of our culture and world, of sinful human beings.

Sports has become an ultimate thing, yet it was never intended to be such a thing. Back in the Ten Commandments, the first command is to have no other gods before Yahweh (Exodus 20). Throughout Scripture, the central difficulty witnessed in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the Jesus-birthed Church in the New Testament is that of breaking the first commandment. You and I face the same struggle. We place our jobs, ourselves, our relationships, anything and everything except God at the center of our lives, and we desperately need forgiveness and reconciliation and a new way to live life.

Only by placing Jesus at the center of our lives, by surrendering completely to him and receiving free grace and mercy that he alone can give, can we truly live as we were meant. Sports cannot fill the void in our souls that cries out for meaning and significance. As Augustine said so many years ago, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.