Sports and other religious experiences

As a child sports were an inseparable part of my religion.  My dedication to sport was noteworthy.  I remember at a young age attending a Cougar football game in frigid temperatures at which I sat on unyieldingly cold metal bleachers in a heavy duty sleeping bag while burning my mouth on Section 89 non-compliant apple cider.  My dad couldn’t fix a car or an electrical outlet, but he did know sports.  He played basketball and baseball at BYU, and essentially all of what we did in our spare time revolved around sports. We woke up well before dawn to work out at the chapel.  Our favorite sabbath-breaking past-time was playing football in the street.  I measured the relative wealth of our home by how many Nerf footballs we owned–I believe at the pinnacle we reached an enviable 17.  I prayed the Lord would help the Cougars win.  Often I felt He had.  I wanted to go to heaven because I was sure heaven was like all the chapels I had ever seen and had basketball courts.  When I first encountered a carpeted gym floor in a chapel it felt, well, sacrilegious.  That’s really that’s the way I saw things.

After my mission I began to wonder a bit about how sports fit into the gospel.  Pres. Benson’s talk on pride, which impacted me greatly, explained that the essence of pride is competition.  For me the problem was that competition was also the essence of sports.  It’s taken me about twenty years, but I have come to some very different conclusions about sports and their rightful place in a Zion society.

As I think about what motivated me to spend months, if not years of my life (collectively speaking) shooting a round ball toward a metal hoop, I realized it was, for the most part, the desire to look good in front of other people.  As I practiced I would imagine how impressed people would be by my sports prowess.  That is, I believe, the fundamental motivating factor behind all competitive athletics.

Why would I (or anybody else, for that matter), get angry (visibly or internally) about playing poorly during competition?  This often manifests itself in Church sports, and is confusing to some because Church sports are supposed to be about camaraderie and sportsmanship.  Well, when you want to look good in front of your neighbors and friends, and you make a mistake, by getting angry you hope to demonstrate to those watching that you are seriously disappointed with your own performance because you don’t normally play so poorly.  All of this is calculated to convince them of your greatness, as manifested specifically by your sports prowess.

This brings us directly into view of the great fallacy of prideful self-focus.  To the prideful person principally concerned with what others think about him, he is constantly imagining what others are thinking about him.  His external actions are carefully calculated to optimized the esteem with which he is held by those he wants to impress.  The catch is that what he is really manipulating is not what others truly think about him, but what he thinks others are thinking about him.  And that is, be definition, a complete and utter fiction.  Because the natural man completely controls the fiction he maintains for himself (that constantly projects what he thinks others think about him), he is subject to all the whims and distortions of his own custom-made, elaborate fiction.  There is no way he can really know how others perceive him, and whether or not his purposefully managed, externally-oriented actions are truly having the desired effect.  He, in essence, creates (and maintains) an elaborate fiction regarding what others think about him.  This great, subtle fiction constitutes self worship of the most deceiving kind, because one is absolutely convinced the fiction is reality because he himself is the creator.  It is that fiction that I think the Lord refers to in D&C 1:

“They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (D&C 1:15)

When I become the focus of all my thoughts, hopes, and dreams, it represents, by definition, the pinnacle of self worship.  Self is the most commonly worshipped idol.  What some do with sports others do with money/wealth/career achievements.  Women often do it with their looks (clothing, body).  It is the the essence of Babylon and will have no place in Zion.  This is the desire to be popular as described in the Book of Mormon, and is what fuels the aspirations of those who occupy the great and spacious building.

Who are the people you want to impress?  Next time you go clothes shopping and you check yourself out in a mirror, consider very carefully who you envision in your mind’s eye when you think about how others are likely to react to your new outfit.  Who is it you envision when you imagine somebody saying, “That’s such a cute outfit, where did you get it?”  Those are the people you’re trying to impress.  What about when you drive up the street in a fancy new car?  Whose reaction do you project in your mind?  Score a touchdown or hit a homerun?  Those are the people you’re trying to impress.  Once you realize who those people are it will be easier to catch yourself in the fiction and bring yourself back to reality.

We like to shroud our love of sports in the verbiage of excellence and success.  I remember a soccer game where 9-year old girls were playing in which one of the coaches (who I’m pretty sure is LDS), as well as many of the parents, continuously encouraged (often shouting loudly) the young girls to “BE AGGRESSIVE!!!”  The (LDS) cheerleaders at our local high school have a specific cheer dedicated to that exact message.  Sports are good, I often hear people explain, because they teach kids to work hard and be assertive.  I often hear LDS parents encourage/push their children to “dominate” in sports as if it were an unquestioned virtue.  There are a lot of motivations that will induce kids to work hard physically, and one of the most powerful of the natural-man deceptions (boosting your image with others) is no exception.  What is preferred, though, to have a child that has learned to work hard pursuing one of the great spiritual deceptions known to man, or not learning to work hard?  Thankfully there are other mechanisms.

We like to teach our children to be tough, aggressive, capable individuals to increase the chances they fare well in this life.  We have terms of adulation we use to describe such scrappy individuals who “make something of themselves,” or who are “self-made men”.  Sadly, these designations are accurate in that for those that truly do try to do it themselves, the Lord is not involved.  I’m reminded of the story of Ernest Wilkinson, President of BYU, when as a young man he dishonestly called in a recommendation for himself to a judge’s office (for whom he later clerked), which he described as simply being “shrewd.”  He also prided himself on the fact that as an attorney he never encountered a contract he couldn’t get out of.  These are also, not surprisingly, the same cloaked qualities extolled at the Church’s Marriott School of Management (I know from first-hand experience).  That’s the same Marriott family, by the way, that owns the hotel chain that has profited for years from the sale of pornography.  I wonder if the Church accepts their tithing.  I don’t wonder if the Lord does.

In both our affinity for success in sports and business we often cross the line without even realizing it. We are training the young generation well for success here in this telestial kingdom.  And that’s the problem.  We do it at the expense of helping them qualify for the celestial kingdom, where the entrance criteria are the exact opposite qualities.  To be successful in sports you have to become the exact opposite of what Moroni described was the successful disciple of Christ:

“43 And again, behold I say unto you that he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart.

44 If so, his faith and hope is vain, for none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.” (Moroni 7)

Can you be humble, meek and lowly in heart, seek not your own, and have any reasonable expectation of success in sports?  Wouldn’t loving one’s enemy imply that a true Christian would be as interested in his opponent winning as in his own victory?  As one becomes meek and lowly, does the desire to participate in competitive sports naturally diminish?  What if all efforts currently expended on sports (playing or watching) were spent instead on serving the least among us, reading the scriptures, or praying?  Might we then have a much better chance of having no poor among us, or truly drawing near to God?  Is the prideful, competitive nature we’re driving into our children going to be easily released when they’re adults?  Will they have to unlearn all the aggression (what you get when you’re aggressive) and competitiveness we’ve reinforced when they decide they want to be come humble followers of Christ?  Why are the temples nearly empty during BYU football games?  Can man serve two masters?

I don’t pray for the Cougars to win any more.  I sometimes hope they’ll lose because it seems to help some members be more humble.  If only the meek and lowly can draw near to God, does the Lord hope the Cougars lose too?

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