Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
When Idylls Become IdolsWhen Idylls Become Idols

When Idylls Become Idols

When Canada played for Olympic gold on a Sunday in 2002, lifelong hockey fanatic Ray Pennings faced the temptation of breaking his Sabbath rule to watch the game on TV. In the end, the score was Commandments 10, Sports Idolatry 0. Yes, he knows who won

Ray Pennings
10 minute read

The account of the Ten Commandments being given to Moses as recorded in Exodus 20 is read aloud in each Sunday morning worship service at the church I attend. Having heard them 52 times a year for most of my 48 years has embedded them in my memory. I can read them with my eyes closed. The repeated ritual, combined with the familiar cadence, does mean that one can listen without the weight of the content being considered. The familiarity of the law is like the drumbeat in a song—not really heard but an essential part of the music.

But some Sundays are different. In my experience, the morning worship service of February 24, 2002, and the internal debate it prompted within me is easily recalled. It was an elder who led that service, and I recall both his reading of the Commandments and his prayer, through which we were reminded of the particular temptations of that season, as a moment of conviction as I considered how to reconcile a passion for sports and a commitment to live faithfully as a Christian.

It was the final day of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, and later that afternoon, the men's gold hockey final game was to be played. For the first time in my lifetime, Canada had a chance to win a gold medal. I'm too young to remember the 1972 Canada-Russia series; and the subsequent Canada Cup victories were a big deal, but the hockey fervour sweeping the nation was unlike anything I had previously experienced. I'm a hockey fan and I was caught up in it. I'm a dad and my son was 11 at the time, an age when watching hockey with him was great fun. (Still is, albeit in a different way.) All of his peers—or at least so he claimed—were going to watch the hockey game. "Why are we the only family that can't?" Every bone in my body wanted to.

But there was a problem. In our family, the rule was no TV on Sunday. The focus of our weekly Sabbath is worship and rest. We try not to have a huge list of do's and don'ts (the only "must do" is attending corporate worship, and our church has two services each Sunday, which fill half of the waking day), but it is also a time to focus on certain good things that include devotional reading, visiting with family and friends and having a healthy midday nap that often would not happen unless planned for. Over the years in our household, we've adopted a few practical rules to help keep Sundays special. One of them is no TV. It's not an absolute rule; the occasional news event or television special has been deemed to warrant an exception. That day—or at least so argued my internal rationalization, supported earnestly by my son—was the time to make one more exception.

". . . no other gods before me. Thou shalt not. . ."

I've loved hockey since I was a kid. It's not a typically Canadian story. My parents were immigrants and did not grow up with the sport. Physical challenges kept me from skating. So ball hockey during Grade 8 recess was my highest league achievement. But inability is hardly a reason for illiteracy. Since Grade 3, I've followed the sport closely. On most days of the year, I could accurately recite from memory the current roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs and be within a game or two's accuracy in providing their current statistics. (Don't test me on their Corsi ratings, but my educated guesses probably wouldn't be that far off.) Armchair coaches are a dime a dozen, but I can debate the X's and O's of breakout strategy. I have a pretty good read on which player is doing the things that do not show up on the scoresheet but that make a difference in the game. But hockey enthusiasm isn't about rationality and data. (Exhibit A—I still root for the Leafs.) It's about emotion and tribal warfare. It's about heroes fighting battles and conquering enemies. (I hate those Habs, although our record of conquering them is still aspirational in my lifetime.) Not to brag, but by most objective measures, I know my hockey.

I recall when I was 12 or so, a schoolmate showed me the autographed player card he received from sending some fan mail to Maple Leaf Gardens. He gave me the address, and it took me less than an hour when I came home to have a letter and envelope ready, in my neatest penmanship. It was addressed to Mr. Darryl Sittler, Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs c/o Maple Leaf Gardens, 60 Carlton Street, Toronto. I proudly read it at the supper table but ended up devastated when my enthusiasm was doused by parental disapproval. My father declared that this letter could not be sent since it was wrong to idolize people. Besides, my interest in "dee rot sport" (sounds menacing when delivered with an authoritative Dutch accent) was becoming far too excessive.

I found innovative ways to resist my parental concerns that my sports interests were kept in suitable proportion. However, given that ours was a home without television, there was only so much that could be learned from the two-page sports section of the St. Thomas Times-Journal. In that pre-sports-radio era, the radio versions of the Leafs and Red Wings games were the only source from which to get my hockey fix; and the scratchy AM broadcasts couldn't always be picked up clearly in our rural home. I found a way to secretly send fan letters to the Leafs, but the joy of receiving the autographed photos was subdued by guilt. How could I avoid crossing the line between expressing my admiration of their talent and elevating them to an adulatory perch on which I knew sports heroes did not belong? The autographed photos I collected had to be hidden like Rachel's idols; the angst of being found out caused more than a moment of anxiety.

Still, the lesson my parents taught me regarding the place of sports remains valuable. The rules against sports were not absolute. I could watch when visiting others who had TV, listen (within prescribed hours) to the games in my room (even on the car radio if I asked real nicely), and even buy the occasional Hockey News or Sports Illustrated (if I saved up my allowance). But it was all kept in proportion. My recruitment to the Peewee Shedden Royals softball team was conditional on a clear pledge as to how many nights per week would be affected. No sports commitment would be allowed to adversely affect our other priorities, such as having everyone at the supper table. A few years later, an opportunity came to umpire baseball. The rules were loosened since it was a paying job, a revenue stream that contributed to my university fund. But still the cautions remained, and the bar to justify time spent on sports was higher than that for other activities. My parents knew what tempted me.

At the time, I blamed their lack of interest in sports as part of the immigrant experience. Surely that was part of the story as even when I explained things to them, they weren't too interested in the nuances of the games that I found so fascinating. But they were also too busy. Survival required hard work, and organized sport was a luxury for which our family did not have the resources. As much as I resented this, I understood it, even as a kid. Within its proper place, sports could be enjoyed. Taking a good thing out of its proper place makes it a bad thing.

Grown up and free to make my own choices, sports have played a more significant proportion in my own life. I keep up with my favourite teams on a daily basis, an easy task in this Internet age. I relax by taking an evening or two a week to forget the challenges that tax my brain and lose myself in competitive drama. For two or three hours, I can forget the things that otherwise occupy me; and when it's over, I feel refreshed. I'm no mental health expert, but I am quite confident this is a good thing. I am an unapologetic sports fan and quite ready to defend the merits of sport.

Still, especially during times when the inescapable hype of a Stanley Cup or World Series final, Grey Cup or Super Bowl, or the quadrennial madness that characterizes the Olympics and World Cup events seems to drown everything else out, reflections regarding proportionality of sports in a healthy society re-emerge. I observe the almost liturgical rituals that surround the event—the tithe with which fans show their dedication to their sport's religion, the worshipful praise that is proffered in the direction of our athletic heroes—and a profound discomfort about my sporting passions returns. Part of my struggle is personal and spiritual. Am I really taking the "no other gods" command seriously enough? Is this a beam that I need to remove from my own eye?

But part of the angst is social. Skip the babble about whether sports heroes are overpaid; the free marketer within me reminds me that they are earning what the market says they are worth. The multi-million dollar salaries are paid primarily from revenues earned from broadcast and trademark rights, which come not from the elites who can afford (or find a tax deduction/corporate sponsor) the expensive tickets but from the blue-collar eyeballs that are fixed on the free TV broadcasts that drive the ratings and determine advertising revenues. The market is a valid barometer of our social values. The billions of dollars distributed between athletes and the businesses that facilitate their sport are a testimony to what we collectively value. Argue all you like about the fairness of the markets, but you can't dispute their honesty. And what it tells us about ourselves is not always pretty. A significant sum is sacrificed by 21st century North American society on the altar of sport.

". . . before me. Thou shalt not have any other gods. . ."

I know and can readily recite the litany of arguments on what a good thing sport can be. Faster, stronger, higher. Test the limits. Discover what you can do. A place to learn dedication and perseverance. A case study in which teamwork trumps individual effort. A display of beauty and grace. I have the Biblical allusions ready at hand. "Fight the good fight." "Run the race." I participate in and watch sports without feeling guilt. They are a good thing, part of God's good creation. I'm not saying they need to be everyone's thing, but neither does fine music or good art. But if it is your thing, I'd be the first to argue and defend it as a good thing. I drink in my sports guilt-free.

But to turn a blind eye to the addictive characteristic of this sports drink, and so some of its unhealthy side effects, is naive. Sports come with their own special set of temptations and concerns. And as I look around me, it would seem that many, if not most, are not attentive to the dangers of sports. And it is something that doesn't get the attention it requires.

So what does one do with the growing evidence that certain athletic practices are irresponsible? That we are being entertained by those who are enduring concussions that are likely to shorten their life expectancy by years? That the dollars and pressure that have become part of the industry have resulted in an acceptance of performance-enhancing steroids that is dangerous? Am I vindicated as a fan from "aiding and abetting" these vices? And when sports celebrities seem to think themselves above the law, with increasing numbers being caught in recent years for abuse or other behaviours that we ordinarily define as crimes, can I in good conscience continue to pretend that my attention and support of sports isn't enabling things that shouldn't be enabled? At what point do we cross the line between living in a broken world and contributing to the brokenness of the world by our actions?

It's not that hard to rationalize these questions away. "The game will happen whether I watch it or not, so why deprive myself of the pleasure?" "Those involved are responsible for their own behaviour." And to an extent, that's true. But how do we define the reach of that extent?

As life goes on, it becomes a bit easier to put sports into perspective. I'm still a passionate sports fan, and keep up with the sport of the season, but am less flummoxed about missing a key game than I once was. (Maybe that is a consequence of modern technology sending me a Twitter or text update every time my team scores or allowing me to watch games on my phone if I so desire.) But honestly, having now recalled the Leafs falling short for 40 seasons in my attentive memory, I realize the 41st and 42nd aren't going to be that different. And, except for changing the punchlines on the jokes that sports fans tell each other, when they do finally win, it really won't be all that transformative either.

Back to February 24, 2002. I left church that day convinced it would be inappropriate for our family to make an exception. I wasn't a popular dad that day, but we followed our regular family routines. We set the VCR to tape the game so we could watch it the next day if we wanted to. It turned out we never did. The game started at 1 p.m. We came home from the morning service and enjoyed Sunday lunch; and I did my regular reading and had a nap. At 5:30, it was time to leave for the evening church service. I recall the conversation in the car.

My son, having given up on his pleadings, now was wondering from whom we would learn the results in the church foyer (thereby betraying which families had succumbed to the temptations of violating the Sabbath, something frowned upon in our church community). The question proved moot. A few kilometers from home, a collection of teens were bundled in the cold at the end of their driveway, waving Canadian flags and urging the passing traffic to honk their horns in celebration.

The patriot within me felt good; gold is better than silver. By the next day, my inner sports curiosity had been satisfied with all the information I needed to know about the game I never watched (and a whole lot more, had I chosen). I really wasn't left out of anything. And our family was able to relearn a lesson we still need to be reminded of on a regular basis. Sports can be good, but when a good thing is put in a wrong place, it becomes a bad thing. And as valuable as precious medals are, there are other things that are traded with currencies other than silver and gold that matter more.

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