Playing for the Wrong Reasons

As part of their series of films, ESPN showed “The Marinovich Project” on Saturday night.  It told the story of Marv Marinovich’s aim of raising his son Todd to be an NFL quarterback.

Everything about Todd’s life was oriented around this singular goal.  He achieved national prominence as a high school freshman, went to USC, and eventually played two seasons for the Los Angeles Raiders.  The film chronicles Marv’s and Todd’s pursuit and how it all unraveled through Todd’s drug use.

What struck me most was that from Todd’s perspective, he achieved his ultimate goal when his father met him on the field after a dramatic win for the Raiders.  Marv grabbed him and told him how proud he was of him.  In Todd’s own words, at that point he was done.  His father’s approval was the ultimate achievement.

He wasn’t playing for love of the game or for the fun of it.  He was playing for his father’s affirmation and when he finally received that, he was no longer interested.

That’s a corruption of sport.  We have our value as humans by virtue of our being in the image of God.  Sports and games are gifts to be received and enjoyed.  They are intended for fun and pleasure.  Playing to establish our value as humans is a perversion.

Marinovich has become a cautionary tale for parents pushing their kids too hard to excel in sports.  Sadly, this phenomenon seems only to have increased in the last few decades.

The other thing that struck me is that Marinovich wasn’t alone in his own day.  He was drafted ahead of Brett Favre in 1991.  Favre’s NFL career was just the opposite of Marinovich’s.  He won a Super Bowl with the Packers and set just about every NFL record as a quarterback.

But he was playing for the same corrupted reasons.  In fact, we might say that Favre’s career lasted as long as it did only because it shared the same motivation.

Like Marinovich, this Sports Illustrated story reveals that Favre’s father was more of a demanding coach than a father.  He withheld his approval from his son, criticizing Brett even in the midst of his successes.

Favre never seems to have heard that final approval from his father, so even his astounding records remain unsatisfying.  There’s nothing that Favre didn’t achieve in the NFL, but still Favre had a hard time walking away from the game.  He never felt that he had accomplished enough.

As I’ve written previously, sports are fun when we take them seriously as games.  An essential aspect of that is refusing to use games to establish our value or identity.  We are who we are because we’re created in the image of God.  Because our value is already established, we can be freed up to enjoy sports, whether we win or lose.

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11 responses to “Playing for the Wrong Reasons

  • John Thomson

    How far is the desire to win at the expense of another a Christian ethic? What is feeding this desire?

    • timgombis

      I’m not sure what you mean by formulating your question that way, but I’d say that ‘play’ and ‘games’ are part of the goodness of creation. To play games with others is enjoyable and fun. Christian theologians who reflect on sport see it under the rubric of Sabbath activities–part of human activity that isn’t meant to produce anything (unlike activity on the other 6 days), but is meant for pure enjoyment.

      And games are seriously fun when competitors try their best to win, drawing out effort and skill from one another.

      This gets destructive in many ways, of course. Seeking to dominate or demean is how sport is corrupted. Engaging in games for other non-Sabbatarian purposes, too. But the desire to win belongs to the essence of games and it doesn’t have to be destructive or demeaning.

  • John Thomson

    Hi Tim

    I do wonder if the competitive element is appropriate in a Christian and therefore in life. Is it not merely a feeding of the ego?

    If I want to run a marathon to see how quickly I can do so for the glory of God, I can understand it. I cannot envisage the idea of beating others for God’s glory.

    The question is more general really – what does it mean to die to self? Jesus had a personal will but that will was at every point subject to God’s will. He did nothing out of ‘personal ambition or vain glory’. He is our model for life.

    I find it hard to fit many sports and many other areas of personal ambition into this way of life. I am not writing as one who has this all sussed. I find this issue quiet difficult.

    • timgombis

      I think the troublesome character of competition is because there are so many corruptions. It’s difficult to imagine competition being good. But haven’t you ever played a game with your kids where you both laughed and had a great time? We do this as a family all the time. It’s possible to have games and competition that further our enjoyment and are just plain fun. When we do that, we are glorifying God because we’re receiving Sabbath activities for what they are–gifts from God meant to be enjoyed.

      So, say for example that I love tennis and really enjoy competing. It brings out my best play and I really enjoy provoking others to their best performances. Further, I love competition to see who’s going to win and how they’ll do so. It’s possible to do this according to God’s design.

      I play my best and play within the rules and draw out the other’s best from him. Once there’s been a winner and loser, we congratulate one another on a game well-played. But then we leave the game and go back to “real life” where our value as people isn’t established by performance in the game.

      The game is “just a game” and isn’t “serious.” When I play it, I take it seriously as fun, but then I leave it. Whether I win or lose, I still have my value before God and before others. The game doesn’t matter.

      What’s wrong with many sports is that we think that if we lose, we’ve lost value. That’s corrupted. Or, if we win, we feel that we won “over-against” someone else, thereby increasing our value. That’s wrong, too.

      We can receive sports and games as good gifts, meant to be pure fun, without letting it affect who we are and we value ourselves vis-a-vis others.

      When we do that, we’re glorifying God, inhabiting God’s world rightly.

      I wrote on God’s glory and sports here — http://timgombis.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/gombis-shalom-in-sport.pdf.

      To die to self means that I become a servant to my competitor while inhabiting the game. I won’t cheat or seek to hurt him, but I do want to win and I want to win while he’s playing his best. So I’ll draw out his best performance while seeking to surpass it. To assert self is to cheat, pout if I lose, celebrate triumphally if I win, and generally act like badly.

      Remember, ambition isn’t bad — selfish ambition is!

  • John Thomson

    Thanks for lengthy response Tim, and link. I will read it with interest. I hear what you are saying and when it is at the level of children I feel more comfortable with it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played sports of one kind or another (generally tennis) on and off most of my life. I have treated mild concerns as an overscrupulous conscience (and it probably is). I can play to a degree competitively without caring greatly about the outcome (certainly not feeling that my identity was at stake).

    Yet problems do exist for me. In competitive games to some extent we set up rules that don’t apply in real life. There is a degree of roleplay (as in monopoly). A part of me suspects this is to allow ourselves some kind of ‘moral latitude’ to indulge.

    I concede I may be too gnostic here. I have great difficulty in envisaging Christ playing sport or being competitive. Christ seemed to have died not merely to what was sinful but to self itself, that is self as a self-determining will, as a directing ego to be pleased. I agree that selfish ambition is wrong (and that is what is in mind in Phil 2) but I am not sure about ambition in general – other than the ambition to ‘please him’.

    Your writing on cruciformity attracts me here and makes me think.

    • timgombis

      A few things:

      (1) I think we should be concerned about the outcome. We should play to win. That’s the only way to honor the game as an arena created by God and the only way to honor the other as one who seriously wants to enjoy a good game. The point of games is to win, so we should seriously try (within the rules).

      (2) When we play games we very definitely set up rules that don’t apply to real life–that’s the point! Real life is the “six days” and this other thing that God gives us as a gift is called Sabbath–activity that isn’t like the other six days. We make up games with distinct rules and when we enter the “world” of the game, it’s a distinct place and a unique reality that has its own integrity. In that place my identity and value are not at stake. I’m only there to have fun. Now, to have fun I have to take it seriously as a game, but it doesn’t establish my value (win or lose) and it doesn’t change my relation to my competitor (win or lose).

      (3) Notice I’ve referred to competitors and not opponents. That changes the way we engage the other in games. We spur others on to excellent performance to seriously fill out God’s gift of the game and to truly drive the other to even greater enjoyment.

      (4) To deny these very earthy realities and the beautiful gift that games are is to run into gnosticism, actually. To deny the goodness of creation in favor of some ‘spiritual’ reality. It’s not good! So, if Jesus fully came as a human, he very likely played games just like anyone and everyone else. The alternative is gnostic heresy, a denial of the goodness of culture.

      (5) Genuine ambition to fill out our identities as humans–meant for earth, meant to create wild varieties of culture–is what God wants. Selfish ambition is destructive and sinful. This is why in Romans 2:6-13, God rewards true ambition and judges selfish ambition.

      So, competition, sports, and games are part of God’s gift to us and we need to receive them fully. Remember, Israel couldn’t. They never took their Sabbaths and they ended up “imaging” a God who didn’t give good gifts of games and play. God sent them into exile for it because he is committed to being “imaged” as a God who gives good things to his people.

  • Frank

    Hey guys,

    I have really enjoyed reading your comments to one another regarding games/competing. I understand John’s comments toward competition especially considering the culture in which we live. Interestingly, I had this same conversation with my 11yr old son, Nathan, the other day. He was amazed to think Jesus would “cut up” and play games. I told him I believe Jesus was and will be a blast at doing these things.

    I see this Jesus type of “cut up” & game playing as I reflect this week of time spent with my dad. My dad was a 5’5” 180 lb Irishman (“Irish-kid”) who loved to play football with the neighborhood kids & dads. From the time the ball was snapped, he would take the short pass or handoff, and blaze a trail to the other goal!!! I saw many teenage boys & men, including myself, being splattered on the field as a result of trying to tackle him.

    He never pounded his chest, gave a mean stare, or spiked the ball in the face of the opposite team- he would only run back down the field and congratulate his blockers and to make sure no one on the other team was hurt. All while wearing a big smile and happiest face possible of someone tyring to enjoy the Lord’s Day.

    • timgombis

      Exactly, Frank. God’s design for us is to enjoy his world and everything that it means to be in it. That means that we enter into and enjoy games to the fullest!

      That’s a very far cry from dominating others, rubbing it in their faces, being angry when we lose, etc. There are many ways in which we are pulled aside from fully enjoying, but that’s God’s goal for us.

  • John Thomson

    Hi Guys

    I would like to consider this more carefully in the future. I agree of course that the abuses Tim speaks of in sport are unacceptable as are the abuses of anything good in any walk of life. The question is whether sport is intrinsically good.

    I agree that there needs to be rest for the christian. Further, that God has given us all good things to enjoy. Further, that we should not deny our humanity or culture as such which is intrinsic to humanity (though the demands of the Kingdom may mean/will mean that we forego much that is good in the interests of what is best, and most urgent).

    Having said this, a few flags rise for me.

    1. We should not assume that a cultural activity in a fallen world is intrinsically good. Many clearly are not (Roman gladiatorial arenas, porn movies, cock-fighting etc). The activity needs to be weighed as to its value. Culture itself is good, but not every manifestation of it. Given that sport has been traditionally viewed negatively by Christians for centuries we at least need to query why this was so. Are their elements intrinsic to sporting competition that make it inappropriate for Christians? Tim makes a number of helpful points but I don’t think quite convinces me yet.

    2. The rules of the game must be moral and wholesome within themselves. Take the game of Risk or Monopoly – are these wholesome games promoting Christian virtues (I played both). Is the simulated violence of a computer game wholesome and edifying? Is the violence of some sport inextricably connected with fallenness or far too great a temptation to fallen people? Why is bloodsport liked?

    3. How do we bring into the discussion texts such as

    1John 2:15-17 (ESV)
    Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions-is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

    • timgombis

      (1) You’re right, John. Another good example might be auto-racing! There are some sports that seem far more destructive than fruitfully enjoyable and competitive. Boxing, cock-fighting, dog-fighting, etc. But are these corruptions of the good desire to play? Or are they indications that anything playful or competitive is evil?

      (2) Again, bloodsport isn’t good at all. It isn’t honoring to bodies and enjoyable play. Further, video games almost across the board are just stupid mind-numbing wastes of time (very much my opinion), but hardly constitute sport, anyway.

      (3) That’s the whole question: With regard to this phenomenon, sport and games, what is a creational good and what is perverted but redeemable, and what is corrupted and must be jettisoned? Those are the important questions. Sport and games can be corrupted in all sorts of ways–one of which is the refusal to participate or take joy from watching others play!

  • Tom Brady, Drew Henson, and When Sports Get Corrupted « The Jumbled Backpack

    [...] able to discern it.  Ultimately, it appears he was playing the game for the wrong reasons (Click here for a blog post on “Playing for the Wrong Reasons” by Dr. Tim Gombis, a former [...]

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