What Can We Learn from Professional Athletes?

Joe Willmann Teaching the Faith at Home Leave a Comment

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Sports have played a huge role in my life. I’d go so far as to call myself a thirty-two-year-old sports junkie. I’ve had the opportunity to see some really cool things. A few moments that stand out for me:
being at the game where Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record; being an assistant producer for the 2004 Olympic Team Trials in wrestling; attending the second-biggest comeback in NFL postseason history; getting to be a part of the standing ovation for Peyton Manning in his return to Indianapolis (Okay, I still get a bit emotional watching that one).

Sports are so dominant in our culture today that they often go from pastime to all-consuming passion. And it can be all too easy to allow sports or the athletes who play them to become a god in our lives.

As Christians, we are called to have no other gods. What does this mean?

You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

I’m reminded of November 2009. I was walking through the hallway of Lowell High School when one of my athletes ran up to me and asked if I had heard what happened to Tiger Woods?

Like most golf fans my age, I idolized Tiger. Watching what he could do with a golf ball was a thing of beauty. His mental toughness seemed unlimited. He was unflappable. “Supreme confidence” is how I described it. We all remember the 2008 US Open, right? Winning a major golf tournament on a broken leg? Unbelievable.

Back to the question, had I heard about Woods? News was emerging about Tiger’s accident in his Escalade. Then, he admitted that he had been unfaithful to his wife. I was devastated by the news. I couldn’t believe it. A guy I had held up as a great example for myself, and for my athletes, was flawed.

The Reality

We all have role models that we look up to. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sports fan, a movie fan, or even a political junkie, we all have people we follow and admire. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. When it becomes a bad thing is when we allow these individuals to become god-like—or more aptly—to become idols in our lives.

We know that our kids will have some people they will become fans of. It is impossible for us to vet all of these people for their moral and Christ-like living. It’s just not realistic.

What is realistic is what we teach our children about these people and what we look at them for. Here are some tips on how to handle that in your home:

#1: Enjoy what they are good at!

Is Tiger Woods one of the greatest golfers of all time? Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time? (I know, fellow Colts fans, too soon.) Is Adele the top vocalist of our generation? These individuals have wonderful gifts and talents. We should enjoy those things! It is pleasing to the ear to hear an amazing vocalist. It is exciting to watch someone hit a pitching wedge 190 yards out of an impossible lie over trees to within 10 feet of the cup. These are all great, but . . .

#2: Don’t hold these people up as moral standards.

When talking with our kids about these stars, we should always point out that we hold them up for what they are good at and we call them out when they are wrong.

We’ve all read enough lips on TV, heard the four-letter word that got past the producer, or seen the helmet slam/tossed club to know that these heroes are fallible human beings! When we see these behaviors, we should call them what they are. Don’t hide from the offense. Point it out. Call it what it is and don’t normalize it.

#3: Teach about forgiveness.

When your children’s (or even your) favorite star has a moral failing, use it as an opportunity to teach about forgiveness. Too many times we see the famous fail and fall, torn apart by the media and held up for public ridicule. First, we should all be thankful that our sins are not held up in front of all to see. Even though our sins may not be marched around for the world to see, they are no less visible to God. Second, when we see a famous person fail morally, we are presented with a unique opportunity to do two things: (1) call the sin a sin; and (2) talk to our children about the forgiveness that Christ has won for us on the cross and delivered to us in our Baptism.

#4: Don’t add to the hype.

The best thing that we can do to combat the temptation of holding these individuals up as idols is to not prioritize them. It is easy to fall into the trap of letting our actions give a different confession than what we believe. What do I mean by this? Don’t skip Sunday School so you can make it home for the first part of your team’s game. Or more importantly, don’t skip church just to see the game. Putting worldly things before church says that whatever or whoever we are seeing is more important to us than receiving God’s gifts.

What if you are finally getting to go to a game you’ve never gotten to go to before and it’s hours away? You can’t possibly make it to both the Divine Service and the game. Then go early. Go to the Divine Service in the city where your event is. Make sure your kids know that God is so much more important to you than some game; that we are still going to go to His house to receive His gifts on the Lord’s Day.

You can apply this thought to any type of trip. Going on vacation? Go to church. Visiting family? Go to church. Competing in a youth sports competition? Go to church. The LCMS has a great tool you can use to find a place to go to church when you are away from home here.

Trust me when I tell you that, as with most things, this is the pot calling the kettle black. We all struggle with these tough situations in life, and I’m no different. I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I am not the expert here. What I can do, and what we all should do, is continue to rejoice in the work that our Savior accomplished on the cross for you and for me.

What do you think? This isn’t an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear from you about what you do to help navigate the world of athletes and superstars with your children.

God’s blessings as you teach your children the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3 ESV).

Catechism references are from Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation  © 1986, 1991 Concordia Publishing House. Used by Permission.


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About the Author

Joe Willmann


Joe Willmann is the Senior Instructional Designer for Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis, MO. A former teacher and administrator, Joe has a passion for education and learning theory. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Ball State University and his Master's Degree from Concordia University - Ann Arbor. He lives with his wife, Nicole, his daughter Ava, and his son Carter. You can read his latest posts here.

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