John White, sports, family

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Does Sports Culture’s Favorite Metaphor Hurt More than Help?

In 1979, the band Sister Sledge, comprising four sisters from Philadelphia, released the song “We are Family.” The success of this song eventually became the rallying anthem for the Pittsburgh Pirates who won the World Series in 1979. 

Athletes and coaches often employ the “family” metaphor to describe their relationships: “My team is my family.” Our sports teams appear to resemble many aspects of our biological and spiritual families. By definition, metaphors are implied comparisons. As Christians, how does a gospel understanding of the “family” metaphor reframe and relativize how we think about the seemingly ubiquitous connection with a team as family?

To refer to your team as your family illuminates important characteristics and values concerning the nature of families. First, families are based on a shared affinity. Shared goals, pleasures, and interests can make for rich human connections especially when the challenges of life test, stress, and try to best us. Second, and related, families provide for human friendship; some of my best friends came from my sports teams. Third, families can be a means for growth and revelation with context-specific practices morally forming us. At their finest, our different families (i.e., sports, nuclear, and church) can mutually inform each other. Fourth, Christians should live out their callings with the roles and gifts relative to each sphere of “family” for the betterment of others.

However, as with all metaphors, there are significant dissimilarities between the two, and when they are conflated, it can result in unhealthy ways of relating to God, others, and self.

Sports families are an extended kinship, so to speak, yet it is success or personal performances, in comparison to (and in competition with) others, that serve as the primary basis for approval and how one gets chosen or selected to join the family. This family, particularly in elite and professional sports, is strictly organized around the task and the merit of its members. The norms of sports forever compel us to prove ourselves as worthy siblings who fittingly belong to this family. 

The family of God is radically different. God our Father is the originator of this family who calls, chooses, and adopts his sons and daughters based on gift and covenant compassion rather than duty and contract-determined competition. Family membership in God’s household is not secured or maintained by human capabilities, efforts, or control like in sports. This makes us God’s beloved.  

To go one step further, the family of God is an everlasting, global, and ancient community where our Father’s extravagant love tirelessly sees, finds, runs to, and welcomes all people into his home across the world and ages, regardless of their age, race, place, gender, abilities, health, or wealth. Surrogate sports families, by contrast, are temporal, zero-sum associations ultimately founded on utility and exclusion. You are either in or out, and if out, then rejected. Sports families are unpredictable and unstable, since you can be cut, ignored, or marginalized when injured or not performing well, or simply barred from your sports family because you lack the requisite mojo to transact a select role on the team.

When we, as Christians, understand and appreciate both the similarities and differences between these two families, we are free to join other earthly kinships without the anxiety and burden to find, define, or protect our heavenly family status and personal worth. The question of who we are and who we ultimately belong to has already been settled.

We should not participate in sports to be loved. And when we do compete on a sports team, we should operate from the abundance of God’s goodness and love that seeks to contribute to the flourishing and formation of others, win or lose. We share and give; we don’t keep and take from others. By giving priority to the family of God, Christians have the tools to discern when other affinity groups’ values conflict with our essential beliefs about who we are and what we are becoming. 

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