October 21, 2009

Fantasy Football Affections

"You stir us up to take delight in your praise; for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." - Augustine of Hippo

Fantasy football has become a cultural phenomenon in this country. Recent estimates suggest around 27 million Americans play fantasy sports in an industry that has grown over 20 percent in each of the last four years. As someone who has played every fantasy NFL season since I was a freshman in college 10 years ago, I guess you could say I'm a poster child for its appeal. From my perspective, online fantasy sports (when played in moderation of course) provide a more efficient and flexible way to remain engaged as a sports fan without having to watch hours of live games on TV that inevitably eat into one's precious weekend and family time. There may be other ways to rationalize this peculiar behavior, but that's the best excuse I've come up with so far. What a time-saver!

This fantasy football season (which is just about half-over) my 2 teams are heading in opposite directions. In our league of church friends, my squad known as Flea Flicker is currently in first place (5-1), but in another group composed primarily of Wheaton alumni, my languishing Y.A. Tittlers are 9th out of 10 teams (2-4). It's essentially an imaginary roller-coaster with (virtually) no bearing on reality.

When I first began gathering names for our annual church league a couple months ago, it wasn't hard to find other fans who check scores online or in Monday morning's paper. But I was surprised when one of my friends, a devout football enthusiast who follows the NFL very closely, told me he didn't want to join. When I tried to reassure him that managing one's team can take as little as 5 minutes per week and does not involve any money, my friend still declined. I mentioned that he already knew most of other guys in our league and would probably fare well against the casual competition, but he still wouldn't bite. He told me he'd rather abstain than worry about constantly tweaking his make-believe collection of real-life athletes. When he insisted he'd be utterly consumed by it if he joined, I finally backed off.

Looking back on the conversation, I respect my friend's courage and self-awareness in declining my invitation, an offer that must have been tempting for a well-informed football fan like himself. It's not that I believe fantasy sports are an inherently sinful cultural artifact any more than Facebook, Twitter or even the internet itself. But as 21st century Christians living in a society saturated by personalized technology and customized entertainment, we are inundated with products and services relentlessly vying for our time, attention and ultimately our affections.

In a recent interview with Leadership Journal's Skye Jethani, Reformed pastor Matt Chandler describes the sanctification process beginning with two questions:

"What stirs your affections for Jesus Christ? And what robs you of those affections? Many of the things that stifle growth are morally neutral. They’re not bad things. Facebook is not bad. Television and movies are not bad. I enjoy TV, but it doesn’t take long for me to begin to find humorous on TV what the Lord finds heartbreaking.
"The same goes for following sports. It’s not wrong, but if I start watching sports, I begin to care too much. I get stupid. If 19-year-old boys are ruining your day because of what they do with a ball, that’s a problem. These things rob my affections for Christ. I want to fill my life with things that stir my affections for him."
For some, playing frivolous fantasy sports, maintaining a blog or purchasing an iPhone will not consume us or rob our affections for Christ. For others like my spiritually mindful friend, it might. In either case, followers of Jesus must continually remain aware of the ways in which our affections and allegiances can be easily diverted by technological novelties as innocuous as imaginary football.

On the other hand, I don't believe fantasy football can be categorically dismissed as beyond redemption or antithetical to the Christian life. When done in the context of real-world friendships, it can be a healthy form of "male bonding" rather than an anti-social pursuit of superficial bragging rights or anonymous mind-numbing entertainment. This might be a stretch, but I'd like to suggest the joy of recreational competition, strategy and victory can even stir our affections for the One who satisfies like no other. On the subject of earthly pleasures, C.S. Lewis offered a balanced approach:
"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage." (emphasis mine)
So yes, let us joyfully and soberly compete for the fading glory of fantasy football trophies. Let us enjoy the suspense and unpredictability of being sports fans. Let us marvel at comeback victories and rare upsets by the underdog. But let us not confuse these God-given blessings with the "real thing" who is Christ himself. He alone is our solid Rock in whom all things hold together. He alone is the true Bread and Living Water who satisfies our restless souls.

May our affections be stirred.

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