I used to live for the National Football League (NFL). Especially back in my middle school years. At least fifty percent of my wardrobe was NFL-branded. I doodled NFL logos in the margins of my class notes. And I felt like the trajectory of an entire week was determined on what happened on Sunday afternoons. A win by my favorite team (the Minnesota Vikings, at the time), and I could hold my head up high for the rest of the week. A loss, and I was down in the dumps. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that I had an idolatry problem. I was looking to my favorite NFL team (instead of Jesus) to save me, to define me, and to give my life hope.
Can anyone else relate to this problem, this addiction, this idolatry?
Things started changing for me when I moved to Europe in 2003. I stayed there for the second half of my twenties and the first half of my thirties (when I was in the sport’s primary demographic, during the dawn of the fantasy football phenomenon). And it was just inconvenient to try and keep up with NFL football. Over in Amsterdam, very few people follow the sport they call “Amerikaanse voetbal.” They consider it rather slow and boring. So, it would have been really hard to find live coverage. And even if I could have figured out some kind of streaming solution (during the dawn of streaming video over the internet), the games would all happen late at night. Consequently, I just lost touch with the NFL.
When I returned to the United States in 2012, the idolatry of the NFL smacked me in the face. I noticed how we spend inordinate amounts of money and time on our favorite NFL teams. Even if we don’t buy season tickets, we buy more expensive cable television packages to watch the games at home… We check our phones for score updates and statistics to measure the performance of our players in our fantasy football leagues… We schedule our social calendars around football games… And that’s just the “respectable” stuff that “normal” fans do. On top of that, there’s the hyper-nationalism… the racism… the toxic masculinity… the violence against women… the traumatic brain injuries… It felt weird and cultish.
And disappointing. I was honestly excited to be able to watch football games again, when our family came back to Ohio. I made an intentional decision to switch allegiances, to cheer for the Cleveland Browns, since they were local and accessible. Against my expectations, I just ended up feeling conflicted and uncomfortable. The other stuff surrounding the sport — the cult of NFL Idolatry — made it an awkward allegiance.
I knew I was in the middle of culture shock, reacclimating to my home culture. So I just kept sweeping the icky feelings under the proverbial rug. I tried to bond with friends over the Browns, and football in general. And there have genuinely been some good times! But now that we’ve been back in the United States for over ten years, I believe the culture shock should be more or less settled. And unfortunately, the irritation about the idolatry remains. So, I want to talk about it now.
But how can we talk about this in constructive ways?!?
I realize that a phrase like “NFL Idolatry” sounds super-religious — even borderline Pharisaical — but is it wrong? Looking around, I fear that it’s pretty close to the mark for many of us in the United States of America. So, how do we deal with idolatry in our lives? I think it starts with identifying the problem and addressing it in incremental ways. That is: it doesn’t usually work well to try and “take down the system;” an underground movement works better.
I’ve chosen to stay conversational in the NFL dialect, but not fluent. I watch the Browns’ game when I don’t have anything else going on, but I don’t generally schedule my life around game times. I’ll wear a brown-colored shirt to the H2O worship gathering on Sunday, but I won’t wear a Browns shirt (I don’t even own any officially-licensed Browns apparel). I’ll ask friends’ about their fantasy football teams, but I don’t participate myself. I know better, as a church leader, than to directly counter-program Browns games. But if our ministry schedule has to be adjusted, I try to redeem the time by focusing on outreach and/or building community.
I don’t usually bring up my frustrations about this NFL Idolatry in a first (or second, or third) conversation with a person from my church. But I do try to angle others towards self-discovery in uncovering elements of idolatry in their lives (self-discovery is so much more effective than directive communication). I hope to provide subtle examples of how to live in slightly counter-cultural ways. And I write blog posts. It feels like a drop in the bucket, but hopefully it’s better than nothing.