A fundamental promise of the American dream is that if you work hard enough, pursue the right connections, and make the right choices, you will be rewarded in the end. That reward takes many shapes and forms, but some of the most sought after rewards are money, notoriety, respect, and security. There are many avenues our students might take to try to achieve the American dream, but sports is one of the most popular.
As children, our students watch their heroes on TV excelling in their respective sports, and then as they themselves take to the playing fields or practice facilities, they seek to imitate their heroes. If you ask most young men who are involved in sports “was there ever a moment you thought you would be a professional athlete?” they won’t just tell you yes, they’ll say that their decision was choosing which professional sport to pursue and thrive in. From a young age, our students see sports as a legitimate career path and a place for them to find their identity firmly rooted. Most cultures we do ministry in place high value in sports; some of our cultures’ strongest affirmations are reserved for the sports stars. Some of the first instances of our students seeing themselves in a local paper or on a local TV broadcast come through sports highlights. Success in sports offers our students their perceived path in achieving the American dream; success in sports offers our students a potential identity that one day other children will dream of achieving.
So what to do when COVID threatens to take sports away? In my context in Grand Rapids, MI, the threat of no fall sports hit hard. I witnessed the moment a local football team was given the news that their season was cancelled. A number of frustrated students threw their helmets to the ground as hard as they physically could. There were tears, there was visible disappointment, and you could feel the loss of hope. Their reactions were not simply those of students who had their hobby put on hiatus. These student athletes reacted to a lost opportunity as if their potential identity and future was being threatened. Some of them had just lost their only opportunity to hear people affirming their worth. Some lost the opportunity of meaningful connection with an adult. Most lost the opportunity of being a part of a community with a shared purpose.
When it comes to our student-athletes, we must recognize this is no small loss in their lives (if indeed their season is cancelled). We need to walk alongside them in their loss and the grief of that loss with the same gentleness, care, and love that Jesus walks alongside us in our losses.
Joe Burrow, the current starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals and first pick of the 2020 NFL draft, painted the picture of this lost opportunity perfectly. In the 2018 sporting world, Joe Burrow was a relative no-one. However, through the perfect set of circumstances, Joe Burrow used the 2018-19 college football season to seize his opportunity, producing one of the single greatest seasons at his position in college football history. Through his hard work and determination, in one year he went from being a nobody to the 1st pick in the NFL draft, securing for himself financial security, fame, and the adoration of millions. When commentators discussed the possibility that the college football season might be canceled, Burrow had this to say: “I feel for all college athletes right now… If this happened a year ago I may be looking for a job right now.” This quote struck a chord with many in the sporting world because they knew this small comment communicated a much deeper reality. Without the opportunity to succeed in sports, Joe Burrow would just be another average joe.
Joe Burrow’s transformation from nobody to superstar in one year is the opportunity our students hope to realize as their own (whether through sports or a different avenue). When COVID threatened fall sports, it threatened an idol in the lives of our students that is in direct competition with the rest that the gospel offers; an idol that we unfortunately see our students chasing after all too often: the myth of being someone important through their hard work and determination.
COVID has shown us a competing source of identity and self-worth in relation to Jesus Christ and the Gospel message. It is true that in the eyes of the world, success in sports allows our students to truly be someone special. However, the gospel assures us that whether in success or failure, each of us is already a person of infinite value in light of Christ’s work on the cross. No matter how much the world tells them they are no one, in Christ God looks at them and declares them “very good!” Our students might not ever get the chance to become a superstar in the sporting world, but through Christ’s suffering, we have become co-heirs with Christ. As co-heirs with Christ our inheritance is hope even in the face of death, grace unto salvation, a love that makes us a new creation, and fellowship with the living God in the midst of our greatest suffering. Our inheritance with Christ is the greatest trophy we could ever hope to possess!
Whenever our students allow their identity to take root in something other than Christ (like sports) it’s always a challenge for youth workers to find a loving and gracious way to confront their potential idol. With COVID we’ve been given an amazing opportunity. In a very real way, COVID threatening sports is a gift and an invitation in the lives of our students. It is a gift and invitation for them to cast their yoke upon Jesus and to learn from him, to find rest for their weary souls. To root their identity firmly in Jesus Christ and nothing else. While they may lament the loss to use their hard work and determination to become admired and adored, we get the opportunity to point them to the only person who deserves our adoration. In Jesus, they will find that there isn’t a single thing this side of heaven that can ever diminish their worth, that they don’t need to do a single thing to make them more valuable. Jesus has already told them how valuable they are by his wounds suffered on their behalf.
COVID has been difficult in all of our lives and especially difficult in the lives of our students. However, it has been a great blessing in a sense for us youth workers in that we get to continue to preach the basics. While we may repeatedly tell our students that their identity is found first and foremost in Christ, perhaps right now they are in a better place to listen and believe. Now, more than ever, continue to preach the gospel to a generation that is searching for answers!