My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Last Sunday, millions of Americans sat down in front of their television sets to watch one of the most popular events of the year, the Super Bowl. Millions more around the world tuned in to watch the game. This year, the average cost of a 30-second television commercial was about $4 million, or $133,000 per second!
The 2014 Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia from Friday, Feb. 7, to Sunday, Feb. 23. Comcast-NBC/Universal paid $4.38 billion for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics from 2014 through 2020. For the 2014 Winter Games alone they paid $775 million. Cumulatively, more than 217 million Americans watched the 2012 London Olympics across the NBC Universal networks, the most-watched event in U.S. television history. NBC expects to earn $1 billion in ad dollars from the Sochi games.
If all of this seems more than a bit idolatrous and far outside the mainstream of the Christian perspective on good stewardship, consider this: the first ancient Olympic Games began in 776 B.C. They were dedicated to the Olympian gods and were closely linked to the religious festivals of the cult of Zeus. The ancient Olympic games continued for nearly 12 centuries, until 393 A.D. when the Roman Emperor Theodosius, who was a Christian, banned the Olympics as a "pagan cult." What we know today as the modern Olympics under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee did not begin until 16 centuries later, in 1896 in Athens, Greece.
While the modern Olympics are not held in conjunction with any religious festivals and do not include any ritual sacrifices to pagan gods, one does have to wonder if we haven't lost our focus on what is truly important and what idols are being worshipped in a culture where billions of dollars are spent on sports facilities, player contracts, television commercials, media broadcasting rights, and the exorbitant cost of tickets for fans to attend these events.
We hear a lot of criticism about the greed of Wall Street and the selfish preoccupation of big business on making money, but we don't hear a whole lot about what owners of major league sports teams and players with multi-million dollar salaries do with their fortunes in terms of charitable giving. It's not unusual to read about some highly-paid athlete buying or selling a huge expensive mansion, but how often do we read about a professional athlete or team owner donating millions of dollars to help the poor?
There are some, like Brett Favre, a three-time NFL MVP and a Super Bowl champion, who gave a personal donation of $1.2 million to his foundation, the Favre 4 Hope Foundation; NBA basketball player David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, who donated an unprecedented $5 million to found a college prep academy in an economically challenged neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, and gave another $11 million to Carver Academy; and the Chicago Blackhawks Charities and their Community Fund, which together have granted more than $11 million since 1993 to nonprofit organizations that devote time and resources to health and wellness, education and housing.
But this kind of major league generosity is so noteworthy because it is so exceptional.
All of this might sound a bit strange coming from me, given my love for sports and the fact that I have written a book called Holy Goals for Body and Soul: 8 Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith. But obviously I am not just a sports fan; I am a Catholic bishop who is a sports fan. Perhaps it is precisely because of my love for sports as a player and as a participant that I can put games and athletics in their proper perspective in relation to our Catholic faith.
When we value winning a sports championship and getting a trophy more that worshipping the one true God and receiving holy Communion, we've lost our perspective.
When participating in sporting events on Sunday is more important that going to church, we've lost our perspective.
When the primary goal of athletics is seen as winning at all costs rather than having fun and learning values such as dedication, discipline, courage, persistence, perseverance and good sportsmanship, we've lost our perspective.
When billions of dollars are spent on sports rather than helping the poor and providing quality education for children, we've lost our perspective.
We don't need to ban sporting events as Emperor Theodosius did when he banned the Olympics, but we do need to keep all this in proper perspective, never letting sports interfere with the priority of the two great commandments: to love God above everything else with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
May God give us this grace. Amen.