Calling Audibles Part XVI: American Idol(atry)
…the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.
~John Calvin, The Institutes
An idol is anything we excessively adore. That something may well be worth our love and affection, but it becomes an idol when that affection gives way to a distorted adoration. Idols become everything—more than they could ever really be. They embody our fantasies, our hopes and dreams. And even more dangerously, idols embody our projections of what we want and need from God.
If the human mind is a forge of idols, big time football is one of the hottest furnaces around turning out new idols at a dizzying pace. This time of year the idol factory is working overtime. Between the coaching carousel, bowl games, and the NFL playoffs idols are turning out faster than we can fall in and out of love with them.
This human tendency to pour all our expectations and hopes into the “next best thing” isn’t confined to football. Politics and Hollywood embody the same dynamic—who is hot today? Who can solve all of our problems? Who can make everything better?
What makes the hyper-productive idol factory of college football a blog-worthy topic is not that it simply exists. The interesting question is why idol making is so robust in a sport that is perhaps the most intensively team oriented sport that there is.
Few sports have the deeply entrenched collective character that football does. The beauty of this game is that so many people work together in an organic and organized way and they can make something exciting happen. A well-orchestrated football play is magical—as if all involved are so deeply connected that they move in perfect harmony, prompted by a secret language that only they understand.
Football is the symphony of the sports world. Basketball is more like a cool jazz band—there’s room for some improv and we enjoy the over the top solos. But, football is nothing if not people coming together to play their part in creating something breathtaking, something that we can’t wait to see unfold.
Even my seven-year old daughter gets the symphonic quality of football. She watches every play of her dad’s football games. She told me one day, “Mom, I know I can probably never play football, but it’s my favorite sport because every play I just can’t wait to see what might happen next.”
So how has this magnificent symphony of team effort become such a factory of individual idols? Why has this symphony of team become the theme song for a seemingly endless string of cult of personality characters?
Football is an American sport, born and bred. It embodies the American mythology of the rugged individual and our “united we stand” mantra. That hybridized character of this game we love is not a bad thing—it’s who we are as Americans. The sharp edge comes in how much we seem to be getting away from the united we stand part of who we are.
Football shows us this trend in Technicolor. The Internet is a breeding ground for our idolatrous tendencies. Cults of personality are googled into existence whether the truth backs up the banter or not. Twitter flashes the names of potential dieties every few seconds and the rate of retweeting determines a person’s iconic traction. Fantasy football has put team loyalty on the back burner in favor of people rooting for individuals and statistics so their own little world can work the way they want it to.
The tragic part of this idol factory is that we will inevitably end up disappointed when our idols fail to deliver, when we discover that they, too, are limited. The destruction wrought by over-zealous egos who buy the hype about themselves unleashes another layer of harm. Lives, careers, families, institutions are all vulnerable to the destruction that idolatry can set into motion. When someone really believes they are the answer to all of our problems, they set themselves and us up for a hard fall. And real people and their real gifts and abilities get lost in the way idolatry blinds us to what is actually around us.
The truth is a head coach or a star player is only as good as the people around him. A great receiver without an accurate quarterback is not that great. An amazing running back without a stout offensive line will not consistently find running room. A head coach without an able staff of assistants will not have long-term success. And a coaching staff and players without the support of their university can be destroyed no matter how willing and able they are to excel.
This statement of our deep connectedness is not rocket science. It’s basic biology. We are systemic beings—we live and breathe the air around us and those who inhabit our lives—whether we like it or not. We are what we eat and who we meet and where we live. We might yearn for there to be that one person who can make everything right. Or we might yearn to have the power to make things the way we want them to be. But we were made for a more complicated way of life, with a different kind of power and possibility than idolatry tells us we have.
Our radical relationality means that no one person can do it all. It even means we can’t feign helplessness when it comes to our relationship with God. God needs us to do our part, too.
Football could be an excellent stage to teach these important lessons of simultaneous humility and responsibility. No one is the answer to all of our problems, and every one of us can be a part of solving those problems. Practicing what it means to live in the kind of world where we need each other and others need us is what we need football to do for us. What we don’t need is something else in the world that tells us lies about what life is all about.
What a horrible distortion that the symphonic nature of football is being drowned out by over-amplified egos. If we could quiet the noise, we may be able to hear how things could change for the better. The audible must come from all of us—those who are idolized and those who do the idolizing. What we need is a shift back to a basic formation—there is no “I” in team. And if we can turn the “me” into “we” then all of us just might end up making something happen that we could have never done alone.