I was humbled and encouraged by the response to my first KSR contribution, and it seems the overwhelming majority of KSR readership is excited for Matt’s vision to expand beyond the realm of sports through KSR Voices. But the always kind and charitable world of internet comment sections revealed that some people are, shall we say, a bit resistant. Alas, the ‘stick to sports’ contingency has something new to protest–KSR is talking religion!
But I would argue KSR has been talking religion from the beginning. In fact, I believe KSR is the most popular religious website in our state. Why? Because UK Athletics is the most popular religion in our state.
Have you ever stopped to ask why we care so much? Why do teenage athletes have the ability to lead us into heights of happiness or depths of despair? It’s just a game, for crying out loud. But it’s not just a game. There is much more going on beneath the surface of BBN’s legendary fandom–something fundamental to what it means to be human.
You may not see yourself as a religious person, but you are. In fact, to be human is to be religious. We all have longings of the soul that cannot be suppressed or dismissed, but instead must be expressed through religious devotion. Simply put, we have an undeniable impulse to worship something, and for many in our state, that something is UK sports.
So what are these worshipful longings that make us religious? There are many, but like a good preacher I’ll give three: glory, community, and identity. Generations of Kentuckians have looked to UK as the answer to these three longings, but I will argue that our beloved Wildcats, as great as they are, will never be able to satisfy them.
All of us are made to behold and admire glory. It’s why we hike mountains, attend concerts, and visit museums. And it’s why Kentuckians make their pilgrimage to Rupp Arena, the Mecca of Kentucky basketball glory.
But how glorious is this glory? Suppose I could give you courtside seats for the upcoming Louisville game. You would literally think you had died and gone to heaven. But just how sustainable is this heaven? Suppose you came back the next day to do it all over again. And the next day, and the next day, and the next day–I don’t think it would be long until you got bored with UK glory. Truth be told, basketball is glorious, but it is an exhaustible glory that will always leave us wanting in the end.
We are also made for community. And the way we find community is by fellowshipping with others around a common love. In our state, the most popular love is UK sports, and without a doubt, this has produced the basis for an impressive community. Everywhere I go, I meet someone from the BBN and immediately find commonality.
But just how deep is this community? Cal likes to call us a family. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure he fully means it. If so, I look forward to some of his inheritance someday. Players say they love the fans, but again, I’m not sure they fully mean that. I’ve seen them out before and surprisingly not one time have they asked me for an autograph or selfie. Of course I’m only joking to make a point. I know Cal and the players are not disingenuous in their appreciation for the fans, and I know the BBN is an amazing community. But it’s just not the depth of community that we all want and need.
Finally, all of us are made to identify with greatness. This is why we wear KY gear and speak of the team with first-person pronouns (“we” won). We identify ourselves with the team such that when they are great, it’s as if we are great. And, no doubt, UK basketball is an impressive identity–the most wins of all time, the highest winning percentage of all time, 8 national championships, more SEC championships than the rest of the league combined, and on and on our greatness goes.
Yet along with the victories, we must identify with the defeats too. Gillispie’s teams had the same name across their chest as Cal’s teams. In fact, even with all our greatness, KY has only ended a season with a victory 8 times. Think about that. Since the first season in 1903, our representative has left us defeated all but 8 times. Truth be told, UK affords us moments of greatness, but more often than not, our identity fails us.
So when you consider these deeper desires like glory, community, and identity, it becomes clear that the CATS are an amazing pastime, but a pretty terrible religion. It’s certainly not UK’s fault. It’s our fault for worshiping UK. Sports are wonderful and worthy of love and enjoyment, just not ultimate love and enjoyment.
But this only begs the question of whether there is anything worthy of ultimate love and enjoyment. Is there anything that we can safely entrust our deepest longing to and find them satisfied? I believe there is.
Sports are like every good joy in life, a foretaste of something much greater. And the greater is God. The Bible doesn’t just claim that we are made by God; it claims we are made for God, meaning the Creator of our souls is also the answer to our souls.
Consider the three longings we have been discussing: In God we discover an inexhaustible glory that for all eternity will never cease to excite and delight; a community so deep and intimate that we are brothers and sisters with God as a Father who knows us by name and gives us the riches of His eternal inheritance; an identity that is eternally victorious through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our unfailing savior. Simply put, there isn’t a desire you have that doesn’t find its ultimate answer in God.
The Kentucky Wildcats are one of the greatest joys in my life and the life of countless others, but they were never meant to be our religion. So let’s cheer for them, not worship them. Let’s allow our fandom to stir our religious longings for the only one who can truly meet the demands of our longings, the God for whom we were made.
Oh, and to the other fan bases out there, it looks like these freshmen are starting to put it together. Sorry to say, but I think it’s going to be another year of our religion embarrassing your religion. Go CATS.
Robert Cunningham is the Senior Pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church. Follow him on Twitter at @tcpcrobert and send any comments or questions to [email protected].