Insecurity Identity and Sports Talk Radio

I like sports talk radio. If you want to take an axe to my IQ for that admission, I understand and frequently feel the same way. In the sports talk world, this time of year focuses a large amount of time on the NBA playoffs and since the Warriors are so good they seem to be playing against semi-competent middle school teams, most of the interesting conversation and games have come out of the East.

The past few days have narrowed that focus even further to talk to death one incident with one player and one fan.

LeBron James, freak of nature athlete who has sat atop the basketball world for the last decade, had a bad game Sunday night against the Celtics. A stat line of 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting (30%), 3 of 6 from the free-throw line (50%), with 6 accompanying turnovers is without a doubt a dud of a game for someone who is in the conversation for greatest of all time.

As LeBron offered up a flop—all puns fully intended—of a game a fan decided it was his time to shine while he heckled LeBron repeatedly, harassing him about how poorly he was playing. LeBron finally reached his breaking point and shouted back at the fan, “What have you done that is so great?” To which the heckler boldly started boasting about his career at Hiram College and shouting out his stats from his glory days in Division-III college basketball.

Talk radio has pontificated all they can on the situation with various tit-for-tat rules and ideas of when an athlete can trash talk a fan but in all the talk about the being the bigger man they seem to have missed the bigger picture.

What in the world would cause a four time MVP to feel the need to defend himself when challenged by a four-beer deep fan? A simplistic, but probably accurate answer: a poor location of identity.

Identity is an ambiguous idea that has been hijacked in a lot language recently and can be parsed to death by philosophers, but in plain and simple terms it is what makes you who you are. There are many competing concepts of identity but one of the more prominent ideas in our culture is that identity is tied to ability, or you are what you are good at.

LeBron James isn’t just good at basketball, his ability is who he is. Obviously, this is conjecture because I don’t think LeBron’s thoughts but if this concept of identity is applied to LeBron the very core of his personal understanding of self is being a basketball player.

This tends to work well . . . when things are going well. But there is a substantial problem with identity by ability, eventually people’s abilities diminish. It could be slowly over the course of a lifetime, quickly through a degenerative disease, or suddenly when the best player in the world has a bad night shooting the ball.

When ability falls short identity goes with it and all of a sudden you are left with a 6’8” 250 lbs forward bickering with a fan because his identity is insecure.

This is not unique to LeBron. All people struggle with this to some degree at some point. The funny guy in high school may find his jokes not so clever at his job. The investment banker who had a great decade starting in the mid-90’s struggled greatly in ’07. You get the point.

When we view ourselves through the lens of what the world praises us for the whole concept of self is at the whim of the praise continuing. Where do you turn when your abilities fail you? When your identity is suddenly called into question? Who is LeBron if he is not a great basketball player?

The categorical answer is to move the location of your identity from something moveable to something immovable. Instead of resting identity in a person’s own ability they need to find identity in relation to something that does not capriciously change.

The only way to not be in a day to day crisis concerning who you are is to place your identity in something secure. There are many things that are more secure than others but there is only one thing that does not change: The Almighty God who revealed himself most clearly through Jesus Christ.

Locating identity in Christ is what allowed Horatio Spafford to stand on the deck of a ship where a previous ship carrying his family had sunk killing his four daughters and write these words:

When peace like a river attends my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll.

Whatever my lot you have taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.

Locating identity in Christ is how Fanny Crosby, who was born blind, referred to herself as “one of the fortunate ones” because the first thing that she will ever see is the face of Jesus.

Locating identity in Christ is how the apostle Paul can boldly write that he rejoices in his sufferings even though he had lived through torment that most people cannot contemplate.

Locating identity in Christ is what will anchor your life in the moments of greatest need and deepest failure. At the same moment that you can barely stand to look yourself in the mirror, you can be completely secure in who you are because you are loved by the eternal Creator and Sustainer of the universe, which is proved daily at the foot of the cross.

It would even get LeBron through an off night with his jump shot.

2 thoughts on “Insecurity Identity and Sports Talk Radio

  1. Chevy

    First I’d like to say how much I appreciate all your blogs so far, it’s been really great insight and I hope you’re open to putting these things out here to start a dialogue. I wanted to comment on this one because this is specifically where I spend most of my time and energy. I agree that it’s an issue to place your identity somewhere that is insecure, but especially in the years that I’ve spent ministering to and among athletes I’ve seen that this kind of language can leave people facing a false choice. I believe that we were created to live our lives with unique skills, relationships and opportunities. There’s an argument to be made for the roles of fame and corruption in a high profile athlete, but to competitors of all levels it’s almost impossible to stop caring about not just our own level of ability but our most immediate performance. The battle is to not let that performance define who I am, so I agree with the overall premise of where to place our identity.
    But in the places I have played and coached (outside the US) it’s very common for people to use this reasoning to say once you become a Christian you should stop playing sports. And it’s a contributing factor in the 95% of teams in Europe that don’t have a Christian player. My issue when I play is not to consider if my performance matters or not, it’s untying my identity from my performance but still giving my whole self and seeing that act as a valid and worthy expression of who God created me to be. To deny that who I am and what I can do is part of my identity could take me away from where I’m meant to be. I don’t want to take athletes away from their purpose and stick them in a church, I want to take the church to my existing community. The metaphor doesn’t always hold up in terms of location and I don’t mean to say that the building or establishment of the church doesn’t matter, but let’s see if we can handle some nuance 😉

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    1. Whats up Melissa. Sorry I had just had a baby and missed this comment. I would entirely agree with the bulk of what you are saying and really was simply using the incident with LeBron as an excuse to talk about identity at a broader level. I don’t think that any time someone gets heated in a moment of professional or athletic (in this instance both) frustration they are lost to the slippery slope of a misplaced identity.

      We lose track of what is important all the time and with some time and perspective look back to see priorities and how we could have done better. That is really what I am advocating for: doing better in the midst of failure because our identity is grounded in Christ.

      As for people removing themselves from sports simply because they need to be in church all the time, I would entirely disagree. Athletics continues to be one of the few really open doors for relational engagement and as a believer I think we should always be chasing down that opportunity. People of faith have interests and they should spend time with other people who share those interests to build relationships and bring good news wherever they go. Identity, and the language surrounding it, is tricky to speak very clearly on. I appreciate the nuance.

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