by Taylor Combs
My wife and I married in October of 2014. The next month, the college basketball season began, and to say my beloved Kentucky Wildcats were good that year would be an understatement.
Kentucky began the season by dominating powerhouses like Kansas (by 32 points), North Carolina (by 14), and UCLA (by 39). Conference play began, and Kentucky stayed hot. After a two-point comeback victory in Baton Rouge against LSU in a game Kentucky had no business winning, the Cats improved to 24–0. They would roll through the final seven games of the regular season and move into the conference tournament undefeated.
Fans started to believe this team could do the unthinkable: complete an undefeated season for the first time since Indiana did so in 1976.
Three blowout wins later, Kentucky moved onto the NCAA tournament. They won their first three games in the tournament by a combined 75 points, and then won a nailbiter against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. But in the Final Four, a rematch with Wisconsin from the previous year’s Final Four, Kentucky went cold down the stretch. The undefeated season that was securely in our grasp slipped through our fingertips, as we lost to the Badgers 71–64.
And I acted like a child.
My wife of six months, appalled at my immaturity, surely wondered, “Is this really what I’m going to have to put up with?”
I truly think the NCAA basketball tournament, better known as “March Madness,” is the most wonderful time of the year. The field of sixty-eight teams, comprised of thirty-two conference champions and thirty-six “at-large bids” selected by the NCAA’s selection committee, gets a shot at their shining moment. It truly is one of the most remarkable events in sport. Games over the years have brought excitement and heartache, tears of joy and sadness, to countless participants and fans. But, if we’re being honest, they have a tendency to show our ugly side, too. That game in 2015 certainly showed my ugly side.
So what can we do? If you’re waiting on me to tell you I’ve stopped being a fan since 2015, you’re not going to read that here. I still pull for the Cats, and I still watch the games I’m able to watch and root for my time. I still get excited, still get heartbroken. But my wife served as a mirror to show my an idol that night, and I’ve since tried to think about the following principles in my fandom. I hope they’ll serve you well as you seek to root for your team without losing your soul.
Seek First the Kingdom of God
The essence of an idol can be found in disordered affections. Any time the affections of our heart—are greatest desires—are out of whack, we can find an idol at the root. And our emotions betray our affections, and in turn, our idols.
My emotion in response to a basketball loss told me I was making an idol out of a game. I was searching for belonging, satisfaction, and destiny in a group of thirteen college-aged kids wearing blue.
The solution to this is to seek first the kingdom. Ask God to set your affections fully on him, and get rid of things that get in the way. It may be that you can’t enjoy March Madness without worshiping an idol, and if that’s the case, you shouldn’t partake. But it’s more likely that with some helpful guardrails and prayer, you can and should.
So set your affections on Christ, and then you’ll be free to enjoy basketball, and any other sport, for that matter, without needing it to bear the weight of your satisfaction. When you seek first the kingdom, you can survive March Madness, because a loss for your team isn’t a loss for the kingdom, and a win for your team won’t bring the kingdom.
March Madness is a great time of year to start conversations with people you don’t know—be they neighbors, coworkers, or just people you see around town. When you see someone sporting the gear of your favorite team, introduce yourself. Ask them how you think the upcoming games will go. And when you see someone wearing the gear of some other team, do the same thing! Your loyalty to your team shouldn’t prevent you from starting conversations or making friends with fans of other teams, which brings us to the third tip.
The body of Christ is a diverse body of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The Church includes all skin colors, all cultural distinctives, all dialects, all income statuses. But we have a hard time getting past those barriers to worship together. It takes practice. One simple way to practice is by having conversations with and befriending people who root for the other team. As a Kentucky fan in Tennessee, I have more than ample opportunity to do this, and you probably do too, even if you’re in a different setting.
Enjoy the Image of God
High-level athletes are a sight to behold. Women and men like Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, LeBron James, and Simone Biles marvelously reflect the glory of the Creator each time they compete—even if they don’t know it. And that applies to college basketball players too. And as much as I don’t like to admit it, it applies to players from other teams!
If I truly love God and his glory, I can enjoy watching athletes who play for other teams reflect his glory by competing. So this year, as much as it pains me, I ought to be able to watch Duke basketball and enjoy Zion Williamson and co. We should strive to get to this point (even though, I fully admit, I’m not there yet!).
Repent of Idolatry
This is the root of it, and it bookends the first point. Anger, jealousy, anxiety . . . these emotions aren’t in and of themselves sinful. But when tied to worldly things, they are the manifestations of a sinful heart—an idolatrous heart. If my greatest affections are found in God, I won’t get angry, jealous, or anxious because of basketball. But if I do get angry, jealous, or anxious watching a game, it reveals that I’m expecting, even demanding, more from that game than it can give me.
We’re all seeking satisfaction. Friends, it won’t come from basketball, even if your team wins the next ten national championships. Even if they go undefeated. Satisfaction only comes from Christ, when we repent of our idolatry. So how can you root for your team and not lose your soul? By resting in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Then, you’ll be free to have fun watching the Big Dance.