Recently, if you were one of the 111.9 million people who tuned into CBS on Sunday night you saw the showdown of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. If you were not one of those 111.9 million then you no doubt have seen memes, Vines, Instagrams and Facebook posts about what happened and the subsequent post game interview with Cam Newton. I have been a Panthers fan for at least 15 years so I had an interesting perspective to the game and the subsequent dissection of Cam Newton. I knew that the Panthers losing, and losing in the way they did, would make for some interesting conversations with some of my friends. What I did not expect was that almost everyone I ran into who knew I was a Panthers fan would want to give me their opinion on Cam Newton. Something about talking to a Panthers fan just allows the flood gates to open because Cam Newton is apparently someone whom almost everyone has an opinion about. If you haven't seen anything about Cam recently, just take a second and Google his name. We will quickly be on the same page.
Hearing these opinions isn't anything new, though. This season, with the Panthers going 15-1, Cam has been in the spotlight more than ever. As a result I have heard every line in the book. Some of the highlights include that Cam Newton is the "scum of the earth", the "most arrogant" player in the National Football League, "just putting on a show" as a marketing campaign, a thug, a bad influence on children, and so on and so forth. In fact, about the only semi compliment I have heard from a non- panthers fan is that "he is a thug, but that's what is likable about him". All these statements came back up as Cam let his emotions bleed through onto the football field and into his post game interviews. Cam has never bottled up his emotions and whether it was for his emotions in this game, his emotions this season, the allegations that his father was shopping him around to different colleges, his incident with a stolen laptop at Florida, or any number of things, most people have at least one issue with Cam.
I don't think it's extremely relevant how I feel about him, or how I feel about watching my team lose in the biggest game they have been a part of. I think the biggest thing that gets under my skin about the reaction to Cam Newton is the lack of grace. What I do love about Cam is the fact that he holds a mirror up to American Christians and makes us see that we do not have the ability or the deep desire to extend grace to others in the same way that Christ has extended grace to us. So often, Christians are amazing at being advocates. We can stand up for unborn children that can't stand up for themselves. We can speak for women and children in other countries that aren't allowed to speak for themselves, but the grace stops as soon as someone is a professional athlete . Now, I know this isn't everyone but I feel comfortable making the claim that almost everyone reading this has a hard time being an advocate for athletes. This goes far beyond the insanely high standards of perfection that we expect out of them to be role models, and to use their money in a way that we think is right. This goes beyond the double standards we apply to give passes to the athletes we like and not the others.
This goes right into the heart of the reality that we are to extend grace to people that no one else is extending grace to because of the grace that Christ has gifted to us.
I'm not just thinking about Cam Newton either. Even if you love Cam, I'm sure you have an issue with Johnny Manziel, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice, or Adrian Peterson, just to name a few people who have been in the spotlight this year. I know I have had issues with some of them. A lot of these men have been accused of, or even done, terrible things but whether they danced at a time that you didn't like, deflated a ball a tiny little bit, had an issue with alcoholism or hit their girlfriend in an elevator, we have had almost the same reaction. Condemnation. Unfortunately, as Christians though, we don't get to condemn.
We don't have the luxury to sit back and judge people the way the rest of the world does.
As I was washing dishes at Chick-Fil-A tonight, I was contemplating all this and I was reminded on two stories in scripture. The first is in John 8.
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
John 8:3-11 ESV
If I am to take anything from this, it's that Jesus is the greatest advocate there ever was. He actually had the ability to take away sin and place it on himself on the cross and so he was able to forgive people of their sins. Even though I cannot actually forgive people, I can still stick up for them when no one wants to assume the best in them. I can choose to only speak kindly of others, and most importantly I can go in prayer to the one who can forgive sins. Out of all those athletes listed I calculated the amount of time I have spent praying for them and totaled it up. It was honestly easy because I got zero. I hadn't spent any time praying for these people who are in desperate need of a savior and a hope that is not reliant upon their performance. I had never prayed for them yet I had still "analyzed" their situations which honestly, is just complaining when it's not about any technical side of the game. I have to be able to extend grace to athletes who will never know I am doing it. I have to be able to avoid condemning them and contributing to the caricatures the media paints of them.
I don't have to agree with everything they have done or even pay attention to them, but if I do take the time to pay attention to them, my response has to be loving.
The second story comes from Matthew 18:21-35 where one servant is forgiven for a debt he owes his master and upon being forgiven, immediately attacks another servant who owes him money. The passage is a little long so I'll just give you the last couple verses.
“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’”
Matthew 18:32-33 ESV
Straight up Jesus is commanding you and I to show mercy on others, no matter what, because we have been shown abundantly more mercy. We can all see how this applies to those whom we have personal relationships with. We have been forgiven much so we must forgive much, but what does this look like with athletes?
What does this look like with people we know so much about but will never meet? What actions can we take to be an advocate for them?
Pray. This is the only action we really can do. Christ is the only hope for change in this world and so we have to go to him. My first reaction is so rarely to pray. I get so fired up about people and don't assume the best in them at all. If I care enough to read an article explaining what is wrong with Tom Brady then I should care enough to pray for him. And really intercede. Imagine the freedom that Cam could feel to face the media after having a bad game when his identity is in something other than being the quarterback. I hate to see him be crushed because his identity is so wrapped up in something that will let him down in one way or another. And ultimately we all put our hope in other things than Christ, we just don't have to discuss it in front of cameras when we are let down. We get the luxury of handling the despair of being broken in the privacy of our rooms and behind closed doors.
Pray for athletes when we find out they are just as messed up as us.
Pray for our own hearts. Why are our hearts so wicked that we even care about these things? They have no bearing on our lives in any real way yet an athlete can make our blood boil, or cause us to feel hate, or envy, or any number of sinful heart conditions even though we have never met the person. So much of the condition of our heart is revealed and even though I can't always stop my heart from feeling those things, I have the choice to either complain about the 24 year old kid who likes to dance, or pray that Christ would make my heart clean.
I love sports, and I love talking about sports, but I have to find a line between the game and the people. And ultimately I cannot condemn the people behind the game. I have to be an advocate for anyone and everyone, even if they make $20 Million a year. I pray that I will be shown the grace that I so desperately need even if and when I don't extend it.
Cam Newton needs grace, but he is such a reminder that I do too, maybe even more.
Written by: Cameron Woodard