The Conduct of Sport

How should I behave?

In an essay entitled ‘The Sporting Spirit’, George Orwell wrote that ‘serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting’

I think he had issues. He probably couldn’t catch and was always picked last when it came to choosing teams. But even if he’s half right then it ought to be possible for the Christian sportsperson to bring something distinctive to sport.

In Matthew 22:37 Jesus taught his disciples, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

Our sporting life is not exempt from Jesus‘ expectation that we’ll love our neighbour. So whether we’re talking about our team mates, our opponents or the officials Jesus expects us to show them some neighbour love. But that just sounds plain wrong. I’m a sportsman I can’t go around talking about ‘love’ and exepct to be taken serisouly. So let’s go for the more manly sounding but nevertheless meaning much the same sort of thing ‘serve’. I must serve others in teh way that I play sport. But what does that look like in practice? After all Jimmy Connors once said, ‘I don’t go out there to love my enemy, I go out there to squash him’. Quite what that looks like from a man in tight white shorts playing a non contact sport one can only imagine. But what Jesus taught is a radical departure from the way we may have been taught to behave in the arena of competitive sport.

1. relating to team mates

Serving involves putting ourselves at others’ disposal. In a team it means playing our part and being a team player. It means that we contribute positively to the creation and maintenance of team spirit. If you wanted to model yourself on one biblical character, it’s worth knowing that Barnabas was known as an encourager (Acts 4:36). Most teams need someone like that and a Christian is well placed to encourage others. Of course, it’s hard when you then need to encourage someone who’s competing for your spot on the team. That’s not easy. It’s hard to serve the team mate who’s been selected instead of you. There’s only one place worse than the stands to watch a game and that’s from the replacements bench. I’ve watched games wanting my team mate to underperform. That’s not right. I should have encouraged him and then gone away and worked at improving my game. I should view him as someone God has sent me to encourage and someone sent to make me better. 

2. relating to opponents

Our opponent is not an enemy to be hated, he’s a neighbour to be loved (or served!). But how do we serve him? We serve  him by giving him our best. The nature of sport is that it involves competition. Two teams or two individuals are pitted against each other to discover the winner. The best sport is when two sides that are equally matched go head to head. The other team are looking for an opponent of a similar standard who will challenge them. They deserve our best. In a sporting context therefore to love them means to be competitive.

3. relating to officials

I hate the way that Premiership footballers think it’s acceptable to crowd round the referee and challenge his decision. It’s disgraceful and there’s no way to justify it. In rugby, it’s not tolerated. And the laws of the game make it straight forward to punish.

I’m not averse to expressing my opinion on the sports’ field and I’ve often been on the wrong side of the line when it comes to officials. That doesn’t mean it’s right. It just means I’m a work in progress.  But in addition to that propensity to dissent, I need to watch out for two other sinful habits.

Secondly, I need to watch out for disrespect. And this has as much to do with what I say about him behind his back to my team mates as well as what I shout in his face!

And thirdly I mustn’t be dishonest. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:5 there’s no victory worth having if we’ve not played according to the rules. Dishonesty is cheating. Both teams agree to compete according to a set of regulations. That way it’s a fair contest. When we cheat we tip the balance in our favour. We may get away with it. We may win. But it’s a hollow victory and the triumph is tarnished. Christian sportspeople can maintain a wonderfully distinctive witness in the way that we love the officials.

Conclusion

I can’t tell you how much I love sport. It borders on idolatry. But I’ve got it under control. The chief way I ensure I remain godly in sporting competition is to give thanks to God for physical exercise, for technical ability and for competition and the expression of that in sports. They are wonderful gifts from our gracious God. And I suspect that many of us know that. But our danger is that we play them for the wrong reasons and sometimes in the wrong way. But if we’ll change the motivation for which we play and we’ll change the manner in which we play, we’ve got an unparalleled opportunity to use the sports that God has given us for His glory and not for our own. And we’ll be better sportspeople for it.

10 thoughts on “The Conduct of Sport

  1. Lauri Moyle June 20, 2011 / 10:42 am

    Orwells issue’s were nationalism and tribalism. Given that he was writing in December 1945, no doubt his hightened sensitivity should be recognized when commenting on his views.

    Here is a good rebuttle of Orwells comments, and further adds I think to your defense of sport Perks, particularly in relation to the aesthetic element. http://www.thefootballramble.com/blog/entry/in-defence-of-the-sporting-spirit

    I would add however that the comment about Orwells lack of sporting skills sounds a bit like a misplaced fart.

  2. Tom Stanbury June 21, 2011 / 5:19 pm

    The Sport posts are worthy of a small pamphlet to be used on Christian in Sports camps. Or for christians at Uni who are sports people.
    I think it is worthy of circulation beyond the readership of your blog. That is no sleight on the blog or your readers.

    I can’t help but feel that Orwell would struggle with the simple pleasure of a game of french cricket, let alone any serious sport. I played tag with my nieces for the best part of an hour on Sat afternoon.

    On my sisters 30th birthday we played rounders. At least a dozen on each side. People forgot they were supposed to be cool, wearing their sunglasses and got caught up in the fun of the game. A game brings people together, the laughter at a dropped catch as two collide for the ball. The shaking of hands and 3 cheers at the end it is such a distinctively human thing.

    Lots more could be said but thanks for the posts.

  3. Lauri Moyle June 21, 2011 / 5:26 pm

    Tom, I agree, its good stuff by perks. But given your above comments I think you should read Orwell’s essay, in which a lot more is said. but having had my wrist broken because of somebodies sport frustration, (kick to the face blocked by my wrist), notwithstanding the hooliganism of the UK’s football tradition, the romanticism of your above post seems rather sugar coated, but that’s not the point is it?

  4. Tom Stanbury June 22, 2011 / 9:26 am

    Lauri,

    yes maybe I was being slightly wistful. However I genuinely had a brilliant time playing tag with my nieces. How can it be such fun just catching someone saying tag and then running away? I marvel at this.
    The game of rounders in Southampton for my sisters birthday was joyful, I hope I am not misappropriating the word. But seeing my 70 year old dad hit a rounder with his team cheering him on has given us plenty of fodder to laugh again and again. The game didn’t cost anything, other than the ball, bat. As a christian I can’t help but thank God for his kindness in allowing us to enjoy such sport. I guess this is not in the category of ‘serious sport’. In the scheme or things I am not sure I’ve actually played serious sport, although have certainly enjoyed watching it. So I have no doubt Orwell will have something significant to say in the political realm on the matter.

    I spent a few hours in March with some Cardiff city fans. Me and the hockey team I play for were in the same pub and had some banter. They found us amusing with our hockey sticks, plummy accents and floppy hair. We found them amusing with their skinheads, tatoos and diehard welshness. You should have seen the scowls when I jokingly told them, ‘we should have built a wall not a bridge’. They proceeded to regal the great Welshman of history, of which there are many including sportsman. No doubt it could be said with my joke I was perpetuating the English persecution of the Welsh. But my take was I was building a rapport and engaging with them. The joke opened up a discussion, they soon realised I have a big appreciation of the Welsh.

    However trust me when it kicked off outside the pub with some Millwall fans (all pre-arranged) I mean broken bottles, bloody scalps, fists hitting noses I have no delusions about the tribalism of football hooligans.
    Look you are better read than me so I will need speak to you. I wasn’t having a dig at Orwell per se. From what I know of him he is an intelligent and serious minded man, we are certainly better off for his writings (bear in mind I have only read Animal Farm GCSE English).

    I have to say I quite enjoyed the accussation of romanticism as I am not sure it is my default setting.

    Best,

    Tom

  5. Lauri Moyle June 22, 2011 / 9:52 am

    I think we are agreeing. And I would say that I disagree with Orwell about the spirit of sport necessarily being one of war. I just thought the dig at Orwell by Perks and you was unfair given when he was writing and what he was writing about in the essay. But If you read about Orwells life you will see that he did indeed play cricket, and was very much one for game hunting and fishing. And given that he was a soldier and traveled Africa and his participation in the Spanish civil war, I would hardly say the he was not a manly man who excelled in courage unlike that needed to play a little rugby. So the dig is a fart and its not sport that Orwell did not get, but nationalistic tribalism as expressed in sport with which he had a problem.

  6. Tom Stanbury June 23, 2011 / 8:19 am

    Lauri, thanks for that I didn’t know much about Orwell but now know a little bit more.

  7. sarah s June 25, 2011 / 3:01 pm

    perks a good post. I think the only addition i would make to the conduct is that the off pitch is as important as on pitch. Spend time with your team mates and clubmates off the pitch. Make the effort to go the pub, the teas, the social nights. This will you to build relationships and build a platform for discussion around faith, belief and the gospel.

    Lauri i think my only comment about being hurt and injured is that a risk you take you play most sports. There are ways to reduce the risk, by training. You become less of a risk to others. Wearing the apprortiate saftey equipment and being aware of others on the pitch. When you are injured or if there is injury on the pitch you pray for god’s healing and protection. Being injured has not stopped me from enjoying my sport.

  8. lauri June 25, 2011 / 8:30 pm

    Not sure why that comment was being addressed to me. I never said anything about being hurt?

    • Phil C July 5, 2011 / 8:59 am

      You mentioned your wrist being broken.

      • Lauri Moyle July 5, 2011 / 9:13 am

        I stand corrected, (sorry Sarah) but to clarify the point I was making, it was a deliberate move (out of play) because the guy was a nationalist/rasist, not because it was unintentional, so it was tribal. Thats why I didnt get the initial connection Sarah was making.

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