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.
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.