Sport is dangerous. It can make us selfish. What I mean is that it can encourage introspective self-absorption. It can foster an attitude of self-examination that has everything to do with me, how well I played and whether I won. It has very little to do with others. At least that’s often been my experience! And when we’re obsessed with our own game we tend to forget that, even in sport, God has given us neighbours to serve. Most sports give us others to relate to. We have team mates, opponents and officials to interact with. So let’s think about how ‘loving our neighbour as ourselves’ might apply in sport.
Relating to team mates
Team mates are the other players with whom and upon whom we depend as we compete together.
Being in a team means playing our part. It means being a team player. And there’s no ‘I’ in team (though there is ’me’ if you look hard enough)! It means that we contribute positively to the creation and maintenance of team spirit. Of course, what our team mates need most from us is our encouragement, not our abuse when they fail to match up to our expectations or our blame when they make a critical mistake. If you wanted to model yourself on one biblical character, take Barnabas. He was known as an encourager (Acts 4:36). Most teams need someone like that. And a Christian is well placed to encourage others. If we’re honest, it’s probably hardest to encourage someone who’s competing for your spot on the team. That’s not easy. It’s hard to love 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 so that I can get my place back in the team. That’s not great. And it’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.
Relating to opponents
Opponents are not enemies to be hated. They’re people against whom we compare ourselves. They’re our competitors and we treat them with respect by competing honestly and wholeheartedly against them. The former tennis player, Jimmy Connors once said, ‘I don’t go out there to love my enemy, I go out there to squash him’. But our opponent is not an enemy to be hated; Jesus said he’s a neighbour to be loved. this is a radical departure from the way we may have been taught to behave in competition. But how do we love our opponent? We love 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 happens when two sides that are equally matched go head to head and stretch each other to produce their very best. The other team is 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. That’s why the top of the table clashes are eagerly awaited. With the best will in the world it’s not easy to get excited by Man Utd against Wigan, especially if you’re a neutral. But Man Utd against Man City is a prospect to relish.
Relating to officials
The officials are people who give up their time to facilitate a fair contest. They may provoke our dissent for their unreliable and unequal decisions. But they shouldn’t get it. They deserve our respect and our thanks. Regrettably 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 work in progress. I’m ashamed to say that my children have seen me yellow carded for mouthing off to an incompetent referee. But in addition to that propensity to dissent, I need to watch out for two other sinful habits. 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 in addition 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.
A Christian approach to these three groups has to do with serving them unselfishly.