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Faith and Sport

The Ten Commandments of Sport

12th December 2014

The State of Play is a new report from Theos for Christians in Sport and Bible Society focusing on ethics and sport from a theological perspective.

The theme is a large one, comprising of several distinct but related fields of concern: the on- and off-field behaviour and misbehaviour of athletes, the assumption that sport is a uniquely powerful tool in moral formation and education, the integrity of sporting institutions and the right relationship between sport and other fields of human endeavour such as commerce and politics.

In all of these areas, we might be forgiven for feeling that all is not well in the state of play. There's a pervasive assumption that athletes are 'role models', and therefore under an obligationbut more often than not they end up playing the part of the naughty vicars of the 21st century, as Simon Barnes once put it. When it comes to sporting institutions – national and international – we have surely been denuded of the naïve expectation that they all act as responsible stewards of the games we love. Sport is rarely in the headlines for the right reasons.

We need to resist the temptation to slip into a kind of moralism here, at least until we have tried to develop an appropriate ethical (and theological?) framework for sport. As a society, however, we can’t seem to work out where we stand on it. Either it’s more important than life and death itself, to paraphrase Bill Shankly, or it’s lumped with the ‘entertainment industry’, as if sport were only an attempt to an attempt to stave off boredom (which wag was it that dubbed the Department of Culture, Media and Sport the “ministry of fun”?). Neither of these positions seems like a satisfactory starting place.

There’s a strong tradition of theological reflection on sport, which has recently reflowered. Different thinkers vary in their emphases, but most follow the philosopher Johan Huizinga in identifying sport as a species in the genus of play – a free and ordered activity distinct from ordinary life that serves no other purpose but itself. To cut a long story short, many theological critiques of sport in its modern manifestation argue that it is not ‘playful’ enough. As we argued in our previous report, Give Us Our Ball Back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good it has been diverted, co-opted and distorted by various other interests. Even in its own right, and in a theological idiom, it can be treated with such ultimate seriousness that the language of 'idolatry' comes into view - not perhaps the 'worship' of sport, but certainly treating sport and sporting success as the ultimate source of identity. What The State of Play does is test these hypotheses with qualitative research amongst players, former players, chaplains and others who work in a sporting context. For many, the idea of a loss of a sense of play described their anxious and precarious existence as professional athletes. For one, sport was not characterised by freedom but by fear:

Fear engulfs the whole thing… if the Premiership doesn’t sell the rights to such and such then they won’t get £100 billion, then the clubs won’t get as much, then the international players will leave the Premiership, then people will be watching something else. In football, because there’s a value that’s gone up, there’s an expectancy that’s gone up. Not many fans have patience, people want it now… but what is success now? Is it winning the league, is it coming fourth?

To coincide with the recent release this report, we’ll be running a short series of sport themed blogs here next week. Theologians Nick Watson and Brian Brock write on the ethics of boxing and Mixed Method Martial Arts, Matt Baker – chaplain at Charlton Athletic – on the rise of sports chaplaincy, Sam Tomlin – co-author of Give us our Ball Back – on the myth of trickle-down economies in sport. Our own Ben Ryan writes on the ongoing FIFA/Qatar World Cup Story and Andy Reed OBE – former MP for Loughborough – will complete the series by taking a look at future trends in sport and society. 

The State of Play concludes with an – admittedly slightly hokey – sporting decalogue; an athlete’s ten commandments. If you want to find out what they are, you can download the report from the Christians in Sport website here. If you don't like them, feel free to suggest alternatives in the comment section below.

Paul Bickley