It’s only a game

Stamford Bridge

Stamford Bridge

I have been thinking about sport quite a bit recently, how it fits into the canon of play, how its place differs in different kinds of society etc. I really enjoyed the olympics and para-olympics and was really proud of our teams and their successes (second only to China in the para-olympics). My own involvement in sport is pretty low  – I do yoga, go to the gym and swim, love skiing (I sound like a lonely hearts column!) – but I was always one of the last to be picked for teams at school which tells you all you need to know. I watch sport more than participate and that’s  been my main involvement in it as an adult.

I used to go out with a Chelsea supporter. When I say supporter I mean paid up member with season ticket who attended all home and away games; for whom a pair of lucky knickers was an essential part of match day preparation; who wanted a daughter so he could call her Chelsea. I quickly also became a Chelsea supporter too because it was the only way to know what his mood would be when I picked him up for work on Monday morning.

I am glad – now- that he introduced me to the delights of the beautiful game and I too became a member of the Chels for a while, until it became impossible to get pairs of tickets, because I enjoy watching football with someone I can dissect the match with afterwards. I now console myself with watching on tv or use my Wasps season ticket instead for some live and affordable rugby.

I learnt quickly enough that there are aspects of football that are highly similar to organised religion – communal singing, “silver-ware”, match-day rituals, special clothing that marks you out as “believing” (and I use that word advisedly) in a certain team, a liturgical calender in which you play different games at different times but you know when things begin and end, and you can keep going with pre-season friendlys and qualifiers, a bit like the saints days during ordinary time. There are saints and sinners and politics and ecstacy and prayer.

So I wasn’t surprised by many of the aspects of Iwan Russell-Jones‘s talk at Greenbelt in August. He talked of the importance sport has for so many, the ways that religion and sport have been intermingled (eg the singing of Cwm Rhondda at the beginning of Wales games) and he pointed out two over-arching things  about sport that allow it to become religious:-

  1. sport conveys beauty, truth and meaning
  2. sport communicates metaphors for life

One he didn’t say that I would add, though he did imply it is that sport allows you to feel a sense of something beyond yourself, an emotional and almost spiritual sense of freedom to express joy, anger, pain. If you have been to any games you will absolutely know what I mean whether your team won or lost.

What I found most interesting about his talk was the seriousness which he accorded to the faith of sport. I personally am in no doubt that sport fills a hole in our playfulness that the decline of religion has left and I think it is the multiplicity of these that makes it so powerful:-

  • Fate – plays out on the field as the header that bounces of the goal, the decision of the ref about the penalty kick or the sudden onset of rain affect the play of the game
  • Communal Identity – the whole crowd is behind the team, you are bound together by the way that you support, what distinguishes an Arsenal supporter from a Chelsea supporter (taste, discernment, integrity…oh hang on…)
  • Frivolity – go to any match, check out the wigs and make-up
  • Progress – through the league, through the season…
  • Self-actualisation – defining yourself and your relationship to the world, communicating your identity to the world

So how do we respond to this? How can we deal with such a serious religion, particularly as it doesn’t acknowledge that it is one?

Russell-Jones suggests three ways –

  1. Affirm the unknown God – acknowledge that a player or supporter does undergo religious experiences in reference to their team or chosen sport, and then point out that what they are worshipping goes by a different name in reality
  2. Name the idols – point out how badly let down people can be by this religion  which is a fickle and heartless mistress, constantly waiting to kick you in the teeth (check out this season’s Wasps scores and you will see what I mean!)
  3. Learn to play in the fields of praise – Karl Barthes said “our daily bread must include playing” , we should acknowledge our own enjoyment and need of play and respect a passion that expresses the in-most parts of a person.

What does it boil down to? The last thing one should do in relation to sport is to say “It’s only a game”.


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