Sporting Virtue

March 08, 2018

Sporting Virtue

James Pietsch


Recently, my daughter and I attended an A-League game between Sydney FC and Perth Glory. In the afterglow of a 2-0 result in favour of Sydney, there was a genuine sense of camaraderie and connection between complete strangers as we left the venue. There we were, as fellow Australians, united in our love of sport.

Sport. It is, far and away, the most popular weekend activity for Australians. While there are 13 000 churches across Australia with 8% of the population attending church at least now and again, this number is insignificant compared to the 6.5 million people who play sport and the 7.5 million Australians who watch it.

As it is in our culture at large, so, too, sport plays a significant role in our schools. Every school has a sporting program and each school assembly includes time to applaud sporting achievements. Time to applaud those students who were stronger, faster and more powerful than their opponents, who showed no mercy, played the game with intensity and a determination to win, doing whatever it took (within the rules, of course), to be victorious.

How does this sit with our Christian vision of a restored humanity? Can a person take on the same attitude as Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5 – 11) on the sporting field where the goal is to defeat your opponent? I think these two questions deserve some attention. For me, as a Christian involved in education, I want to know how engaging in sport can contribute to the overall tripartite purpose of education from a Christian perspective—first, that of preparing students for participation in cultural practices in general, and second, preparing students more specifically for participation in cultural practices as people of the kingdom of God. But what is of greatest importance is the third way of understanding education, which informs the other two—that of preparing students for participation in the new creation that is to come.

Clearly, sport represents a category of cultural practices that our students are almost certain to engage with at some stage in their lives, either as participants or as spectators. It is, therefore, appropriate for students to participate in sporting activities as part of their schooling simply to increase their familiarity with sporting activities and how they themselves might participate in such activities both physically and emotionally.

But how might a person of the kingdom approach such cultural practices? How might we be loving towards those on our side, as well as those in the other team? What I suspect is that games involving people of the kingdom don’t make great television. They are less gladiatorial in nature, more focused on caring for the opposition than gaining the upper hand, owning up to mistakes rather than concealing them from the referee, and enjoying the game rather than the result. But that’s ok—living the good life doesn’t have to be televised.

People scorn the idea that the score doesn’t matter—which is unfortunate. The score, from a kingdom perspective at least, is never as important as the experience of the participants. What matters is not so much who won but whether or not participants had the opportunity to grow in humility, to be gracious, loving, kind and compassionate. For it is these virtues which we associate with God’s kingdom coming. When it comes to sport at school, we need to make sure that students’ experience of sport is not about standing back and idolising the strongest and the fastest; instead, it becomes a cultural practice within which they can clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col 3:12).

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