Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.
2 Timothy 2:5 NIV
In the last few months, sport has dominated the headlines, especially around the proposal to launch a European Super League. There has been much talk amongst football pundits, fans and politicians about this doomed plan, with the fans of the ‘top six’ English clubs being united with those of their rivals in their fight back against the plans of a breakaway competition that would have contained only the top clubs from the English, Italian and Spanish leagues.
Manchester United fans staged a peaceful protest against the club’s billionaire owners, the Glazers, which led to the postponement of the famous derby game against Liverpool. Ordinarily, fans of these two teams do not see eye to eye, but on this occasion their rivalry was set aside in the common cause of fighting this perceived threat to the ‘beautiful game’. Within a few days, the Super League clubs backed down, their plans were abandoned, and there was a sense that fans had achieved a measure of victory. Discussions quickly turned to calls for the reform of the ownership of English football clubs, and this reaction is a striking example of why sport matters.
Sports in the Covid-19 era
However, the global pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives, including our sporting activities. Fixtures were cancelled, with many professional players and staff losing their jobs due to national lockdowns. Fans were not able to watch the sports they loved and amateur players also suffered: as the founder of the non-league Corinthians football team, I saw how our players and coaching staff had a wilderness experience, feeling that they had lost not only their enjoyment of organised sport, but also their community.
Indeed, the Covid-19 lockdowns have brought an existential threat to many sports clubs and venues: in May 2020 the devastating financial effect of the first lockdown was laid bare when the Football League, the Rugby Football Union and the England and Wales Cricket Board predicted that they could lose more than £700m between them. Many sports struggled from the loss of ticket sales, which is the largest source of revenue for smaller clubs. The UK government stepped in by creating a Sport Survival Package to help major spectator sports which, along with the Covid-19 business support scheme and furlough measures, has helped a number of sport- related businesses to survive.
However, this suspension of sporting fixtures has also provided an opportunity for sports clubs to respond to the pandemic by giving back to their communities: for example, League Two’s Cambridge United played its part in helping the community during the national lockdown through the Cambridge United Community Trust. It launched the ‘Here for U’ support programme, involving the club staff, first-team players, and board of directors in making over 1,200 calls to senior citizens, partnering with the Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance to cook and deliver over 1,700 meals for families at risk from food poverty, and delivering over 300 education activity packs to families attempting to home educate.
Sport and society
Ordinarily, when competitive sport is managed well, it plays an invaluable role in many areas of life. Aside from the obvious physical health benefits, participating in sport improves mental wellbeing, boosts self-esteem, and helps people learn the discipline of winning and losing well. Sports personalities can also provide positive leadership and promote the common good; for example, the Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has campaigned for free school meals and convinced the government to provide vouchers over the 2020 summer holidays for 1.3 million children in England.
'Some people think football is a matter of life and death: I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’ Bill Shankly’s famous quip could also be applied to other sports and reflects the reality that many people devote themselves wholeheartedly to sport and are willing to make great sacrifices in order to succeed. This can have both positive and negative results: on the positive side is clubs like Cambridge United which have helped the most vulnerable in their communities during lockdown. On the negative side, the commercialisation of major sports and the enormous amounts of money now at stake are threatening the core values of fair play, competition and humility in both winning and losing. This has led to doping scandals, the boom in gambling addiction and the European Super League debacle.
In 2 Timothy 2:5, Paul underlines the importance of following the rules of the game to win a crown. The whole chapter is about us being an instrument for noble purposes, made holy and useful to God and prepared for any good work. Christian missions in the late 19th century founded many football clubs for their physical and social benefits and some of these clubs are in the Premier League today. Indeed, more are still being started, like the Sunderland Samba football club, which builds positive relationships with young people alongside training and mentoring in order that they might be a positive influence with their peers and in the local community.
Sports fans are eager to return to stadiums to watch competitions and events live, but will it be a ‘return to normal’ in terms of the lucrative business of sport? Could the pandemic herald a new era in which the profits from sport are shared more widely to make it more accessible and beneficial, for example, through ticketing policies that allow more low income families to attend?
What about the Olympics? At the time of writing, the Tokyo Games are still on, despite opposition from public health leaders, many athletes and over 60% of the Japanese people. What if they were cancelled and the IOC and the Japanese government channelled some of the Olympic funding toward helping poorer Asian nations with Covid-19 vaccines? That would send a bold message of sacrifice and true leadership and show that sport is ultimately for the common good. As Calum Samuelson wrote in Redeeming Sport, ‘We should seek to celebrate sport as a divine gift whenever possible.’