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“All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football”,

Albert Camus

Give us our ball back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good

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Paul Bickley and Sam Tomlin, London, Theos, 2012.

When I heard that Theos was to write a report on sport I was excited. The idea of them applying Christian values to a debate on the nature of sport was an exciting prospect. I even spent an hour with Paul Bickley as well as sending him some information.

First of all any theological reflection is between superficial and absent. The report is full of unsubstantiated assertions such as: “Our society has unwittingly downgraded sport to a merely utilitarian tool. We think it will make us good, peaceful, wealthy and healthy.” Really? Do the hundreds of thousands who play and watch sport every weekend expect sport to make them “peaceful, wealthy and healthy” or do they play and watch because they love the game?

I speak as one who plays, administers and watches sport for a significant amount of time each week. I wonder if the main author does.

My problem with the report started with the assertion in the first paragraph: “Sport is no longer just a matter of leisure, of entertainment, of being part of something, or even of spectacular international tournaments. We have come to expect it to make us better people, to contribute to world peace, to develop our economies and to make us healthy. Sport has been reduced to being a tool rather than something with Intrinsic worth”. I simply don’t believe this is true and the report provided no evidence to convince me.

It would be difficult to thing of a less appropriate description of sport – in the wake of the best Olympics ever, the phenomenal contribution of the Paralympics to the cause of disability than the sport’s assertion that sport has had “a cycle of overpromising and under-delivery”.

In one of the few sections which try to bring a Christian approach to sport, the report states: “Attempts at Christian engagement with contemporary sport have often begun and ended with its moral dynamic”. As someone who has worked in this field for 20 years I despair at the total lack of engagement with the moral dynamic of sport. See Hoffman, Deford or Krattenmaker if you don’t believe me. Christians have tended to engage with sport as a means of evangelism while turning a blind eye to any moral issues.

There are so many places where the analysis is shallow – perhaps revealing the authors’ lack of knowledge of the subject. Examples would be the simplistic comparison of Sky v terrestrial TV coverage of sport. (Mihir Bose’s Game changer is excellent on that subject).

I was amazed at the statement: “A major justification for hosting the 2012 London Olympics was the appeal to sport producing economic benefits”. Really? There I was thinking that hosting the games would be a wonderful event for a great city in a sporting nation. And didn’t we do it well and make ourselves rightly proud of our country?

I was interested to at the negative description of South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup. My views – based on spending a month in Cape Town during the event was that it galvanised the nation. The black staff in my hotel were so proud that their country was hosting the nation. The white Afrikaans Rugby folk became hooked on the event to their great surprised. Everyone was delighted with the improved infrastructure that the games brought to the city.

An exceptionally disappointing report.

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