Solidarity At The Stadium

The air was thick with excitement.

It was downtown Wellington on a damp and wintry Saturday night. The All Blacks had just thrashed the British and Irish Lions in a rugby test of epic proportions.

After a magnificent start by the Lions, the All Blacks had taken the match by the scruff of the neck and relentlessly exerted control. The young first-five, Daniel Carter, was sublime. He had the ball on a string. His forwards delivered great ball and his deft footwork, incisive runs, exquisite passes and tactical kicking, set the All Black backline alight. Some great tries were scored.

But in spite of being well beaten, the Lions wouldn’t give up. They played their part in making it an epic contest – one of the great games of rugby. It was a fantastic advert for sport.

We had watched the exhilarating match at a local pub and were just wandering through the streets, enjoying the post-match vibe. The roads and footpaths were jammed packed, the cafes, bars and restaurants full to overflowing. It was a carnival atmosphere.

Drifting back from the stadium were bucket loads of fans – from both sides. Their team colours were self-evident – scarves flapping in the breeze, jerseys, caps and jackets indicating which team they backed.

The Lions supporters we encountered that night were good-natured and full of warmth and humility. They offered congratulations to Kiwis along the way, and enjoyed the banter with great humour. They were enjoying themselves, in spite of their team losing badly. What a lesson in graciousness.

In contrast, some of the behavior of All Black fans was deplorable. Mainly young and half-sloshed supporters in black yelled abuse at our guests, taunting and mocking, treating them with absolute disdain and ridicule. It was an embarrassment.

The behavior continued on the train home. Obnoxious, arrogant, gloating, insensitive. What a pack of ungracious “winners” we were. And thoroughly bad hosts to boot. I felt ashamed to be a Kiwi. This was not what sport should be about.

A sense of solidarity

There’s no doubt about it – sport can unite communities and nations like few other issues. The politicians know this (as do the marketers!).

The sense of solidarity we can feel with others in the stadium is difficult to match.

And we have developed elaborate rituals around ensuring that those gathered experience a strong social cohesion.

One of the reasons we enjoy watching elite sport is the inclusive unity it can bring. We stand arm-in-arm, singing our national anthem. We cheer and shout in unison. Whether we’re at the actual game or watching on TV with a few mates, there’s a sense of solidarity we feel – often with people we don’t even know. This is our team. We’re in this together.

Much of the time this can be healthy and positive. However, so often it can slip into boorish and downright nasty behavior – as my experience on the streets of Wellington illustrate.

The more a sports organization can ramp up what’s at stake in a sporting contest, the better chance they have of enlisting committed fans to the cause.

One key way this occurs is through the development of an “us and them” mentality.

I remember, for instance, an advertising campaign for the Australian State of Origin rugby league series centering around the slogan,  “When two tribes go to war”. The raising of the stakes involved in a match so that we begin treating the opposition as “the enemy”, is the bane of sport. The venom that spews from sports websites is proof that this type of marketing works. Tribalism is alive and well.

When I slip into viewing the opposition – players and supporters – as the enemy, I depersonalize them and give myself permission to treat them whatever way I feel necessary. At that point, anything goes. It’s all out war.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy rivalry, so long as it is built on mutual respect, generosity, good humour, and sensitivity for the other. Too often though, these attributes are missing.

Sport and nationalism

A nation’s identity is built around shared powerful experiences – such as war, disaster, and liberation. As Paul Marshall notes, “When people share powerful experiences, they develop a shared identity.”

Sport and nationalism tend to have a symbiotic relationship – one feeding off the other. Frequently this produces negative results, though occasionally one builds the other in positive ways.

In 1995, not long after the beginnings of the new “rainbow” South Africa, Nelson Mandela saw that the upcoming Rugby World Cup had the potential to become a statement of reconciliation, unity, and hope for the emerging nation. For decades rugby had been a key point of division – one of the most visible reminders of the tyranny of apartheid. Indeed, the dominance of the national rugby team (known as the Springboks) was effectively used to reinforce the blatant racism of apartheid. When the Boks played the All Blacks (or some other national rugby side), not only was national pride on the line, but also the validation of an entire political system that excluded non-Whites.

In the months leading up to the tournament, due to be played in South Africa, Mandela built bridges with the rugby community and implored the whole nation to support the Springboks. It was a struggle.

On the afternoon of the final, President Mandela famously arrived at Ellis Park wearing a Springbok jersey (in fact it had the number 6 on the back – the position of the white Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar). The crowd of 60,000 erupted in delight. It was a powerfully symbolic act.

That day, even though the All Blacks, who had dominated the tournament to that point, battled bravely, the emotion and passion of a nation swept the Boks along, so that by fulltime the score was 12-all. Into extra time the match went, and at the very final whistle, the South Africans had won – by a solitary dropped goal.

One scene is indelibly imprinted in my memory. After the presentation of the World Cup by Mandela, the almost entirely white Springbok team carried the black president on their shoulders around the stadium. What a moment. What a statement.

In spite of the disappointment of losing, many New Zealanders watching that day would have been glad. This victory clearly meant much more to South Africa than just the winning of a World Cup. It represented the hopes of a new nation for a new start.

The ugly side of patriotism

Unfortunately, the kind of galvanizing effect that day had on South Africa appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Often times, patriotic displays of sporting prowess can unite a people for all the wrong reasons.

I use the word patriotism here, because the vigorous supporting of one’s country inevitably leads to being prepared to defend it – one way or another! When national pride/honour is perceived to be on the line, expect some ugly stuff to occur.

Indeed, it’s interesting to note that historically there has often been a close link between sports and militarism. Nations that flex their muscles often use sport. We only have to observe how Hitler and the Nazis attempted to do this at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We all know what happened a short time later!

Mind you, Germany is not the only – or the last – nation to use the hosting of a major international sporting event to further its own jingoistic message. Olympic Games have been particularly prone to this tendency – where the home nation has seemed more intent on “beating their chests” than being gracious hosts to the world. It appears that so often nations seem to feel they have a point to prove.

There is something very wrong with the overemphasis many countries place on sporting prowess and national pride. For example, if it is genuinely the competing that’s important (according to the Olympic movement) then why are our governments (particularly in the developed world) so committed to effectively buying their way to gold medal success? The stats are fairly self-evident: the better the funding for elite athletic programmes, the greater the success.

Is God on our side?

One of the most insidious and dangerous delusions of some sportspeople and fans is that God is somehow on their side and in some way is helping them to win.

We see this in various guises. A well-meaning but deluded young sports star publicly thanks God after winning a vital match or tournament. An athlete points heavenward in appreciation and acknowledgement after scoring a goal or winning a race. A team huddles in a circle on bended knees for a prayer, immediately following a victory.

The tendency to hijack or commandeer God for our own purposes is a popular past time. And the arena of sport is a perfect opportunity.

However, God is not the least bit interested in who wins a sporting contest. Let me say that again: It matters diddly-squat to God whether my team wins.

God is not on our team’s side. To assume that he is, is on the one hand to attempt to claim God for our own partisan purposes – and on the other hand, to completely misunderstand God’s nature and what is of ultimate importance to him.

However, to suggest that God doesn’t take sides in games does not mean God is completely disinterested in the sports event. While God may not be concerned about who wins and who loses, he is most certainly interested in how the game is played. Is it conducted in an atmosphere of free-spirited exuberance? Are those involved mindful of it being a great experience for all concerned? Are players and spectators appreciative of acts of skill, creativity, teamwork, generosity, thoughtfulness, and good humour?

In a sense, God is on the side of everyone who seeks to play and watch sport the way he intended.

And God does want to be involved in our play. He delights in us competing (and watching) with an awareness of his presence and an attitude of gratitude and thanks.

To put it another way: It’s not the fact that we pray, or acknowledge God that’s the problem. It’s what we pray for and in what ways we recognize his involvement with us that are the real issue.

If we spent more time asking God for his help in loving our opponents, treating them with respect and thoughtfulness, viewing our sport as a game rather than real life, and celebrating the sheer joy of play, we would be really honouring God’s name and bringing him glory.

And if we were more mindful that humility, grace, and compassion speak much louder than any public words of acknowledgement, we might better represent who God is – both on and off the sports field or court.

For if God is the God of all humanity, then developing a robust theology that affirms and appreciates the free-spirited joy and excellence of all sports players, regardless of their nation of origin, or team allegiance, seems an obvious implication.

Positive benefits

In spite of my emphasis on the destructive power sport often exerts on our relationships, communities and nations, there are several wonderful benefits. Two of them are teamwork and mateship.

Synergy

One of the great joys of watching sport is seeing exceptional team work in action. There is a certain magic in harmonized plays. And the reaction of players when they achieve what they have been planning and practicing hard for, are often as wonderful to watch as the actual move.

A complex set move in rugby involving all fifteen players doing their part, leads to a try. The players are over the moon. They hug each other and their faces beam with joy.

A penalty corner move in field hockey leads to a deft deceptive pass and a flying drag flick into the back of the net. The whole team fist punches the air, and there are screams of delight.

A track cycling pursuit team circle the velodrome lap after lap, each front wheel delicately placed just inches from the cyclist in front to maximize the slip-stream, occasionally swapping places to conserve energy and keep the pace consistent. The coaches with their stop watches yell the split times from trackside so as the cyclists know exactly what lap times are required to gain the fastest speed. They eventually cross the line, still in perfect formation, and their support crew high five and jump for joy.

These moments – and countless others across the sports – are all glimpses of the way God has made us to function. Our potential as individuals is deeply connected to our capacity to work with others. This is synergy – the power of working together.

A well-functioning sports team can achieve far more than the sum of the individual player’s abilities might suggest. As the old adage goes, it is better to have a champion team than a team of champions. There are endless examples of teams that had few, if any, star players but were able to play exceptionally well together and beat other teams with players of much greater individual talent/ability.

Even though it is only play, the sporting arena can show us how to maximize our combined efforts to produce something we would be incapable of as individuals.

Any experience of being part of a well-performing team, where there is a genuine subjugation of personal aspirations and egos to the common cause, can teach us much about how God has made us, as well as stand us in good stead for the rest of life.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s picture of the church as a body, and particularly of his words:

The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you”; and again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” No: the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are all the more necessary…[1]

God has built us to work together. Experiencing the fulfillment of doing this well on the sports field can give us the confidence and motivation to work out this synergy in other arenas of life.

Mateship

One of the other great benefits of sport (particular team sport) is the relational skills and friendships developed as a result of the game.

The strong sense of camaraderie and mate-ship developed through playing together, and the friendships that can be built with competitors – those who also share a love of the game – are all positive benefits sport promotes.

The common experience of working hard to reach a goal, battling the odds, doing the hard yards together – builds intimacy like few other things.

However, it’s not just the bonds developed with teammates that sport can offer. One of the enduring memories I have is of top-level rugby players from the amateur days recalling the friendships they built and maintained with opposition players from around the world. The traditions of overseas tours and after-match functions must have had something to do with stimulating these life-long bonds.

Sadly, in these days of professionalism it is much less likely to occur. Athletes and teams are often warned by their coaches about keeping their distance from the opposition – even post-match – lest they fall into the trap of seeing them as people just like themselves, rather than “the enemy”, as they’ve been taught to think! Of course, this makes perfect sense if the only goal is winning – if it’s the raison d’etre for playing.

However, to my mind, this approach is deeply destructive and undermines part of the very reason for sport. Playing should bring people together, not tear them apart. It should stimulate community and build bridges with people we might not normally relate to. At it’s best, this is what sport can achieve.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:21-22 (The Kingdom New Testament)

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