Traces of God at the MCG

Traces of God at the MCG

A visit to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the National Sports Museum is a great cultural experience whether or not you are a ‘sports nut’. The magnificent historic ground itself – some call it a ‘Cathedral of Sport’, the Long Room, the library which contains the largest collections of sports books in the southern hemisphere and the fascinating museum with its amazing collection of sporting memorabilia and artifacts and wonderful interactive exhibits impresses every visitor with both its intrinsic interest and also with the significance of sport in Australia’s relatively brief and peaceful history. What traces of God is it possible to detect on the hallowed turf, among the tiered seats, between the big sticks and in the stories of blood, sweat, cheers, tears and laughter that may be encountered in a visit to the G?

Some have suggested the following possibilities:

  • Human play and sports reveal something essential about human beings and our origins in God.
  • Sports play a unique role in building communities of love and respect; such communities reflect God’s will for human society.
  • If sports are played and supported ethically their rules rest on laws which originate in God’s law.
  • Stories of great sportsmen and women reflect something of the story of Jesus Christ.
  • The effort towards excellence and supremacy in sport is an image of the human longing for the transcendent while the exaltation experienced in taking part is a type of the experience of God.

What do you think?

Why do we play?

What does play, including sport, reveal about human beings and our origins in God? (Or, what is the point of sport and play? Why do we do it and what does it mean?)

Play, sports and recreation are an essential aspect of human behaviour but why? The practical purposes of the play of children (learning and self discovery) are relatively obvious but why do human beings continue to play and be engaged by sports and recreation throughout their lives?

James Schall’s On the Meaning of Sport looks at the deeper human significance of sports and how playing takes us out of ourselves and enables us, in a sense, to be our true selves. This is a fascinating read, perhaps more suited to senior students but well worth thinking about if you and your students are keen to dig deeper as to the philosophical and theological basis for understanding the impulse to sport and play in all human societies.

  • James Schall claims that ‘the closest most people come to pure contemplation is in the beholding of a good game’. Check you understand what the writer means by contemplation then explain why you agree or disagree.
  • When, would you say, are you most truly yourself?
  • What’s the core proposition of the author? Imagine other explanations for the human ‘need’ for games and play?

A Serious Theology of Play opens with a largely negative assessment of Christian attitudes to play before going on to point out how the idea of recreation has its basis both in natural theology (knowing God through how things are) and in scriptural theology (knowing God through what is revealed). The writer draws attention to the fact that play is written into the human project and that all human culture rests on this inbuilt urge. He quotes Genesis noting that that humans are made in the image of God who, on the seventh day, ‘rested’. Hence he suggests that our pleasure in rest and recreation and sports is somehow anchored in our being made ‘in the image and likeness of God’.

Use the Think, Pair, Share routine to explore the following questions:

  • Is looking forward to the weekend just a social convention, a disinclination to work or something to do with our deepest self?
  • What do you think would happen to people if they were consistently denied opportunities for recreation?

Christians: kill-joys or play girls and boys?

Quite a few articles on the internet imply that Christianity in general has had problems with the notion of play. While it is true that periods and personalities in Christian history have been characterised by austere attitudes to sports and recreation, this is not borne out by Christian history overall.

Early in its history in the Greco-Roman Empire, the pagan connotations of sport and its association with war, as well as the violence (scroll to half way down page 17) of ancient contests, were strong reasons why the Church rejected organised sports as  unchristian activity.

But the Middle Ages in Europe, during which the Church was a key influence on how life was led, saw the origins of the concept of holidays (holydays) and the origins of many sports and games played today. Sports have been a usual part of education regimes in Catholic schools for centuries and Church teaching especially in recent times has often spoken of the value of sport and recreation. John Paul II was a keen sportsman and even the more studious Benedict XVI was keen on soccer and still has positive things to say about the value of sport.

What about Christian Asceticism?
Alongside this positive approach to sports has been a Christian asceticism which seeks to moderate the behaviour of people to enable them to live freely for God rather than enslaved to bodily compulsions. Penitential practices especially prayer, fasting and penance have always formed part of Christian life. Interestingly, the word ascetic is related to the word athleticAscesis is the Greek word for exercise and training which is of course, fundamental to being an athlete. St Paul picked up on this connection, using athletic metaphors more than once to make points about perseverance and self discipline in faith.

Rightly understood there is no necessary opposition for Christians between the enjoyment of recreation, sport and play and and the notion of self-control encouraged by ascetic practice.

St Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular of saints showed how both aspects of Christian life can be integrated. Francis gloried in all the joys of the created world, in nature, in song, in friendship (and even in the honey cakes one of his friends baked for him). Yet to remain free to love God and others completely he also led a life characterised by radical self-forgetfulness and ascesis.

• What would you suggest is the basis for Christian celebrations, holidays, festivals, laughter, jokes, humour, games, sports, ‘mucking about’? Fr Bernard Teo suggests it is the resurrection of Jesus. Why might he believe this?
• Brainstorm the ways in which modern athletes/footballers practise ascesis. Discuss the differences in motivation between their ascesis and St Francis’s.

Fair Play – Where do we get that idea from?

What is the notion of ‘fair play’ and where does it come from? 
A site presented by the International Fair Play Society outlines the key constituents of the notion of fair play in a very straight-forward way. Another part of the site explores the history of the notion of fair play as it relates to sport in the European context.
A quite different piece suggests that human beings may well be ‘hard-wired’ for fair play, The Neuroscience of Fair Play. Discussing a book by Donald Pfaff this summary suggests that the Golden Rule: ‘Do to others as you would wish them to do to you’ is as old as our own biology. Evolution of fairness: Driven by Culture not Genes suggests how this might have come about.

  •  Is fairness learnt or ‘built in’?

Another article exploring the thought of CS Lewis investigates this evidently inherent aspect of human beings, the ‘Natural Law’, to explain how it is that we ‘know’ what we should do even when we don’t do it. Teachers are probably familiar with Lewis’s fictional world of Narnia in which he expresses through story his insights into the essential nature of things. This article analyses various moments in the Narnia series in order to illustrate Lewis’ conviction that the Natural Law is not simply a human construct but is ‘written on our hearts’.

  • How would you explain the consistency of the understanding of what is fair across the vast spectrum of human societies?

Other aspects of ‘fairness’ will be explored in the ‘Winning at all costs’ part of this unit.

Does sport build or undermine community?

A very common insight about sport is that it is a great social leveller, includes a broad spectrum of people and ‘glues’ communities together. The first part of the conclusion and key ideas of an Australian HREOC report sums up well the influence and possibilities of sport in Australia while Jordi Xifra, a Spanish social theorist, describes how Barcelona Football Club, one of Europe’s largest and most successful football clubs “bestows social energy” upon its fans, enabling them to create necessary bonds, “meeting the need for community belonging,” and providing them with “emotional unity”.

A Buddhist site describes sport as a step towards peace, affirming its possibilities ‘to promote social integration and foster tolerance … to reduce tensions and generate dialogue’ while an article on the World Cup in South Africa describes the deeply positive impact of the event despite its inability to solve any of the long-term problems of the country.
Catholic site from the US, while noting some negatives around sports behaviour also refers to the importance of sport in providing not only a distraction from the hardships of life but a common bond among people in an urbanised society where life has become much more individual and isolated.

Pope John Paul II was both enthusiastic about sports for their own sake – he was a gifted sportsman in his youth and skied, climbed and walked well into his old age. He also felt that sport could make a contribution to social cohesion. A quotation on the website of the Pope John Paul 2 Foundation 4 Sport encapsulates the social good that Pope John Paul II saw in the playing of sports. This new initiative has been established in England to bring about personal and social change not only among young people who feel themselves on the fringes of society but everyone who enjoys playing sports.

  • List as many social advantages of playing and/or following sports as possible, both from thoughts prompted in the articles you have read and from your own thoughts.

Maybe sport is not the answer?

Sometimes though, the effort to create identity and social capital can have negative effects. People can be excluded if they are not in the team or among the supporters or differ in some way from the norm. A study of some Australian rural communities while indicating the benefits of team sports to a town or district also shows how people can feel like outsiders if they don’t belong. This is also the case in school. Students who are not chosen for teams, who cannot excel, who are not ‘into sports’ can feel very out of it if sports dictate the ethos of a school. Students who are less able feel that they let their team down or are made fun of when they make mistakes. Joel Hodge of ACU also warns of the triumphant tribalism that sport can encourage in people despite its ability to channel rivalries and provide essentially non-violent resolution of aggression.

  • Use the Tug for Truth thinking routine to come to some conclusions about the positive and negative social effects of sports.
  • Use the Question Starts thinking routine and the articles the class has discussed to come up with a list of interesting questions about the role of sport in Australian society (or, if you are discussing the Olympic Games, in the world).

Sport and human rights (and wrongs)

More than a Game? – Using Sports to educate about Human Rights
A conference held soon after the Sydney Olympics in 2000 has seen the emergence of several initiatives which aim to use sports as a way of educating about human rights. AFL followers will have been aware of the League’s programs to support indigenous players and communities and to stamp out lingering elements of racism and include players from other cultures.

  • Research the story of either an indigenous or an immigrant player of any sport showing how participation in a sport has led to a sense of belonging and acceptance.

How does sport help people overcome social barriers?
One of Australian football’s best columnists is Martin Flanagan. His piece on his mate Khec from Laos shows that footy is capable of drawing in immigrant Australians even if, like most locals, they don’t have super skills. A story about a local Peace Team displays the really positive effects that playing together can have in bringing together people from very different backgrounds. While yet another piece captures aspects of a day at the footy at the MCG that shows what a deeply human, and even a deeply spiritual experience it can be.

  • What are your students’ stories of positive human experiences while playing or watching sports? Invite them to express these stories creatively in words, pictures, multimedia and display them at school or in the local or parish community.
  • How is a sense of belonging in a sports team also an experience of God?

It’s not all good news…...
While there is lots of evidence for the positive effects of sports there is also plenty of room for questions. What about the violence that simmers below the surface of many sports? What about the impact of nationalism and politics in sporting encounters? When these two impulses come together outbursts like the Blood in the Water polo game in Melbourne Olympics in 1956 can happen. Doping and drugs conspire against any semblance of fairness. Sports contests can lead to fighting among fans, vicious rivalries provide stimulus for rioting and sometimes result in loss of life, for example at Heysel Stadium (audio) in Belgium where 39 were killed and 350 injured after rival groups of football fans charged each other.

  • The shocked radio broadcaster reporting as the Heysel disaster unfolded said ‘This is nothing to do with sport. This is violence; this is death’. Why might such a riot happen? If it is true that it is nothing to do with sport, what is it to do with?
  • On a less drastic note, do sports, especially team sports, marginalise and exclude the less talented? Even in school and local sports teams, discrimination and rivalry can mean that individuals can easily be targets of teasing, ridicule or scorn if they can’t make the grade or are perceived to be letting the team down. What other options for exercise and experiencing ‘being part of the team’ are available for kids in your school or community who are not all that good at ‘popular’ or team sports?

Are sporting figures heroes?

Brainstorm the notion of heroism. Should sporting heroes be ‘good’ people? Can you be a ‘hero’ if you are not?

There has been lots of debate over this question over the years, especially recently when intense media attention to the private lives of sporting celebrities reveals behaviour and character flaws that may have escaped attention in times past. Everyone is well aware that some sports stars excel at their chosen sport but are less than admirable in the way that they lead their lives away from the playing field.

What does it mean to bring a game into disrepute? Some sporting clubs and organisations discipline players for off-field misbehaviour, others are willing to turn a blind eye especially if a player is particularly gifted.

  • Is it clearly true that sports people are not ‘heroes’? Is it false? Somewhere in between? (You need to agree on the notion of what constitutes heroism first).
  • What makes it difficult to decide?
  • Does it matter if sportsmen and women are not heroic or not ‘good role models’ for young people? Explain your point of view.
  • How does the press treat troubled sports figures who, in their personal lives, cannot live up to their fame? Is this fair? What would be a genuinely Christian response to sports persons in difficulties like Ben Cousins, Brendan Fevola, Marie Perec, Liam Jurrah, Daniel Koum?

Great sportsmen and women

Fortunately there are numberless examples of sports men and women who have behaved in an exemplary way regardless of temptations to do otherwise. The National Sports Museum at the MCG contains many of these stories. Some stories online that are worth a look are:

  • Lutz Long and Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; John Landy and Ron Clarke at the Australian National Championships in 1956 (a tribute to Landy sees his action in this race as an image of a life well lived: ‘we shouldn’t be so concerned with the position in which we finish, nor how we compare with others, but in how we run our race—how well we serve others in our community, our country and, especially, how we help those who fall’)
  • the story of Eric Liddell, the Chariots of Fire athlete
  • a women’s softball team in the US (report also on Youtube)
  • the Irish football fans who resolved their disappointment by singing to their beaten team in Gdansk
  • some Spanish kids who play for the sheer fun of it
  • the words of Rafael Nadal after his defeat in the final marathon match of the Australian Open 2011, and
  • any of the stories of good sportsmanship on this site.

And of course, it’s not just players who can be ‘good sports‘. What is it about the actions of these people that make them so admirable? What parallels are there between the actions and words of these sports men and women and the teaching and example of Jesus?

However, the imperative to win at all costs sometimes leads to questionable behaviour among sports people. This is sometimes referred to as ‘gamesmanship’. A US student’s college paper explores the contrast between sportsmanship and gamesmanship which he describes as manipulating the rules to one’s own (or one’s team’s) advantage. The student makes the point that this approach to play is much more prevalent now even in the way coaches go about preparing their teams. Sledging, play acting and not admitting infringements that go unnoticed by umpires are examples of gamesmanship.

  • Is breaking the rules in sport OK if you are not caught? Should the onus be on the individual or the umpire to decide?
  • Adam Gilchrist was both praised and criticised for ‘walking’ after he knew he was out in a cricket match even though the umpire did not give him out. What should he have done?

‘Winning at all costs’: the ethics of sport

We have all heard the saying ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the way you play the game that matters’ but increasingly the reverse seems to be true as sport becomes more professional and even supporters demand success or else. Even in underage, school and local sport, the emphasis on winning produces the ‘ugly parent’ syndrome, pressure not to play if you are not too good among young people and blame and recriminations when players make mistakes during a game.

A basic outline of the concept of fair and unfair play is provided on the BBC Ethics site but the issues are more complex than this especially in top level sport where factors like huge amounts of money, national prestige and politics are involved.

  • Is ‘fairness’ a particularly Christian concept? Why do you agree or disagree? (Senior students might take a critical look at this article which takes a look at the concept of fairness in relation to Scripture).
  • Invite students to assume different international identities: e.g. Afghani girl, Australian TAFE student, Congolese soldier, Hawaiian teenager, wealthy Indian boy, French uni student and so on, and then use the True for Who? thinking routine to explore this proposition:‘Sport is played on a level playing field: everyone has an equal chance’.
    (You could narrow the focus to just the Australian scene to make it more manageable or accessible to the class.)
  • If fairness is virtually impossible to achieve should events like the Olympic Games be abandoned? Students retain their international ‘identities’ from the previous discussion point and discuss this question.

Refreshingly, sometimes it is sheer willingness to take part rather than elaborate training, expert coaching or state of the art equipment that makes an impact in sport. So it was at the summer Olympics in Sydney 2000 when Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea swam a lone 100 metres heat in almost twice the time of the eventual Gold medal winner but was hailed for his brave effort – it was actually the first time he had ever swum 100 metres.

  • The Olympics are an elite event. Should Moussambani have been allowed to compete? And if so, why not anyone who wishes to?

Violence and drugs

Violence in Sport
In 1985 Leigh Matthews of Hawthorn Football Club was charged with assault after he king hit Neville Bruns of Geelong, breaking his jaw. While he was not reported by the umpire at the time, both the League and the police took action after the match. This raised much debate about whether or not the only authority on the sports arena should be the umpire or referee.

Drug use
A BBC Ethics site introduces a discussion on drugs by outlining the ‘body modification’ which is a routine part of any athlete’s life while another puts the arguments against drug use. Australian Craig Fry controversially uses the difficulty in establishing a ‘level playing field’ as the basis for a call to ‘bring truth into play’ by ‘ending the ban on drugs’.

  • Is it ever right for a sportsperson or organisation to risk the health of athletes simply to win a game or a competition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it is not: The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. #2291 CCC. The difficulty these days is defining what is therapeutic.
  • What are the three main points Craig Fry makes in relation to the use of drugs in sport. How might Pope Benedict respond to the points Craig Fry makes? How do you?

‘Faster, higher, stronger’: Sport and the search for God

Sport as an experience of transcendence

You’re actually inside the surfboard… inside the landscape around you and the ocean as it’s surging, you get totally inside the moment that it disappears, you disappear’ (Nick Carroll).

Surfers and runners often offer reflections on their sports which show that their sports have the capacity to move them beyond self towards a genuinely contemplative experience. While surfing and road running are not usually part of the action on the MCG, the same sense of exaltation and euphoria are experienced from time to time by both players and spectators when a beautiful piece of play is capped by a goal or someone hits a sublime six. Every sport has those moments of ecstasy when persons, movements and actions synchronise to produce a great moment. In themselves these moments are fleeting but they point to the human capacity for glory and for God. The Olympic motto itself: ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ expresses the insatiable human longing for more; a longing that is only fully met in God. As St Augustine said long ago: ‘You have made us for yourself O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in You’.

  • What peak sports experiences have you had or shared in, either individually or as a team?

Sport as ritual

Sport also has a strong ritual dimension and like religious ritual, one of its most important characteristics is its separation from ordinary life. It enables people to live for a while in a different dimension. Perhaps this ability to lift people, at least temporarily, into a different sphere is one reason why sport has the capacity to inspire, encourage and enable people to cope with terrible experiences: war, imprisonment, devastation, confusion, poverty and so on.

  • Find stories on the internet or in the press that show people using sport and recreation as a way of transcending difficulties in their lives.

Finding God in all things – even at the Footy?

Sometimes people have thought that to find God it is necessary to leave the world, and all its activities and distractions, behind but others, including St Ignatius of Loyola, suggest rather a way of ‘finding God in all things’: not alongside things, nor behind things, nor above things but ‘in’ things.

Bob Murphy is a well-known and popular AFL footballer and columnist. In a brief article describing his experience co-coaching the Rockdogs, a community footy team, he uses words with religious connotations such as ‘sacrament’, ‘heart and soul’, ‘ritual’, ‘spirit’ to describe aspects of the experience of coming together as a team and playing a game. During a practice match, the other ‘coach’, singer Paul Kelly, delivers a beautiful pass to him. He comments simply ‘Sometimes football can sing’ and goes home, his worries gone and his spirits lifted.

  • Is Bob’s religious terminology appropriate to his experience at the footy ground?
  • Is being lifted beyond self always an experience of God whether we name God or not?
  • Is Bob’s experience of team spirit and playing the game and the unity and ‘love’ that is engendered by it as real an experience of God as an experience of God in prayer for example?
  • Describe a moment of finding God in watching or playing sport that you have experienced.

Is Sport a religion then?

In its Western origins in the Greco Roman world, sport did fulfil a kind of religious role because it was assumed that the gods would be well pleased and entertained by athletic feats and combats performed in their honour. Feasts of the gods were marked by athletic festivals and games and rituals developed around them. But as Christianity established itself, sport lost its religious connotations, in the West at least, and became simply a healthy pastime.

Baron de Courbertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, originally envisaged the Olympic Games as a kind of secular religion which would bring the peoples of the world together but more and more the Olympic movement is compromised by politics, national rivalries, money and business and a preoccupation with winning. Few would regard it as a religion, secular or otherwise, despite the ceremonial that surrounds the Games themselves.

Parallels between Sport and Religion

Nevertheless, people often comment on parallels between the passionate support of a sports team and religious commitment and on the way both contribute to formation of identity and to a sense of community. Football – the New Religion? examines this phenomenon by looking at the role of football (soccer in this case, but other sports fans will get the point) in ‘binding’ people together. The word religion comes from the Latin word ‘religare’ to bind. The Barcelona Soccer Club calls soccer a civil religion a title that could apply equally well to Australian Football, here in Melbourne at least. As we have seen, sport certainly shares with religious practice an element of ritual and often evokes a passion comparable to the passion of religious devotees.

  • Choose a sport and identify some of the rituals that surround and support it.
  • What is the purpose of these rituals and what effect do they have on participants and spectators?
  • Some rituals almost supersede the sports themselves. For example, many people say that they will watch the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games but not bother so much over individual events. What is going on here?
  • In an increasingly secular world how is it that sport has become so ‘religious’?

However, it would be far more accurate to say that sport mirrors aspects of religion than to claim that sport, in itself, is a religion. Sport lacks the ultimate meaning and significance that are associated with religious faith, ‘sport per se, cannot tell us where we came from, where we are going, nor how we are to behave while here’. Moreover religion binds humans not just to one another or to a team but to a transcendent reality. Its writer aims ‘to show that sport in the modern West can reflect religious motives and/or take place in a religious context, but that this is highly subjective, and by no means allows sport to be considered as religion’.

Some prayers around a sports theme

One site suggesting prayer suitable for use in reflecting on Sport and the Olympics is the Barnabas site, a document that includes selections from Scripture, psalms and composed prayers which could be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. Most of the prayers and scriptural selections could be adapted for use in any other sports context. More general sports prayers may be found here.