March Madness. The Masters in April. The Champions League in May. The NBA playoffs in June. The Olympics in July. We’re bombarded with popular sporting events to watch in the coming months, offering us a wealth of opportunities to consider the connection between sport and character even in COVID constraints. What does it mean to be a Christian sportsperson? How does a Christian sports fan behave? There must be some demonstration of Christian virtue, right? These broad questions have surprisingly complex, often contradictory, and even elusive answers. But they’re questions I know I need to ask in my sport studies classes. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I took a few students to England a couple of years ago to present research in this area. We also got a chance to do some “field observation” at an English Premier League soccer game (football match, actually). My students were red-blooded American sports fans, following football, basketball, and baseball. Soccer? Not so much. This fixture offered a rich cultural juxtaposition, far different from their normal sporting expectations. We watched the Tottenham Hotspurs host Crystal Palace—a London derby (local rivalry game)—in the season opener.
We looked for evidence of the fruits of the spirit: those nine virtues so rarely featured in the high-stakes world of big-time sport. Much to our surprise, we found these virtues in abundance before the match started. Fans entered the stadium peacefully, excited about the season and the thrills it would doubtlessly produce. In our seating area, season ticketholders greeted each other with love as long-lost friends. In most cases, they hadn’t seen each other since the previous season’s last home match a few months prior. The fans also seemed joyful at returning to their beloved house of soccer worship.
The fans showed kindness as the players entered the pitch for their pre-match warm-ups. Tottenham came out to polite yet excitable cheering. Crystal Palace received much quieter cheers, mostly from the corner of the stands where their fans sat. The Spurs fans cheered politely for one of their former players who transferred to Palace. This seemed like a touch of gentleness toward the opposition, underdogs as they were.
The game started quite fruitfully, too. Tottenham made a quick run to goal from the opening kick that, despite the shot being off-target, was met with the kind of focused and ardent applause—self-control—we would’ve expected at more posh sporting venues like Wimbledon or St. Andrews. Well into the first half, we were shocked at all the display of virtue. This was not what we had anticipated. We expected hooliganism, crazy fans, and heinous behaviors. But this? This was good, virtuous, and fruitful—a Platonic example of the “beautiful game.”
But slowly the virtue melted away. An increasing number of failed Spurs’ attacks seemed to test the patience of the Tottenham faithful. The second half started “nil-nil” and the Spurs’ scoring attempts continually foundered. The retired “bobby” sitting next to me shared that even he would’ve scored by now. Complaints, jeers, and name-calling replaced the polite and focused applause we heard early in the game. The Tottenham faithful became less so. As the score remained 0-0 the fan behavior seemed to reveal less and less goodness. Hope emerged immediately every time a Spur made a run toward Palace’s goal. Yet every time the attack miscarried, the faithful oozed iniquity. The bobby next to me, friends as we had become, condensed his vocabulary in an effort to help his team. His once bountiful British lexis now consisted of less creative adjectives and adverbs: many only included four letters. He was calling out the Spurs on their most egregious of sins: not playing up to the fans’ standards.
The Crystal Palace goalkeeper began engaging in stall tactics, happy for his team to end the match in a draw against this far superior opponent. The Tottenham faithful lost their patience as the goalkeeper preceded every free-kick with numerous resettings of the ball, trying to make sure it laid perfectly on just the right blade of grass. And his teammates followed suit. Every tackle on the ball sent a Palace player to the ground as if he’d been shot in the leg, writhing in pain but with one eye on the ticking clock. After medical attention, the player would jump up, good as new. The underdogs trifled. The faithful sinned.
The fan behavior became more passionate, more intense, and less fruitful. But all of a sudden, with the clock running down, the Spurs scored, blowing the top off the stadium. In the crowd’s euphoria, we glimpsed heaven. Everything—and I mean everything—changed. Fans hugged, smiled, and the collective blood pressure dropped dramatically back to normal levels. All seemed right in the world. From that moment until the final whistle, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control returned in abundance. The Spurs won. The Spurs’ fans won. WE won.
Once we left the stadium, my students’ reflective floodgates burst open. They couldn’t stop talking about the experience that they described as magnificent and profound. We could’ve spent an entire semester unpacking it. As outsiders, we had been in the crowd but not of the crowd, allowing us to pass judgment on this impressive foreign display. We eventually agreed that it wasn’t altogether different from what we regularly experience stateside. The cultural differences, however, gave us a fresh perspective to better understand our own complicity in sporting behavior, for better and for worse.
I’ve learned a great deal on this topic from peers who teach at the intersection of sport and faith. Matt Hoven, associate professor of sport and religion at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, teaches through experience just like I did, asking his students to attend athletic events and reflect on their own experiences before considering normative elements of sport and character. He also asks his students to analyze public testimonials from prominent athletes. Kristin Sheehan, program director of Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion Today initiative, casts her programmatic vision through the lens of the four cardinal virtues. This ideology offers a standard and well-known theoretical frame from which to analyze and encourage practical Christian behavior. Andy Meyer, associate professor of sport foundations at Baylor, starts his course units on sport and character with muscular Christian ideals, using that historical lens to contextualize current Christian morality and sport. He lets his students choose the moral virtues they want to prioritize, and they reward him with fruitful discussions. Landon Huffman, associate professor of sport and fitness leadership at Johnson University, explores the idea of bracketed morality in sport. Does sport occur within its separate sphere of morality? If so, what does this mean for normative behavior? He considers with his students whether bracketed morality conflicts with the paradigm of faith integration.
Questions of sport and character don’t have easy answers. So many elements of the sport-Christianity relationship beg for deep conversations. That’s why Brian Bolt of Calvin University and I started SPORT. FAITH. LIFE. to feature the work that so many of our esteemed colleagues are doing at the intersection of sport and faith. How to do sport right is a question that requires a community of voices to answer together. The conversations we’re having with our peers are deeply rewarding. We’re humbled at the great work and filled with joy in the experiences. We hope these conversations bear fruit as we discuss complex issues at the intersection of sport and faith.