For many, sport has become a sacred part of life in Australia and some would contest that it is better promoted, attended, and followed then most major religions. Sports spectating is not something that I enjoy; I’d prefer to have “skin in the game” than to watch others from the sidelines or my couch at home. I have no interest in studying the game, listening to commentaries, or reading the post-match reports. One could make the comparison between spectating sport and theology, questioning if all this analysis of God is really needed, let alone the various “codes” of faith and their “rule books”?
During high school my family moved to Victoria, I could have been forgiven for thinking that the dominant religion was AFL (footy) and like I was partaking in an interfaith dialogue — having moved from Queensland where NRL (Rugby League) was god. I have often contemplated the connection between religious and sporting affiliation. After all, it’s all sport, played for the love of competition personal and team success, but with varied rules and codes. You don’t hear of sporting codes going to war on each other (unless it’s about sponsorship deals) and people are generally happy to let others play their chosen sport, without judgement and scorn.
Conversion on the other hand, well that’s a different thing in Australia, especially when it comes to football. Having arrived in AFL-mad Victoria, all I heard about was footy, footy, and more footy. Even my parish priest talked about his adored Magpies from the pulpit, one of few things I can recall from his homilies. AFL football is on another level and so are the majority of people who follow it. They make their annual (sometimes weekly) pilgrimage to the holy turf, practice their rituals, adorn their living rooms with symbols (flags and posters), chant the team hymns, clad themselves in the team colors, wave banners – it reminds me of scenes from World Youth Day.
How has this phenomenon of sport mirroring religion developed in a society that is growing increasingly secular? These religious encounters can also be observed in other forms of emotionally high energy experiences, such as music concerts and art performances. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also remarked: “I can’t think of anything that can bring people together like football” (FIFA, 2006). Whilst community is at the heart of religion, sport falls short in binding humans to humans, rather than to a higher transcendent reality.
Many people participate in sport for the pure enjoyment, social atmosphere, physical contest, and personal challenge (spiritual nature), they are not interested in delving deeply into the rules, training regimes, sports science, and purchase of high-end gear to make them better sports people (religious practice). The movement towards “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has been well documented (particularly by the media) but studies like Ammerman (2013) point to a shift where “sacred consciousness” — is far more fluid than has previously been understood. Her findings suggest that there are few people who actually practice SBNR and those who make the distinction, actually do neither.
When travelling throughout the Holy Land, I was seated next to a guy from a southern state and one of the first questions he asked was, “Who’s your footy team?” I explained that I had tried watching half a game of AFL and lived through three years of unsuccessful indoctrination. Needless to say, my honesty quickly put a dampener on the conversation. I felt like a bit of a religious nerd at that point and had been keen to discuss something religious or spiritual about the pilgrimage, but felt the opportunity was missed through a breakdown of small talk about footy. I wondered if this was how atheists feel when they are approached by evangelists.
I didn’t have anything against this guy, he seemed like a top bloke and I’d have loved to have talked to him about anything (besides AFL) but it just seemed a bit pointless. By the end of the trip I had started to question if I had genuinely missed out on something important in life, because I didn’t participate in footy tipping, had no desire to constantly check the scores, and couldn’t care less if a star player was injured or suspended on drug charges. Put simply, sports fandom hasn’t been part of my upbringing and despite the constant barrage by social media to buy tickets, place a bet, or purchase club membership, I have no interest in becoming a late convert to sport fanaticism.
As my children grow up, my wife and I are realizing how much influence we have on them and the importance of allowing them freedom to make their own informed choices. This has been played out through sports and other hobbies that we have introduced or they have pleaded to take part in. I still don’t understand Pokémon very well but have enjoyed watching my older two sons play soccer for the past few years. Next year, my second-eldest wants to drop soccer and take up tennis, and this year neither boy wanted to play cricket (a game I love) and admitted to trying it out last season only because they knew I had played it as a teenager.
Unlike parents who live out unfulfilled dreams of sporting and cultural success through their children, I’m aware of the possibility that my children’s experience of faith formation does not become about meeting my needs as the adult. Of course I’d love to see my children active and committed in their faith as young adults and passing on the faith to their own children. Frank Mercadante suggests the role of parents is to help plant the seeds, water them, allow others to “work the land” at school, youth group, friendships, and extended families (1998). It is clear that we are not going to be the only coaches and influencers in lives of our children. We hope that the seeds are planted by witnessing our faith to our children through actions and words, celebrating faith with joy, sharing what we know (when the questions are asked) and seeking answers together.
Whilst deriving enjoyment from theological discussions, I have no intention of sitting on the sidelines of religion and life, commentating from a distance. I want to live in the game. It is unlikely that my grandchildren will remember me as a passionate sporting fan, but maybe they will glimpse something of my passion for God, serving others, and care for my family and friends.
Copyright 2020 Nathan Ahearne