"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…it is war minus the shooting."
When Neil Back (illegally) put his hand into the scrum in the 2002 Heineken Cup Final to help his side win the ball and the game, he spoke of doing 'whatever it takes' to win.
I was interviewed on BBC Five-Live's Drive programme on the Monday after the game. Also interviewed was former England international, Brian Moore, who said that you could play fair but you would lose. He argued that if you want to win Rugby matches against Australia, South Africa etc you had to do what it took. What price fair-play?
The famous American football coach, Vince Lombardi once said "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing." The issue is not how you win but IF you win.
And it isn't just at the professional level. More weekends I act as assistant referee (linesman) for my teenage son's football team. The system is a neutral referee and each club providing a linesman. In a recent game the opposition goalkeeper handled the ball outside the penalty area (to stop a probable goal). The referee was not up with play but the other linesman, who had a clear view of the incident, did not flag. The correct decision would have been a free-kick to the attacking team and a red card for the goalkeeper.
After the game, in the presence of the referee, I asked the linesman, 'Did your goalkeeper handle the ball outside the penalty area?' He replied, 'Yes'. I asked why he had not done his duty and flagged to alert the referee. He replied, 'What, and get my goalkeeper sent off?'
What price fair-play?
On the other hand there was that wonderful moment last season, when Paulo di Canio of West Ham United caught the ball rather than try to score, when the Everton goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard, was lying on the ground injured. Perhaps sportsmanship is not dead!
Defining 'fair-play' is not easy. Concepts like 'sportsmanship' or 'playing the game' come to mind. The aim is to provide a fair contest, where both teams are playing to the same rules and which is being officiated in an unbiased and competent manner. Perhaps the highest motivation for fair play is respect for the game. The game will be better if everyone.
A document produced by the Central Council for Physical Recreation listed six principles for competitors as follows (my summary)
- Abide by the laws and the spirit of your sport
- Accept decisions of the officials without question or protest
- Do not cheat
- Exercise self-control
- Accept victory and defeat with good grace
- Treat opponents and teammates with respect
Approaching sport from a Christian viewpoint, these six points are a good starting point. However, Jesus commands us to 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' (Matthew 22:39) and to 'do to others what you would have them do to you' (Matthew 7:12).
We are to treat our opponents as we would like to be treated ourselves. Applying that in competitive sport is a radical concept. If we see our opponent, not as our enemy but as our neighbour, and moreover a neighbour whom Jesus tells us to love as ourselves, it certainly affects our attitude to the opponent. We treat our opponent with respect. We play hard but do not seek an unfair advantage. Our aim is to honour God. That is our motivation - not greed, aggression, selfishness, etc. It is the 'What Would Jesus Do?' philosophy applied to competitive sport.
For Christian sportspeople, living our life by the Golden Rule is our purpose in sport - as in all other aspects of life. Winning and losing are by-products, not the main thing. This is not to say that winning or losing is unimportant. Christians do not have to be lovable losers.
However if you cannot compete in a spirit of loving your neighbour, then I would suggest that as a Christian, you cannot compete at all.
This article first appeared in Plain Truth