Ultimately, our games don’t really matter. And when it comes right down to it, whether you believe the deity or Big Bang started everything rolling, neither do we. Theologian Lincoln Harvey begins his interpretation of sport with this fact: that we are unnecessary in the cosmic scheme of things. But we do have meaning, and so do our games. That meaning is found in competition, in the pairing of winners and losers.

 

Saturday kickabout at Hackney Marshes (Mathew Wilson/Flickr)

Saturday kickabout on Hackney Marshes (Mathew Wilson/Flickr)

 

There is something special about sporting events. Whether we’re watching the Lakers at the Staples Center or playing amateur football on Hackney Marshes, a sporting occasion enables us to resonate with our most basic identity. That’s because sport is unnecessary and meaningful, and so are we.

Many of us enjoy sport because it breaks the seemingly endless chain of necessity we’re caught up in. We spend so much of our time having to do this, that or the other. Work, emails, meetings, and commuting, our eating, drinking and sleeping, each in its own way is essential. But not sport. Sport is an unnecessary activity. It’s for nothing. That’s why its critics don’t understand those of us who love it. It’s not as if there’s a product rolling out the factory gates, or a crop ripe and ready for harvest. That would justify it in their eyes. But no. A sporting event is completely unproductive. It is useless, unnecessary to the core.

This is not to say that sport is meaningless. Sports are never chaotic, lawless, or nihilistic. A game always has its own order, its own goal, its own point, so to speak. But the goal of the game is internal to the game, serving no larger purpose. The player shoots the ball towards the basket because that’s the point of the game. The striker heads the ball between the posts because that’s the goal. It is what gives the activity meaning. Sport, therefore, should be understood as an unnecessary but meaningful activity.

For Christians, the connection between the unnecessary but meaningful nature of sport and our own identity becomes clear when we consider the divine act of creation. The Church teaches that God created us out of nothing. This core teaching means that God was not compelled in any way to make us. He was not pushed around by anyone else because nothing else existed; he acted freely. Yet this free act of God was neither capricious nor haphazard. It was purposeful. God freely called us into existence for love. That is to say, we are on a trajectory out of nothingness into the fullness of life. Though we are unnecessary, we are genuinely meaningful.

Now, this theological insight allows us to imagine sporting events as a ritualised celebration of our meaningful non-necessity. Because a sport is itself an unnecessary but meaningful activity, it provides an arena in which we resonate with our deepest identity. And it is this insight that helps us understand why sport is intrinsically competitive.

Sports are a regulated form of physical play, which are specifically designed to produce both winners and losers. Of course, some sports can end up in frustrating ties or sterile dead-heats. But a balanced outcome is never the aim of the game. The players instead struggle to score more goals and gain more points, to run faster and jump higher than their opposition. At each and every moment – and also overall – the aim of the game is to win.

The competitive nature of sport provides a dynamic snapshot of our ontological profile. In sporting events, the winners face the wondrous life to which the Creator invites us, while the losers face the desolate emptiness of the nothingness from which we’ve all been summoned. Only together, in the dynamically tensed pairing of winning and losing, does the event celebrate our creaturely identity as those summoned into existence freely out of nothing. In sport, therefore, competition is good. If sport wasn’t competitive, it wouldn’t captivate us.

The competitive pairing of winning and losing also explains why we prefer close sporting contest to one-sided victories. The best games will always hang in the balance, sometimes right up until the end, being decided only by the last kick, the final throw, the photo finish. These games enable all the participants to be strung together between life and nothingness, with everyone being gripped by the fundamental question of our identity, to be or not to be.

This insight also explains why we don’t enjoy losing as much as we do winning. Though losing is vital to the event, winning is always better because – on account of God’s decision to create – the existence of the creature, rather than their non-existence, is what is judged to be good. In effect, the winners are momentarily aligned with God’s creative judgement in the ritualized event. And that is why we play to win – because the moment of victory resonates deeply with the creaturely logic of our ontological essence. So even if we know there is more to sport than victory, we will still seek it. And that applies just as much on Hackney Marshes as it does at the Staples Center. We all play to win. Any other approach is wrong.

 

Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College in London, and author of A Brief Theology of Sport. Lincoln is on Twitter at @LincolnHarvey.