In my first blog on this topic, I wrote about sport as a gift that brings joy, teaches discipline, team work and perseverance, and unites people from diverse backgrounds. While Scripture teaches that physical training is of temporary value, the lessons we can learn from it are eternal, which is why the Bible employs sporting imagery on numerous occasions to describe life as a Christian.
But before we go too far in seeing sport as the source of all good, Scripture also views sport as a gamble. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon is at his philosophical best when he describes sport's ability to break our hearts, lose us money, jinx us and just generally confound us. "The race is not to the swift nor the fight to the strong...but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecc 9:11)
This verse describes the uncertainty of sport, and it's ability to destroy hopes, friendships, careers and fortunes when we place too much stock in it. Some have called it luck, others juju. Solomon calls it 'time and chance,' and he insists that it happens to us all. He is telling us that sport is one big crap shoot, to use an Americanism. From a Biblical point of view, we see that the strange bounce of the ball, a sudden gust of wind, the tearing of a normally healthy muscle, the popping of a usually strong knee, or the inexplicable loss of concentration of famously strong mind, can happen to the best in sport. This means that the fastest and strongest player or team on paper can curiously lose the game.
It may be what confounds and infuriates us, but it's also what we love about sports, and what keeps the betting industry afloat. The underdog can beat the champion with an against-all-odds-win.
If we were to name just a few of these famous wins in recent sporting history we might think of the Red Socks beating the Yankees in the 2004 World Series breaking their losing curse. Or maybe Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson at 42/1 odds to take the world heavyweight title. What about Liverpool's recovery of a 3-goal deficit against AC Milan to take the Campions League Final in 2005? And then there was that fateful day in Johannesburg that I mentioned in my previous blog, when the Springboks beat the All Blacks in the final of the Rugby World Cup. It was honestly a David against Goliath victory, and legend has it that the indomitable All-Blacks got food-poisoning from some suspect seafood in their hotel the day before. There were cries of conspiracy and sabotage, but whatever the case, it affirmed Solomon's claim. Time and chance happen to us all.
How does this inform our approach towards sport besides the excitement of underdog victories? It is simply this, that there is no such thing as a sure thing in sport. With this in mind we should treat all sport with a healthy measure of skepticism and a refusal to bank our futures or our souls on any sports result. When we understand sport's ability to thrill us one moment and devastate us the next, we will not entrust ourselves to it. It is a fickle lover. I have experienced this first hand as a sports fan, spending countless viewing hours during a season in the hopes of victory, only to see those hopes dashed in a few minutes as my team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. This leaves me with a hollow sense of wasted time. I have invested massive time and energy into something that is so fragile and unpredictable. How can my sense of well-being be tied so closely to a few burly men chasing an odd-shaped ball around a bumpy field?" And then a new season arrives and hope springs eternal. I am starting, biblically, to second guess my naive trust in sports. Nobody likes losing, but I am beginning to engage slightly more for the love of the game, than simply the sweet, but illusive taste of victory.
A little closer to home, I am second guessing the vain hope of spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on side-lines with the sole aim of seeing children winning a college scholarship through sport. If it happens, I'll be delighted but I'm not holding my breath. While I know of athletes who have received scholarships, I also know that the odds are very slim, and that the pressure to excel in the hopes of a scholarship or a league promotion can crush ours and our childrens' enjoyment of sport. When time and chance happen to our children, all the investment and encouragement in the world cannot make them immune to injury, loss of form, or just loss of interest in the sport of our choice. Just because you work harder doesn't mean you win, because sport remains at best, a risky investment and at worst, a reckless gamble.
Of course, no fan, player, coach or parent wants to lose. I am competitive by nature and I love the competitive nature of sport. But understanding that sport is a gamble should mean that we should never teach our kids to co-opt little proof-text verses from the Bible like 'If God be for us who can be against us,' or 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.' These are not verses about sport. They are about suffering for the Gospel. We cannot co-opt God as our sports mascot. After all, especially in OC where seemingly everyone is Christian, how bizarre to think that both teams are praying to Jesus to give them a win?
Maybe winning really means that we have gambled less on our childrens' sporting future and invested more in their spiritual future?