Editor’s note: To help Christian sportspeople navigate these uncertain times, we will be publishing a series of posts focused on what it looks like to “Run The Race Well” in a time of coronavirus and quarantine. We will be getting contributions from a variety of perspectives: theologians, philosophers, athletes, coaches, mental health professionals, seminary students, and more. This post comes from British theologian Robert Ellis.
For fans of Liverpool FC, the wait is agonising. This great club have been English champions no fewer than eighteen times. But Liverpool have not won the English championship since 1990 and in that time their great rivals at Manchester United have won it no fewer than thirteen times, overtaking Liverpool’s place as the most successful English team in league competitions. This season Liverpool’s team has been in extraordinary form and has a big lead in the Premier League table. They are already mathematically beyond the reach of everyone except the team placed second. In theory Manchester City could catch them, but no one expects that to happen, not even the most ardent City supporter.
And then the virus hit.
All soccer is suspended. No one knows what will happen. The difficulty with declaring the current positions as final is that the teams at the other end of the league, fighting off relegation, will claim that they are greatly disadvantaged by such a decision. Some say the season will be abandoned. For Liverpool, the wait could go on. And what chances of another season as dominant as this?
Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, has used a phrase that’s been in circulation for some time and which a number are repeating at the moment. No one knows who first coined this phrase—Everton’s Carol Ancelotti has been named as a possible source, but then so has Pope John Paul II.
This is how Klopp actually put it: “I don’t think this is a moment where the thoughts of a football manager should be important, but … First and foremost, we have to do what we can to protect one another. In society, I mean. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things, and today football and football matches really aren’t important at all.”
Klopp, himself a Christian, has a gift sometimes in short supply among those of us caught in sport’s allure: perspective, keeping things in proportion. Loving things appropriately, we might say.
One of the church’s great theologians, Augustine of Hippo, died about 1600 years ago. But he nailed this one. Augustine thought that sin was disordered love—we love the wrong things, or we love the right things but in a wrong (disordered) way. While we can love all sorts of things—starting with God, our neighbours, and ourselves—we need to learn to love them properly, Christianly. Augustine went further, suggesting that if we want to know whether somebody is a good person, we should not be asking what they believe, but what they love. And, I suppose, how they love.
It’s good to love sport. But in the final analysis, we should love sport in ways that reflect its true place. It is (one of) the most important of the unimportant things. Jürgen Klopp knows that. I hope that Liverpool fans come to see it. As we endure a sportless spring in the northern hemisphere we will learn it too.
About the author: Rob Ellis is a theologian and Principal for Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford. His groundbreaking 2014 book on sports and theology, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport, is the go-to book on the subject. Rob has also served in an informal role as an advisor offering guidance and support to the Faith & Sport Institute Retreat.