Making a religion out of sport?

Making a religion out of sport? Vigorous play in Victorian times.
Religion & the Rise of Sport in England by Hugh McLeod (Oxford University Press, €34.00/£30.00)

Prior to the World Cup which opened in Qatar on Sunday, letter which FIFA has sent to all 32 countries taking part asking them to “focus on the football” in Qatar rather than “every ideological and political battle that exists”, has been criticised by several recipients, in the face of the excesses of the host country in the field of human rights and employment.

FIFA wants football to be a value free zone, it seems. But no human action is value free. FIFA’s attitude is certainly in contrast to the opinions of some of those who promoted sport in the late 19th Century, and its role in religion.

Late Victorian attitudes are at the heart of this new book by a well-known English historian of Christianity. Here in Ireland we are only too well aware of the social, moral and political entanglements of sport, as between “traditional games” and the playing of rugby and cricket, and the social implications of these.

This book deals with England, however, and not with Great Britain; and certainly not with the Celtic fringe, though Dr McLeod folds the football teams of industrial Scotland into his idea of “England”, so Celtic and Rangers and what these represent do find a place, but not the meaning of Liverpool or Manchester in Ireland.

Professor McLeod is now emeritus professor of Church History at Birmingham University and a reputed ecclesiastical historian. Attention is focused not so much on national identity and politics as might be the case here, but on an evangelical enthusiasm for a sport that developed in the later 19th Century, say from Arnold’s Rugby to the decade before the Great War, which certainly has its own strong unity of culture.

Though there were professionals, in cricket for example – Clongowes employed one every summer back in the late Victorian era – and the first commercial football teams emerged at this time, the period is suffused with the ideal of amateur love of sport, “play up and play the game”. A public figure such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw in amateur sport the moral integrity that would be the saving of the nation.

Others, however, saw the question from the point of “Christian manliness” promoted by Charles Kingsley (who was the especial opponent of John Henry Newman, whose loose claim that the Catholic clergy had no moral integrity prompted the writing of Apologia Pro Vita Sua). The East End vicar teaching his boys the art of boxing, the ideal of the Gospel message reduced to a violent purpose which Jesus might well not have approved of.

This is an excellent book, but limited by seeing the subject in the British Isles from an English perspective, and from an largely Anglican and chapel point of view.

Yet it was a complicated situation, and perhaps this wide-ranging survey of the literatures will encourage other historians to investigate further on an even wider scale. In Ireland for example what contrasts can be found say between Tralee, Cork, Dublin and Belfast in this matter of sport.

But back then the love of amateur sport was very strong, especially Rugby Union. How different it is today. The whole of sport has been transformed; it is not for playing so much as to watch from the sofa. Global television connections allow a select number of teams largely in Europe and South America to dominate, and to receive huge fees from the television systems.

Emma Raducanu is certainly a talented and amazing tennis player, and yet the media latch not so much on to her skill as her future earnings, her changing dress styles and her expensive new car. As some people become poorer and poorer, they are entertained by circuses (at a cost). But there is real bread only for a very few.

Peace time

What we think of as sport began at the end of the Middle Ages as activities that in peace time trained for war: riding, archery, boxing wrestling, rowing. Games are still in a great way an alternative to war, though from time to time they have caused war, but not always with a Christian spirit.

McLeod could profitably have discussed a figure like Conan Doyle, on the secular benefits of purely amateur sport, an uncomplicated love of “the game” which prepared youth for the Great Game of Imperialism.

Or again, Rudyard Kipling, especially in Stalkey & Co., that all so revealing book of school life at a college run not as a public school, but a limited liability company that prepared boys for the army or the Indian civil service. His three main characters take different views, M’Turk the Irish boy is keen on fox hunting back in the west of Ireland; all three like shooting, but not cricket.

They also loath professional patriots (“yellow-bellied flag-flappers”), not one of them has a Christian thought in his head (see the story entitled The Moral Reformers).

For Conan Doyle and Kipling sport was about a form of male comradeship, perhaps influenced by Free Masonry, not by any ideas of an ideal Jesus. More or less what FIFA believes today.

I suspect that the actual picture of what sport meant to the British ruling classes over the last three centuries is far more complicated than Professor McLeod suggests. Imperialism, with all the complications that entails, permeated it.