Sportsmanship, tradition and grace

Zinedine Zidane’s moment of madness, along with other disciplinary issues from the World Cup, prompt some interesting thoughts from Conrad Gempf. “What a shame to end your tournament on such a disgrace”, observes Gempf, before commenting:

Dis-grace. Interesting word.

But the World Cup wasn’t solely defined by yellow cards and red cards, and Gempf says that he “saw moments of good sportsmanship in both the Wimbledon and World Cup finals”:

What interests me is that they were not moments of spontaneity and self-expression, but moments of selves yielding to tradition.

For example, in the Wimbledon Men’s Final, at one point Nadal followed tennis tradition by apologising to Federer after winning a point through “dumb luck”:

One commentator said to the other, “I wonder if he means that.” The other replied “He’s a good enough sport that he just might.” One of my mentors, Tom Howard, would have loved this as an example of a point he never tired of making – tradition can be the ally not the enemy of the Christian.

Whether Nadal’s apology was heart-felt or not, I can’t tell, but it seems clear to me that, left to my own devices in that situation, I would celebrate. But by having a tradition to follow, I’m offered a chance to temper my selfish self-expression and acknowledge the other. When I am tempted to merely act “normally,” thankfully tradition beckons me to act with “grace.” And gives me an opportunity to feel it and mean it as well.

Similarly, in football:

…even two teams that seem otherwise intent on injuring each other will often obey the tradition that when a player on the other team is down and hurt, you don’t press the advantage that that gives you, but instead you deliberately give up possession and kick the ball out of play, trusting (what outrageous faith, in the circumstances!) that the other team will give it back later.

This unwritten script, this football liturgy, is an example that Luther would have loved. The Laws of the game make no provision for such stoppages in play, but Grace has found a way. And, apparently, even the players who love to hog the ball have learned that This is what players are Supposed To Do in this situation and are coaxed into doing a good that is beyond their own self-interest, and beyond the letter of the law.

Even insincerely-followed tradition can be better than unrestrained self-expression:

If you think there’s a problem that players are only grudgingly kicking the ball out of play or are insincere in their apologies, the answer is probably not to abolish the traditions and let the players find ways of expressing themselves more authentically. Not unless you’re a fan of head-butting. Instead, in sports and in ecclesiology, I think we want to reinforce traditions that still have the power to suggest or beckon me to think outside the law, outside my self-interest and self-expression and toward the opposite of dis-grace – toward grace.

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