The thing we all get wrong about sport
The thing we all get wrong about sport

Yesterday's scroll through the BBC Sport app showed a familiar and sad theme.

James ‘not in good place’ after ‘disgusting’ abuse

Racing chiefs ‘sorry’ over bullying reports

‘Inhumane’ - Turkish referee punched by club president

What is going on in our culture that makes us think it is okay to abuse people? Whether to their face or online?

If you spend even 2 minutes on X (formerly Twitter) or scroll through comments on Instagram, you can see why so many sports stars have to leave the management of their accounts to others. Lauren James getting racist and misogynistic abuse following a red card for Chelsea is just the latest in stories like this.

If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks, you’ll have also read countless articles about referee abuse, whether Erling Haaland yelling in the face of a referee (who has now admitted he made a mistake) or the story coming out of Turkey where they have now had to shut their league down with local referees refusing to take to the field.

So, what is going on?

It’s a story as old as time itself.

“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Romans 1:22

We’ve raised sports stars to be superhuman, godlike people who we expect to be infallible in every aspect of their lives. So, whenever they fail us, we feel entitled to hurl abuse.

"What I went through was so extreme, the whole country hated me. Hated me.”

So said David Beckham in his recent documentary reflecting on the aftermath of his red card.

"It changed my life. I felt very vulnerable and alone. Wherever I went I got abuse every single day... It took a toll on me that I never even knew myself. People look at you in a certain way, spit at you, abuse you, come up to your face and say some of the things that they said. That was difficult."

It is challenging to listen to this and not feel ashamed of a culture where this does not surprise us, where this is a daily occurrence for elite athletes of any level in the public eye.

Then we’ve made the same move with referees. We expect total justice and perfect decision-making from referees. It doesn’t matter if we’ve made ten mistakes in a game; we expect perfection from imperfect humans like us.

It’s why VAR so infuriates football fans. It seems to promise perfect decisions whilst failing to consider that fallible humans are still ultimately in charge of most of the decisions. VAR simply emphasises this and reminds us of our fallibility.

Another recent way this has been seen is in the commentary around players giving up the sport or withdrawing from games for rest. The England captain, Owen Farrell, has stepped down from England duty in the upcoming Six Nations “to prioritise his and his family’s well-being.”

Team-mate Kyle Sinker feels this is just the start of this in rugby, saying:

“If you look at the workload the players go through, especially the international players, guys have been in [World Cup] camp for five months, get a week’s rest, and then come back in and playing week-in and week-out.”

We expect our players to be tireless. We expect them not to need rest. We forget they are human.

Tennis player Nick Kyrgios just yesterday said he is tired of playing tennis and ready to quit, and footballers could say the same around this Christmas season. Sinckler noted, “Professional sport is a pressure cooker”, and it seems it is about to burst.

This Christmas, we remember God coming as “good news, of great joy, for all people.” All people, including those exceptionally gifted at sport, are made equally in the image of God.

And that’s the key. They are not gods but ones made in his image.

When we forget this, we forget to look in the mirror when we see wrong behaviour, poor decisions and tired bodies. We fail to remember they are humans just like us.

This Christmas, we also remember God becoming man and choosing to feel the same frailties we physically feel. God decided to come to earth and receive unfair abuse, limit himself and feel tiredness and pain because of his love for us. Because of our sin, because of our weakness, he became weak and powerless himself, in the form of a child who came to earth ultimately to die.

May we show grace and kindness to our fellow image-bearers this Christmas, and may we delight in the one who became weak so that we may become strong.

Jonny Reid

Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.

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