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From the Editor’s Desk

This Sporting Life

Now that the season has ended in the only two football codes that really matter (AFL and NRL) it is possible to comment on the role of sport in our culture without inviting arguments about its place in our personal lives. You will often hear it argued that more Australians attend religious services on weekends than attend sporting events and yet our newspapers lionize the latter and all but ignore the former. You will even heard it said that sport seems to be our “true” religion in this country – something that would seem to confirm Pope Benedict XVI’s recent complaint that Australia is the most “godless” place on earth. But are the critics of sport – or rather our apparent obsession with it – missing something about the appeal of the game and overlooking something else about the drawing power of religion?

In his book, Game Day, the baseball columnist for the Washington Post Tom Boswell argues that the best thing about being a sports writer is that, more often than not, you’re not writing about sport at all. As Boswell explains, in a materialist, relativist, ethnically and religiously pluralist culture, the playing field in all its guises is the one common ground on which we can discuss issues of morality without challenging deeply-held convictions about right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and anti-heroes and without requiring of us the kind of specialist knowledge that discussions of theology and ecclesiology invariably presume. Sport, in other words, can function as the great leveler in moral debate rather than a great distraction from it.

Sport tends also to be exhilarating – fast, colourful, explosive, dramatic, loud and unpredictable. The odd mystic and the obscure saint may have felt the same about his or her religion but, for the most part, religious observances have been privatized, made routine and are, for many of us, just plain dull. Religion may be part of everyday experience but it is not the stuff of our everyday highs and lows – or, quite naturally, of our everyday conversation.

Historically, religion has largely been absent as a cultural force in Australia. There are few obvious marks of religious inspiration in Australian literature, few novels that even attempt to come to grips with deep religious or philosophical questions, few Masses written by Australian composers, few significant religious works of art, and few notable Australian theologians – in short, a spiritual void if we only look to the usual places where we would expect to find spiritual riches.

But then there is sport and within it moments when the spirit soars such as when Leo Barry took the mark that clinched the 2005 AFL premiership for the Sydney Swans. Perhaps that is a good place to start a conversation about the soul of Australia.

Chris McGillion

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