Taking sport too seriously

  • Themes: Culture

The ubiquity of sport threatens to deprive it of its most valuable qualities.

Lords and Gentlemen of Surrey and Kent playing cricket at Knole Park, Kent, 1775.
Lords and Gentlemen of Surrey and Kent playing cricket at Knole Park, Kent, 1775. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

‘We take life too lightly and sport too seriously,’ the cricket commentator John Arlott once said. This summer, Arlott has been proved right on several fronts. During the Ashes cricket series between England and Australia, crowds have gone far beyond the pantomime hurly-burly you might expect in the stands: ruddy-faced fans screamed in the faces of the touring side after a bit of sharp – although perfectly legal – practice on the field. Last weekend, I watched the climax of a cricket game played between two sides made up of teenagers. The boys were mostly larking around amiably. In stark contrast to their fathers. There they were, three of them, each with identical grimaces, patrolling the boundary, like some prehistoric breed of bull treading the icy steppe, blustering and bellowing in the general direction of play.

Sport elevates when it is treated as a metaphor for life – an often compelling, highly sophisticated set of metaphors – but little more than that. In Jacobean and Elizabethan drama, tennis – the pan-European sport, with a heritage that reaches back almost a millennium – appears in various memorable scenes: ‘We are merely the stars’ tennis balls,’ Bosola cries up to Heaven in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi; and Shakespeare’s Henry V promises to bring war to France via the tennis racket: ‘We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.’ The game also pops up in paintings. A painter-admirer of Caravaggio substitutes a tennis ball for a mythical rogue discus slung by Apollo that was said to have killed Hyacinthus. That is how it should be – sport as reference point, as a scene within the human drama, not its ultimate end.

Sport diminishes when it is taken too seriously. Increased professionalism in almost every sport has raised the stakes for those involved, the player whose livelihood depends on form with the bat, ball or racket. One curious effect is that spectators can no longer appropriately distinguish between the rules of life from the rules of the game, thinking that success in the latter leads to greater wisdom in the arts of the former. Sportspeople are encouraged and expected to offer commentary on society at large. They are even expected to act as ‘role models’ for children. The expectation that sportspeople should have unique insight into the great issues of the day can only end in disappointment: that these masters of the physical world do not tend to combine the virtues of the saint with the expressive gifts of the poet should not be so surprising – and yet even in the face of all available evidence that sportspeople are most skilled in the lingo of goals, wickets and the offside rule and not much else, there is always an ‘inspirational’ counter-example: if Gareth Southgate didn’t exist, the public would have to invent him.

Without lightness and levity, without a little modification to the pretensions imposed by professionalism, sport ceases to play a useful role in the human drama. But just because sport is frivolous doesn’t mean it is unimportant. An interest in sport is sometimes portrayed as a miserable consolation prize for adults who have not managed to form sufficiently intimate relationships, as if personal activities, such as painting and music should only be seen as worthwhile if they fit neatly with the pat language of ‘better connections’ and ‘emotional intimacy’. An amateur painter or musician knows that much of what he does has value only for him or herself; the true sports enthusiast shares some of this insight. A little of that perspective wouldn’t go amiss – that a little more levity leads to much wisdom, and less booing from the stands and shouting from the boundary would do everyone a world of good.


Alastair Benn