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Football is one of my favourite sports. I’ll be honest—I’m not a professional football player. I started playing football in my late 20s to maintain my fitness.

However, when I was studying theology, I found myself inclined to think theologically and critically about football.

The relationship between sports and religion is a well-known interdisciplinary topic that people are interested in for different reasons.

Developing a Framework for Sports and Theology

At first, I was very interested in academic discussions about Sports and Theology. But it was disappointing to see that most academic conversations about the connection between sports and theology were driven only by scholarly interests. At best, the focus was to develop a theoretical framework for ministerial engagement with Sports.

Football, as I have known it, has deep roots in community life. In fact, I belong to a community where football greatly impacts day-to-day life and social events. I know what a game of football can do to individuals and whole communities.

Unfortunately, the majority of discussions on sports and religion did not take into account the game itself (and everything good that comes with it), the actual experiences of people who played the game, or the social context in which these football players were playing.

I believe a better understanding of the relationship between football and theology can only emerge out of the experience and/or social location of the football players.

So, I joined “The Bangalore Football Lovers” (BFL) – a group of football players, who come together every weekend to play the game. In fact, I was a regular at these mid-night football games.

The Significance of Social Dynamics

We all loved football and were very interested in it. Still, the football games on the weekends weren’t just for fun.

When we got together, football became much more than a game. It was an avenue for hope and despair, resistance and triumph, love and acceptance.

As a member of the BFL, playing football made me realise the importance of the many social dynamics at play.

The Shared Reality

First, I recognized that we belonged to a small minority that is genuinely passionate and interested in football.

As you may know, football fans make up a relatively smaller number when compared to cricket fans in India. So, playing football is not considered to be “swanky” or “cool”.

Even though football is becoming more popular now, it is neither appreciated nor pushed. So, when we get together to play football or participate in a football tournament, we bring unique experiences and shared reality as a “minority”.

Further, we belong to a smaller indigenous group from North East India. We come from a region that has been historically neglected and distraught by wider deprivations.

So, when we play football, it’s a lot more than just a game.

The Shared Identity

Second, we were migrants. We had come to the city of Bangalore in search of employment or education. In short, to seek a better life.

As migrants, we are mostly treated as “outsiders”. We are regular targets of either hate or exploitation.

Most of my friends work in the informal sector. They struggle with a lack of access to good health care, housing, employment, or education.

Not surprisingly, our football games are organized around midnight to enable greater participation. Most of us, if not all of us, come here to enjoy the company of each other and to foster community life.

When we gather to play football, we form a small community. Football gives us a cause to come together, feel our hearts swell, and lift our heads. BFL, then, becomes our shared identity.

The Situated Experience

There is something in the nature of football that binds us together. There is goodness ‘in’ and ‘of’ sport inherent in the game’s wider aspects, such as passion (love), competition, camaraderie, unity, integrity, etc.

Perhaps, Apostle Paul understood these dynamics in sports. Time and again, he draws sporting illustrations to elucidate the spiritual journey of the followers of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9:24; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 3:16).

For most people like me, playing football is a delight, release, and identity. At every game, moments of shared experience and another unspoken subtext/s tangle up myriad genuinely liberating possibilities.

Agreed, my initial desire was to develop a theological/biblical framework for sports ministry. But the experience of playing football with BFL has challenged me to revise my ‘simplistic’ approach towards sports and theology.

The “situated” experience has helped me with insights for doing theology.

The Shared Experience – the Reality

Of course, talking about Sports and Theology through conventional means (e.g., Scripture) is worthwhile. However, if we are to talk about a Theology of Sports genuinely, we need to understand the context and actual experiences of those who engage in sports.

I am more than convinced that a relevant framework can emerge only out of the experience/context of the football players.

Doing theology through shared experiences of playing football can help us see reality beyond ourselves and possibly lead us into “spaces” where football plays a defining role in the organization of social life.

The world of Sports is already connecting people across the globe. Understanding the reality of sports, along with the players’ social location and actual experiences, will be the way forward towards doing a culturally relevant Theology of Sports.

Photo by Prapoth Panchuea on Unsplash
Taimaya is a contributive writer for BT based in Bangalore. He holds a PhD in Theology.