Archives For Sport

Like the rest of Australia – and perhaps like anybody who follows sports around the world — I’ve been struggling to put words to why the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has hit me for six. And then some.

Death is part of life as we know it. Everyone dies. This fundamental truth faces all of us — I will die, you will die, the people we love will die.

Why then does death feel the way it does? Unnatural. Broken. Empty.

Why do we feel the way we do about death? Sad. Powerless. Afraid.

And if we’re all just a finite number of heart beats away from death — why has this death in particular rocked us to the degree it has?

I suspect part of the answer is in the tragic elements of the story, the countless what ifs, and the absence of someone or something to blame. We’ve been conditioned by whodunnits and our ability to diagnose and dissect every event to want something or someone to point the finger at when things go wrong. We want a clear link between cause and effect. We just don’t have that here. People are searching anywhere and everywhere (apparently it’s Mitchell Johnson’s fault and it’s Michael Clarke’s fault and it’s all of our faults – and that’s just one article). We’re sure that we can’t blame Sean Abbott, the bowler.

Rightly sure — and perhaps the most touching thing in the washup of this awful mess has been the way people have rallied behind Abbott. His was a routine delivery. The Cricinfo ball by ball coverage of Hughes’ last innings shows just how routine the short ball was — and how untroubled Hughes had been up until ball number 161.

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, another short one, ducks, he’s in no hurry

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, low bouncer, still ducks

The thing that strikes me in tragic accidents like this is how many opportunities there were in the moments leading up to the event for things to go differently.

For the accident not just to be avoided — like the millions of other bouncers that have sailed past batsmen all over the world, and throughout the history of the game – but for it to not have the possibility of happening at all.

I’ve found myself trying to play the what if game, unravelling the various causes from this fatal effect. Not apportioning blame where none exists, but reliving those past moments that plot out some sort of alternative future?

And there are so many in the game of cricket. So many potential causes — causes that are almost always clearly linked to their effects. Our understanding of cricket has been totally atomised, in part, as a result of the technology we use as part of our lens for viewing the game, partly because every aspect of the game of cricket is understood scientifically, or geometrically. Cricket is not a game of inches, but millimetres.

So — as I have when confronted with any tragic accident like this — I’ve spent the last few days falling down desperate rabbit-holes of what-ifs, as though that will help unlock some hidden meaning in this event that will make it all make sense.

What if Hughes had chosen to play this ball the same way he’d played every other short ball in the innings? What if someone had paused to tie a shoe lace, and even that small interval prompted a different series of choices for the actors in this tragedy? What if the bowler had changed his mind and bowled a fuller delivery?

What if a heckler in the crowd had — or hadn’t — distracted a player at any point in proceedings, delaying play for just a moment, sharpening or distracting the concentration of the players to impact their actions by just one degree?

What if there’d been a misfield and they’d stolen a quick single at the end of the over before, so that Tom Cooper, Hughes’ batting partner, had been on strike?

“No run, blocks to off to end the over. SA 2/134 (Hughes 61, Cooper 5)”

What if, on the previous delivery, the batsmen had run a single, rather than taking two? What if the fielder had scurried to the ball quicker?

Two runs, on leg and swung away fine

What if. What if. What if.

It doesn’t help. The asking. It is not cathartic. The questions splinter out into other questions. Questions that can’t possibly be answered. Questions that make for interesting, but unhelpful, speculation. Questions that involve trying to rewrite events of the past to change the future.

But this approach is no more, or less, rational than the other ways of processing this sort of tragedy.

I think one of the more shocking things about the last few days is not so much how improbable everything seems, but how unfair it is — a young man, in his prime, about to regain his place in the Australian team after yo-yoing in and out of the team. A prodigy about to deliver on his potential. Struck down.

It’s not just unfair, it’s a reminder of how beyond the control of everyone involved this cause-effect nexus actually is. We are powerless. One of Australia’s best batsmen was felled by the sort of ball he had faced thousands of times. A handful of Australia’s most qualified surgeons were powerless to change the outcome for Hughes. Millions of Australians joined in prayer hoping to have some input into securing a different outcome.

That’s what we want when it comes to causality, isn’t it? The ability to nudge or cajole the objects we’re presented in our circumstances, tweaking whatever causal knobs we can, to secure our desired future. It’s no good playing the ‘what if’ game, because it deals only with knobs unturned, paths untaken, the past. It feeds this belief that we are in control.

And this, I think, is part of why this sort of death hits us so hard.

We are not in control.

I think that maybe we think we’re ok with death. People seem to be able to process death, to grieve, to move on. Not our own. Of course. But others. Maybe we can be philosophical about death. Maybe we can cope with its existence as a universal reality. Maybe we can see it as part of life. So long as it seems to be something we can face up to, or control, or fight against. Hughes was robbed of all of this. And this is a reminder that we might well be robbed of all this too.

And, personally, that’s where I think I’m struggling, and where others I speak to seem to be heading, even if we can’t all quite put our finger on what’s going on here, or precisely account for why this one death, out of so many other deaths that happened on November 27, has captured the global imagination.

How on earth are we meant to understand and respond to the fragility of human life? To the idea that at any given moment, death is millimetres away, and worse, that these millimetres may not be in our control, but in the hands of another? A driver not paying attention on the road next to us. A builder or engineer being negligent at some point in some process, at some point in the past.

I think. If I’m honest.  The real struggle for me when I play the what if game, and when I play it in circumstances where I’ve prayed, and where there have been outpourings from thousands upon thousands of others who all indicate they’re also praying, is wondering where God’s hand is in all of this?

Here is Australian cricketing legend Adam Gilchrist on Twitter:

Dear Lord, if ever the need for footprints in the sand, it’s now #PhilHughes #courage #strength

— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) November 25, 2014

Why didn’t God intervene to sever cause from effect?

Why?

Not just for Phil Hughes, why not for others?

Why death? Why chaos? Why pain?

If I’m really honest, events like this just throw the spotlight back on these existential questions that face all humans. All of us who are bound by cause and effect.

And for those of us, Christians, who believe in the sovereignty of God over cause and effect, this is a startling reminder that death, whatever manner it uses to find us is an inevitable outcome for people. And that life in all its forms — as we experience it, and as God promises it — comes from God. God is ultimately in control. Of cause and effect. Of life. Of death. Every being has their being only as a result of God…

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”— Revelation 4:11

This is the answer to Adam Gilchrist’s question — it’s the same answer the Footprint poem he cites gives – sort of. God is in every life, giving life. He carries every person every step of the way, from birth, to death.

Life is a precious gift. But it is, apart from the life Jesus offers through his resurrection, a temporary gift.

God gives. God takes away. We experience this taking away — the hand of God — death — through cause and effect.

We might wish for him to break cause away from effect in certain circumstances and times in our lives, but suspending the natural order, if the natural order has its being in God, as Revelation 4 suggests, then we’re calling on God to break himself at that point.

A big ask.

God did break in to the monotony of cause and effect. In Jesus. Where he broke in to the world, and was broken. Crucified. The death he planned before he made the world. This death that was the product of an amazingly intricate chain of causes and effects, such that words written in the Old Testament Book of Psalms played their way out in vivid colour a thousand years later at the crucifixion. This death broke death. If Jesus was raised from the dead. And I believe he was. Everything we understand about cause and effect changes at that point. Until this point the effect of crucifixion was death, the effect of life was death, the effect of death was finality. The resurrection breaks that. God didn’t just leave random footprints on some sand to tell us that he was with us — he entered the picture, walked the earth, left his fingerprints everywhere, had nails driven through his hands, spilled his blood, and died, to show us he was with us. And to invite us to walk with him. To life.

If we’re looking for footprints in events like the tragic circumstances of this week, without first seeing the indelible footprint God left on the earth at the Cross of Jesus, we’re going to struggle to see God in these, or any, events.

This quote from one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, grapples with the fleeting nature of human life — the reality of our mortality— suggesting Jesus death, chosen before the creation of the world, breaks the cause and effect connection between life and death. Because Jesus beats death our lives don’t necessarily end in death.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” — 1 Peter 1:18-21, 23-25

This is what I turn to when I’m asking questions about death. Questions about where God is in the events at the end of every human life. Questions about why God doesn’t just do something. He’s there. He has.

I don’t want this to be preachy. I don’t want it to be cheapening the harrowing events of this week. I’m not really seeking to persuade anyone of anything. I’m thinking out loud. Life, more than ever, seems so fragile. So fleeting. Like vapour. And this is where I’ve found comfort. This is how I’ve dug my way out of the rabbit warren of ‘what if’ questions in my head. This is what I’ve clung to in the face of the reminder that I’m not in control of my life, or the lives of those I love, but God is, and he is good.

Death is unnatural. Death sucks. Death is the ultimate reminder that we aren’t God. That we are creatures. That we are dependant on another for our existence. Death is the ultimate reminder that we were made for life, and that we can be recreated, by the living creator.

 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:6

This is fun.

The football (soccer for you children of the US Empire) season has started again. And today, pre-game, I had the opportunity to pitch a few, well, two, new tactics to my team mates. They were reluctant to try them, but should you attempt these, and film them – I guarantee viral success.

The Flying O

  • The goalkeeper catches the ball.
  • The ten field players from your team gather in a tight circle (O shape) in their own goal box.
  • The goalkeeper drops the ball into the O shape.
  • Each player in the O touches the ball in quick succession to prevent obstruction rulings while the O flies, or perambulates, down field, and over the goal line.

This is, of course, an alphabetical adaptation of this famous Mighty Ducks move…

So is basically foolproof.

The Stationary I

On an attacking corner six players from the attacking team forms a wall (an I) on the near post. Players from the defending team may try to join this wall or stand in front of it. If this happens, distract the referee and administer a wedgie. The corner kick should be aimed at the feet of the wall. As the ball is kicked the wall must all step back together and tap the ball into the net. GOAL.

Celebrations ensue.

No. Seriously. That’s all I’ve got. But I figure it’s time for me to write something.

Making NFL funn(i)er

British commentary and bad lip reading. Ahh.

 

I love Manchester United. I have always admired Alex Ferguson. Even when he appeared to be a dolt.

So I bought his autobiography on release day – it promised to be tell-all, revealing, and controversial. The greatest controversy isn’t what Fergie had to say about people like Mark Bosnich. It is just how inane the prose in this book is. It was clearly rushed to print. It is repetitive. Self-indulgent. And in need of a good edit. Some random examples of just how stilted and language-defying the writing is are included below for your education.

Do not buy this book if you don’t like knowing how sausages are made.

On giving criticism

“Faced with the need to confront a player who had performed below our expectation, I might have said: ‘That was rubbish, that.’ But then I would follow it up with, ‘For a player of your ability.’ That was for picking them back up from the initial blow. Criticise but balance it out with encouragement. ‘Why are you doing that? You’re better than that.’”

An “amusing” anecdote

I was coming out of the Grand National meeting with Cathy in April 2013 and two Liverpool fans came up alongside to say, ‘Hey Fergie, we’ll hammer you next season.’ They were good lads. ‘Well, you’ll need to buy nine players,’ I said. They looked crestfallen. ‘Nine?’ One said: ‘Wait till I tell the boys in the pub that.’ I think he must have been an Everton fan. ‘I don’t think we need nine,’ said the other as he traipsed away. I nearly shouted, ‘Well, seven, then.’ Everyone was laughing.

It’s UFC meets Juggling. In teams.

Via Kottke

Flipbook Ronaldinho

This uses a crazy amount of paper.

Why goalkeepers wear gloves

I love Rugby League. I love the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles. Say what you will – but League is faster, more exhilarating, and more straightforward than the boot-strapped game of chess and stoppages that is Rugby Union.

I love league. I hate the gambling industry. It’s an awful, poisonous industry that wrecks lives – financially and spiritually. I want to make a distinction here between small stakes poker, a casual bet on the outcome of a grudge match between two friends, raffles, Melbourne Cup sweeps at lunch, and perhaps even gambling as a form of entertainment, free of greed (if that’s possible), and the industry that has set itself up on the back of our love for a punt that makes huge profits by destroying lives. I do some of those things from time to time, but mostly avoid them as a wisdom issue, rather than a moral issue. But the gambling industry thrives on creating addicts and sustaining their addictions. It takes money from people and offers nothing tangible in return. It’s a parasite.

I’m not suggesting the individuals who get lured in and caught up in the web of the gambling industry are devoid of responsibility in their decision to gamble – but if gambling stops them meeting their other responsibilities – like feeding their families, then the gambling industry, the sporting industry, and the viewing audience, have the responsibility to stop enabling that sort of destruction. Responsible gambling is an oxymoron. The nature of a gamble is that it involves risk. The nature of an industry that generates that sort of profits by taking other people’s money, and giving them nothing in return (except a cheap, momentary, thrill) is “irresponsible,” not “responsible.

What makes me saddest is that the gambling industry is all about greed – and greed is an example of the rejection of God that the Bible calls idolatry.

So now I have a dilemma. Because the game I love is in bed with this industry that I hate.

Tom Waterhouse is a bookmaker who has signed a multi-million dollar deal with the NRL and Channel 9 to be a broadcast partner of the National Rugby League. That’s $50 million, and $15 million, that Waterhouse’s company has ripped out of the pockets of Australians – a fraction of their profits, and presumably a fraction of the money they stand to make from the arrangement.

Somehow this deal earned him a seat at the table when it came to 9’s coverage – he became a commentator, and his contribution was helping gamblers understand the various implications of Friday night’s game between the Brisbane Broncos and the mighty Sea Eagles (who won, in a thrilling second half comeback).

I didn’t catch the Tom Waterhouse Show on Friday night because I was at the game. Live. With my daughter.

It was her first game of football – and I’m very much looking forward to indoctrinating teaching her about the game, and how to appreciate it (even if Robyn wants her to love that other code).

Sadly, I won’t be able to do that using Channel 9’s coverage. There’s a bigger question about whether or not I’ll be able to teach her about any professional sport if the continued enmeshment of sport and gambling goes unchecked, that’s a deeper issue that needs a resolution, but the “in your face” nature of the coverage is an immediate concern.

The gambling industry preys on broken people and guarantees ongoing failure. Jesus offers restoration to broken people and a secure future.

I’m not into censoring too much when it comes to parenting – I’m happy to sit down with my daughter – and her yet to be born sibling(s) – and talk about what we watch together. I’ll do that with all sorts of cultural texts, because I want my kids to learn about the world we live in, and to be able to critically engage with the arts.

That’s something I’m really looking forward to – I want my kids to be able to parse cultural texts for meaning, and I want them to be able to use culture to reach people with the gospel.

Sadly, thanks to Channel 9’s decision to get in bed with an industry that destroys lives without remorse, their coverage of the Rugby League will now be one of those things I keep away from my kids until they’re in their teens. And by then it might be too late. By then they’ll probably love Rugby Union or some other inferior product.

I can appreciate that some parents prefer to keep harmful ideas away from their children. But that’s not my style. Obviously there are certain things that I want to introduce them to at certain points of maturity – and I think the secular classification board does a pretty good job at picking what is appropriate for different ages, and we’ll probably err on the side of caution.

But that’s not really what’s behind my thinking.

I’m not shielding my kids from gambling – I hope they’ll be sensible enough to understand how to approach concepts like “responsibility” and “greed”… But I don’t think I can be a responsible participant in society if I teach my kids that it’s ok to benefit from exploiting others.

I don’t mind talking to my kids about gambling, money and greed from the moment they’re born – I don’t even mind the casual bet with a couple of mates about the outcome of football games – but I refuse to take part, as a viewer, in enabling the destruction of lives. And I don’t want to model any sort of support for this selling out of others for my own entertainment or financial gain to my kids. Turning 9’s coverage off is one of the ways I’m going to make a stand.

Gambling is poisonous. It trashes lives. It tears families apart. Plenty of people have pointed out that the head of 9’s commentary team is a recovering gambling addict, and the face of the NRL – one of the game’s most scintillating players, has just checked in to a facility to deal with his gambling addiction which has left his life, and his family’s life, in tatters.

This decision by Channel 9 to throw people under the bus for the sake of their crumbling bottom line is a horribly tangible example of how broken our world is. They’ve taken a great thing – sport – a gift from God. And trashed it. And used it to trash lives. For their own gain.

I love sport because it teaches us good things about life. Individual sport teaches us about pursuing goals, working hard, and the value of discipline. Team sport teaches us about teamwork, selflessness, the value of a common cause, and camaraderie.

There’s a reason Paul uses sporting language to describe life following Jesus.

Here’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 9…

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Sport is good – Paul says physical exercise is of some value – but what really counts in life is your spiritual health (1 Timothy 4:8). The real tragedy of Channel 9’s awful decision to enable problem gambling is that they’re taking something good, and not only not keeping it in perspective with eternal, spiritual matters – but they’re using it to destroy lives both physically (as families fall into poverty) and spiritually, as people get trapped in a cycle of greed that leaves them rejecting the God who made us, and sport – to serve the pursuit of money through a system that is rigged against them, and only works if people lose more than they win.

Greed is a horrible thing – not just because it involves trashing other people for your own gain, and ultimately trashing yourself in the relentless pursuit of more, but because it involves putting the pursuit of wealth in the place God should occupy. Paul calls this idolatry (in Ephesians 5:5).

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Jesus puts it a little more clearly – using slightly less theologically loaded language in Matthew chapter 6.

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

He says this off the back of saying that storing up wealth now – pursuing wealth – is stupid because it’s not going to last. And that’s the real stupidity at the heart of gambling – it’s about taking huge risks for long odds on short term rewards. Even if you win now – the one certainty is that when you die, your winnings aren’t going with you.

Gambling is hopeless. It comes out of brokenness and leads to more brokenness.

Without Jesus, not gambling is a good idea for your personal finances – but it ultimately leaves us less poor,  still broken, and still losing at the end, when we die.

Jesus gives hope. And his life offers a real solution to brokenness. And a safe investment.

From Matthew 6 again…

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I love this Colin Buchanan song about the real hope Jesus offers (on Spotify) (or YouTube).

“I bet all I have on Jesus
I will throw myself on him
The one who died a real death for real sin
I bet all I have on Jesus
Throughout eternity
I will marvel at the real hope my Saviour won for me”

I hate the gambling industry. I hate that it preys on the weak and vulnerable with almost Darwinian antipathy leaving the weak weaker, and the poor poorer, and I hate that its insidious poison can turn functional and successful people into train wrecks who wreak havoc on the lives of those who love them. So there’s no way I’ll be able to watch Channel 9 destroy lives each week.

Here’s an ad from GetUp exposing some of the rhetoric the pro-gambling types use to justify the destruction of lives for financial gain after the NRL sided with the pokie industry when the Australian Government wanted to do something to make gambling more difficult.

Until Channel 9 extracts itself from this situation where its participating in the destruction of Australian families, undermining everything that’s great about sport, I’ll be listening on the radio or signing up for Foxtel. It’d be nice if the NRL stood up too and separated itself from the poison that threatens so many of those involved in the game – and the people who watch it and look up to its stars – rather than buying into the same greed that fuels that brokenness and perpetuating the problem.

Public figures fall hardest. Possibly because they fail more spectacularly, or at least in front of more people. Possibly because tall poppy syndrome means we’re waiting for the fall to happen, and ready to throw stones when it does… It’s always disappointing when someone you’ve pinned some sort of hopes on, or affiliated with your dreams, does wrong – but it’s oh so inevitable. Call it the selfish gene, call it original sin, call it human nature – we’re all wired to do the wrong thing, especially when we think we can get away with it, or the benefits outweigh the risks, and celebrities get more opportunities to do the wrong thing.

Armstrong Wordle
Image Credit: Wordle.net – a tag cloud featuring every article I link to in this post, minus “Lance” and “Armstrong”

Sometimes doing the wrong thing is even written off as the cost of success. Our sporting contests have penalties built in, and for people playing at a high level, half the battle is making snap decisions about whether or not fouling your opponent is a better decision than letting them past. Degrees of misbehaviour carry greater penalties. Diving in football is an example of people trying to game the system in the other direction. It too gets punished. It’s part of the economics of sport. So much that a Formula One team was able to tax deduct its 40 million euro fine for spying on an opposing team.

Enter Lance Armstrong. Sport’s current whipping boy. His story represents the human, and now economic, cost of cheating, and the price of a win at all cost pursuit of sporting success. He’s been abandoned by sponsors. Abandoned by his sport. Abandoned by some fans. He’s lost his titles. He’s lost the respect of most cycling fans. It looks likely he’ll lose his prize money, endorsement money, and interest. Part of the problem with Armstrong is that he’s, by the power of his self-proclaimed narrative, set himself up as a symbol of hope. And worse a role model. A position most athletes shouldn’t occupy. This means he’s falling from a greater height than most.


Credit: ABC

His brazen cheating – conducted by an incredibly complex operation, and carried out with horrifically narcissistic and vindictive attacks on anybody who dared speak out – was one thing, and arguably, according to this Grantland piece, relatively easy to cop, given that most people don’t really care about cycling:

Lance Armstrong became one of the two or three most transcendent American sports stars of his generation despite the fact that hardly anyone in America cares at all about his particular sport. The ratio of passionate Lance Armstrong fans to people who have ever actually watched Lance Armstrong race except for maybe a few minutes during this one Tour de France is just crazily out of whack.

Grantland points out that Armstrong’s charity work, and the cancer-triumphing narrative, were what made him a hero:

“…it was his story that made him a superstar: his comeback from near-fatal cancer, the hope he offered other cancer patients, his charitable work through the Livestrong Foundation, the yellow bracelets, the sense of larger purpose. Cycling wasn’t the cause here so much as the arbitrary venue in which the cause could prove itself noteworthy…

…That’s what’s so tragic about what turned out to be Armstrong’s charlatanism. He had to cheat to win. But he had to win primarily to validate the narrative, not because the consumers of the narrative liked watching him do it. One of the reasons he could be so inspiring, in other words, was that for all practical purposes he barely existed at all.”

It seems unlikely that this narrative and charity work will save his image, though someone appears to be advising him that it might (and some utilitarians seem to suggest the ends of fighting cancer justify any means). Armstrong appears willing to ride out the storm – pointing to his good deeds. But it’s not likely to work. Interestingly, you could make the case that an interview Armstrong gave seven years ago was paving the way for a guilty verdict and his current plea to leave his charity out of the muck. In doublespeak, the interview given by a guy who is, more than likely, guilty, is a pre-emptive damage-controlling non-disclosure.

He said his sponsors and charity would disappear if he was caught.

“All of them. And the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world … And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that. It’s not about money for me. Everything. It’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.”

And his sponsors have. The impact on his charity is yet to be determined. Some people, the people he has helped over the years, are still in his corner.

But I also can’t stop noticing that many of the people still defending him — not denying that he cheated, just knowingly rooting for him anyway — are cancer survivors or the family members of cancer patients. Robert Lipsyte wrote about this for The New Republic, how the thought of Armstrong helped get him through chemotherapy. And once you start thinking along those lines, that he meant that much to people, that it’s not a trivial thing to be a hero of feeling, this becomes one of those problems you can’t think your way outside.

This has been true in my observations of discussions of Armstrong amongst my friends and contacts on social media.

Grantland has an interesting reminder for those of us who follow Jesus… it should change how we think about stories like this.

Or maybe not; but it’s always hard to remember that there were victims in cases like this, and what you do remember — hypocrisy and rule-breaking — doesn’t always look so bad a few years down the line. How you feel about that probably depends on what you think heroism means in America, and whether you picture Halloween or Jesus when you hear that the dead are rising from their graves.

This is profoundly true – knowing that all people do the wrong thing, and that this is part of being human – and the foundation of our need for redemption through Jesus – means it’s pretty hard to throw stones at Lance, because, there but for the grace of God, and the cycling ability, go we.

But if there’s one thing we seem to like more than a public scandal, it’s a public story of redemption. People are already making interesting links between the narrative arcs of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods (and here), and Lance Armstrong and Mike Tyson, especially because Tyson is in the news because he’s coming to Australia on a charity tour.

Mike Tyson has had a complete rebrand – he doesn’t eat meat, or ears, any more. He’s apologised for stuff (but apparently still denies he committed the crime he was jailed for). He appears in movies. And now he’s raising money for indigenous communities in Australia – which some people, as they do in Armstrong’s case, suggest covers over a multitude of sins. I don’t think charity work as PR penance works. Unless it’s built on an acknowledgment of wrongdoing after the fact. And even then. You can’t rely on the charitable stuff you were doing while you were cheating to excuse your cheating. That Armstrong could only have the profile he has, and the charitable impact he has, because of the drugs he took, doesn’t really justify the taking of drugs, or the empire of deception built up around it. Tyson “redeemed” his brand, in the eyes of many, through an apology.

Tiger Woods apologised, and now seems to be working pretty hard to win back public affections by doing what he does best, golf, it is hard to go past a compelling “redemption narrative.” Story after story about sports people who’ve behaved badly use this r-word. In many cases they focus on on-field performance, and express a desire for unparalleled talent to have the opportunity to shine once more – almost as if the tragedy is the furore, not the act. This isn’t really possible in Armstrong’s case – because his talent is forever tainted – which may even make his redemption impossible in some eyes.

But we want an apology.

Most of us are realistic about the human condition, and aware that celebrity doesn’t do away with humanity. So we’re prepared to cut people a fair bit of slack. If only they’d apologise. A bit of hard work atoning for your wrongdoing is nice, but apparently redemption requires contrition, not just sporting excellence.

And this idea is Biblical (from Psalm 51)… and one of those times where I think what works for one’s relationship with God, transfers to how one relates to the public (a reverse of plundering gold from the Egyptians if you will).

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.”

This is part of one of the biggest redemption narratives of all time – David writes the Psalm after being confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery. Arguably only Paul undergoes a bigger character rebrand in the Bible. It might sound like a contrite heart is some sort of meritorious act that immediately produces a desired result – but there’s nothing worse, when salvaging a brand, than inauthentic contrition – like a non-apology apology.

Calvin’s commentary on Psalms gives a similar take on these verses… which I like.

“The man of broken spirit is one who has been emptied of all vain-glorious confidence, and brought to acknowledge that he is nothing. The contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange.”

Genuine contrition isn’t produced to secure a result – because it can’t. It’s about admitting that you’re no longer in control of the result – it’s about asking for mercy. And this only really works if you genuinely realise you’ve done the wrong thing. It’s not a lever you pull to secure an outcome… as much as brand managers and spinners want to manipulate public goodwill with carefully architectured apologies.

The big debate surrounding Armstrong, at the moment, is not whether his good deeds off the track are enough to cover the sins on it, but whether he’ll man up and admit he did wrong, and make the apology people seem to feel entitled to. PR expert after PR expert is trotting out this same advice (this one includes “six apology basics”), though some people think the moment has passed. One cycling company is assuming the inevitability of Armstrong’s redemption, and has circumvented the process by offering him a job, which is, in itself, a PR exercise for that company. The media agrees.

“Only one way out of this mess, Lance Armstrong. America can love a fallen hero, but only if he admits the fall — and apologizes for lying about it. Do those two things, Lance Armstrong, and we’ll love you again.

At the moment? We’re disgusted.

It’s not the cheating, because lots of world-class athletes cheat. We’ve come to grips with that generality, and particularly with the notion that cycling is the dirtiest sport of them all. That’s what we think, and even if we’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, people truly believe cycling is dirty — as in, everyone is dirty. You can’t get to the top of that sport without cheating. History has shown us that.”

If Armstrong wants to recover his brand, or salvage anything from this situation, rather than relying on his past good works, or even future good works, it seems, from the punditry, that he needs to be personally convicted that he’s done the wrong thing – he needs to admit it, and he needs to ask for mercy. The principle is the same whether your’re trying to salvage your multi-million dollar personal brand, or, more importantly, turning to God for true redemption. The best news for Christians is that the hard work atoning for our wrongdoings has been done for us, by Jesus.

With every drug saga in cycling come the enlightened souls who suggest drugs should just be legalised, and drug companies should become sponsors. Or people who write off the cheating as the cost of doing business. Or moral failings as a human touch that we’re not in a position to judge. And in a sense, both responses are legitimate intellectual responses to the human condition. There are plenty who want to insist that Armstrong’s charity work means he’s a good guy, no matter how deep down.

The complexity of this moral situation is heightened by his refusal to confess. It leaves the situation ambiguous. It’s interesting that contrition and repentance – not working hard to atone for what you did wrong (though that comes after) is so universally seen as the precondition for redemption – because in one sense, that’s the Christian gospel being mirrored in the world. Lance isn’t a role model. He isn’t the messiah (there’s even some question about the value his charity actually produces for fighting cancer – it seems more focused on style than substance (ie research into a cure)). He’s also a very naughty boy. But he’s human. Like us. He does wrong. Like me. He cheats like me – just on a bigger stage with a bigger scale. He lies, like me – it’s just that more people listen to him. He needs redemption like me – not just for his career, but for himself. But I’m thankful that someone paid for my wrongdoings – of which there are many, though they’re seen by a much smaller number of people. Lance and I are the same though – because everything we do is seen by God, and real redemption, for both of us, doesn’t come from apologising and being contrite – though that’s a start – real redemption comes from turning to the guy who didn’t stuff up, the real role model, the guy who did the atoning for what we did wrong.

Lance Armstrong doesn’t need a superficial PR rebrand driven by false contrition and a long road to redemption. He doesn’t need a long record of doing good stuff for other people. He needs Jesus. Like all of us.

Goals. Lots of goals.

Last night I dreamt that Summer was over, and the football/soccer season was on again. It was great.

Today, in intermittent gaps in essay writing, I watched these videos to recapture the essence of my dream. Only when I dreamt I was, as is my custom, between the sticks.

There are some amazing goals in this little collection.

And while we’re on the subject of football highlights – here’s some Messi. This is quite incredible – lesser players go down from lesser challenges.

And here are all his goals from last season.

It’s incredible how often he dribbles past the hapless goal keepers.

That’s all fixed by this amazing non-Messi moment.

And then there’s these.

It’s moments like this that a Foxtel subscription starts to look really attractive.

The game they play in heaven?

Last night I went to my third Rugby test. I think it was my third. They all sort of blend together. It was definitely the first time I’ve seen the All Blacks play, and the Haka was pretty incredible – even from our spot behind the try line.

We were lucky enough to score tickets in the Qantas Wallabies Hood – that means we got to wear these (a bargain at $15 – but a steal, for us, because you get them for free with seats in the hood)…

Robyn loves Union. She comes from a family of Union lovers. I try pretty hard to tolerate it – and I’ve watched enough to understand some of the nuances of the game – like what constitutes a penalty in the breakdown. I watched enough when I was a kid to know that the international Rugby being played now is nothing like the attractive Rugby of old – even if it’s no longer a case of playing force-em-backs until you get a good enough chance to run the ball.

The game was close, which added an element of tension – and there was a post-siren chance that either team could snatch victory in a deadlocked contest – but tension and drama do not make a game inherently worth watching. I enjoyed watching the game with Robyn and my father-in-law – but not so much with the boorish All Blacks fans standing behind me, one of whom inadvertently spat in my face while laughing at our ridiculous hoods, and then, as he got more intoxicated, began harassing the poor lady next to us. About her hat. Because new material was beyond his wit and remit. His was the role of “drunken idiot who ruins the experience for everybody,” and he played the role with aplomb.

I don’t want to cover old ground too much – in terms of why I think Rugby League is, objectively, the superior game. There’s a list here. I stand by it.

I simply wish to cover the problems with Rugby Union, as I see them…

Fans of Union used to argue that it is a “free flowing” game, where the ball is in play. This is a throwback to the halcyon days where players kicked for position and the ball moved quickly – though this, too, may be a myth – it isn’t true of the modern game. There are stats from this season’s Super 15 competition that make this pretty clear. These stats matched my experience last night, where every point was scored from a penalty kick and there were stacks of errors and scrums.

Lets look at the facts.

Union officials are celebrating the “improvement” in the time the ball spends in play since 1991 from 31% to 44%. SANZAR – the organising body responsible for the Super 15 – is celebrating that the ball, on average, was in play about 44% of game time this season. Just 35 minutes per game. The clock doesn’t really stop in union – which means tired players dawdle to scrums, meander their way down the field to lineouts, and stop for tea and crumpets every time a penalty shot is being taken in a bizarre athletic filibuster.

It’s not like there are long periods where the ball is in play followed by long stoppages either. It’s stop start stop start stop start… Here’s a stat from this PDF analysis of stoppages in the 2012 Super 15 season:

“The average number of stoppages per game was 57. Each stoppage averaged 49.5 seconds while each time ball was in play averaged 37.4 seconds.”

People defend Union on the basis that it’s a game of tactics, possession, and field position – which is true – but there is no ball sport this cannot be said of. Except, perhaps, for golf, where the less time the ball is in your possession the better – though the other two elements are true.

What Union is not, in its current form, is an entertaining spectacle for viewers, a free flowing athletic contest, where individuals other than the goal kicker are able to demonstrate any form of prowess, providing value for money. What it is is a game of chess, where players shift around the field trying not to lose any advantage, rather than trying to gain any, hoping to eventually earn a penalty, where they, provided the ball is anywhere within 50 metres of the goal posts, will take a shot at goal and earn 3 points – more than half the points available for an unconverted try. Even field goal fests would be more entertaining viewing than what was offered last night.

By my calculation, on the basis of these stats, the ball was out of play for 23 minutes of penalty goal time last night – that’s the time between a penalty being given, the option being chosen, the player lining up the kick, and whatever restart is required. And I reckon last night’s kicks took longer than normal because some of them were from a long way out, and only one or two were relatively straightforward jobs from right in front.

I understand it was an historic draw for an understrength Australian team coming up against arguably the best team of the modern era, or ever (though the All Blacks are missing a couple of faces from their World Cup win – notably Brad Thorn – who today signed on to play another year of Super Rugby, and Sonny Bill Williams – who is boxing/galavanting/whatever his doyen Khoder Nasser is arranging him to do on some other corner of the globe).

I understand that the scrappiness of last night’s game was the result of a high pressure environment with inexperienced players taking on this machine.

But there’s no excusing, or hiding from the fact, that all the points scored last night were a result of taking the no-risk option, and came at the expense of any real form of attack – and that the ball was in play for less than half the game.

I, for one, hope the sport we play in heaven looks nothing like last night’s game. The only real winners last night were League, Football (soccer), and AFL – the sports competing for the hearts and minds of Australian sporting fans – even the long term supporters catching the bus home with us last night were disillusioned by the outcome and process of last night’s game. So I know I’m not alone in thinking this…

How would you fix Union? Or am I off the planet – is Rugby still deserving of beatification?

When life hands you grenades…

Get rid of them very quickly…

This is insane.

Selling Rugby Union to America

Union is the inferior rugby code, but this ad explaining it for a potential US audience is pretty special.

The Bolt Gun

Wow.


Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

Robyn and I watched Bolt’s semi final and “that final” this morning. It was just amazing. This truly is the pinnacle of individual sport.

The Olympics media restrictions are pretty tight, so here’s the race in Lego via the Guardian.