By coupling this with the hopefully unintentional pun of "heroes are proving to have feet of clay" Quinn left me ill disposed to view the remainder favourably. I trudged drearily through a list of sporting controversies, learning that Tiger Woods was unfaithful, that Armstrong partook of performance enhancing drugs and that paedarasts have not eschewed the role of coach. By travelling thousands of miles Quinn also succeeded in citing a single organised cover up of child rape outside religious spheres. He concludes that sports fans do not abandon their calling through scandal, and the faith they display is thus demonstrably stronger.
How valid are these comparisons between religion and sport? Few could doubt the devotion displayed by fans who tattoo their bodies, construct shrines, wear sacred garments, attend regular gatherings and learn reverential chants. The time and money invested by committed sports followers far surpasses that invested by an average person of faith. Quinn states that "sport to them is a sort of religion", that they "believe in sport. [They] like it, value it and cherish it." and while I'd say it's more accurate to view religion and sport as devotional cousins, in the main we agree.
What implications does Quinn's broadened view of religion have?
I quote from the Iona Institute's "Case for Catholic Schools". I have made two alterations to better reflect his wider scope:
The overriding reason for [Manchester United] schools is, of course, to provide schools to the [Manchester United supporting] community that have as their aim assisting parents in passing on their faith to their children...
This recognises that schools are first and foremost a response to the wishes of parents. It recognises that parents are the primary educators of their children and in this regard the State must be the servant, not the master. That is, rather than the State providing children with the education the State thinks is best for them, the State endeavours to enable parents to send their children to a school that best reflects the parents' own beliefs and ethos.Will the Irish construction industry be restored to former glory as each town breaks ground on separate compounds to better inculcate reverence for the Gunners, the Bohs, or devotion to the mighty Bodfather? Will school boards of management be given authority to limit admissions on grounds of allegiance to specific teams? Should a teacher who is discovered as a Shelbourne season holder be at risk of their job if they are publicly violating the ethos of a Bohemian school?
The Iona Institute promotes the place of religion in society. It has charitable tax status. My gym promotes the place of sport in society. Should I expect my monthly fee to be considered a donation, and as such tax deductible?
Religare, the Latin root of the term religion, means to bind oneself to the gods. Quinn's deification of sport carries with it unintended consequences and seems to leave a rather knotty problem.
As is so often the case I'm tempted to stop as soon as I've made a Latin pun. I should. For a blog called Geoff's Shorts, I too often fail at brevity. And as an atheist the temptation to leave Quinn's comparison of believers and sports unchallenged is quite high. But let's be honest, whatever ground sport and religion share in devotion does not extend to their borders. In times of family tragedy a football fan may turn to friends in their local supporters' club for condolence, but it will not be given through a framework of sport. When they fall in love and choose to cement that bond they will include friends and possibly imagery from their sporting network but they will not conduct a ceremony culminating in the signing of a tweaked transfer agreement. With the tenuous exception of Eric Cantona's pseudoprofundity, they will not ponder the deep questions in life from a football club's foundation.
Religion is not alone in providing the above, of course, but it is clear that religious beliefs bring condolence, comfort and celebration to its adherents in ways sport cannot. Quinn seeks to cheapen their importance by comparison; his goal being to attack liberal Irish Catholics and ex Catholics. He says "the scandals turn many of us off religion because fundamentally many of us don't really believe in religion. If we did, we would clean up religion's act rather than turn our back on it."
Is his case a strong one? It is beyond contestation that a hierarchy professing itself a moral authority yet concealing and protecting child rapists has an inconsistency at its core. Describing those rocked by the abuses and crimes revealed over recent decades as simply lacking faith is facile at best. Any Catholic who hasn't experienced doubt as the hierarchy's record is laid bare falls in the category of moral monster, not exemplary believer. But what of sport? Unless Quinn is aware of a sporting body boasting a similar claim to moral authority I fear his analogy fails.