This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:
Call me biased, but this season has to be the best for football fans everywhere. I lived in Leicester for nine years in the 1990s, so am really pleased to see the Premier League tables looking a little bit upside-down. And I say that as a convinced Kloppite.
There is no shortage of aphorisms about sport in general and football in particular. But, and I feel this might be almost blasphemous, Bill Shankly was wrong when he claimed that football was more important than matters of life and death. Of course, in his day sport wasn't quite the big business it is today.
And perhaps that is where the challenge lies.
In the last few months we have seen a crisis in world athletics over doping. The high-earning tennis player Maria Sharapova has had to step back and has now lost a number of lucrative sponsorship deals. And now we see allegations – albeit strongly denied – about further doping in major sports, including Premiership football.
It seems to me that there are two problems here. The doping is one thing, but the real issue is the duping. I don't think anyone would disagree with the notion that to win by cheating – whatever form that cheating takes – is always a failure. Yet, the real problem is not what the Bible calls “the prospering of the wicked”, but, rather, the wickedness of those who prosper. It is the duping rather than the doping that causes the ultimate offence.
We teach our children not to lie or deceive – as moral goods in themselves – and that is surely right. But, then we and they end up watching their role models, particularly on the football pitch, diving and dying on the grass. So, we should surely be more concerned about character and integrity than lost sponsorship deals, and see sportsmen and women more embarrassed about shame than about illicit points gained or deals lost.
Now, I realise that there are other dimensions to this whole business. Sport is never simply about winning or losing. And I have a certain sympathy for those who take allowable drugs one day, only to find that what was legal then is now deemed illicit today. Again, if the moral complaint has to do only with inequity on the part of those competing, then what do we do about those imbalances and unfairnesses inherent to sport anyway? For example, leaving drugs aside, those individuals or teams with the most money at their disposal will always have the best support and resourcing – the rich are inevitably advantaged over those who are more poorly funded.
Well, one American sportsman once said that “sports do not build character; they reveal it.” No surprise then that in theological circles character ethics are de rigeur these days. Sport might want to take a look at some very old ethics for a not-so-new world? Character matters more than charisma or a cabinet of medals.