Romeo and Juliet: The Downside of Religion in Sports

Celtic vs. Rangers - Photo by Greg Whitby

Celtic vs. Rangers - Photo by Greg Whitby

Even on the sports field there are times that religion can rear its ugly head. Anyone who follows professional football (that’s “soccer” for us North American aficionados) across the pond will be well aware of the intense rivalry that exists between the 2 “Old Firm” Glasgow clubs of the Scottish Premier League, Celtic and Rangers. Since the late 1800’s the Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers, and their rabid fans, have carried on like the Capulets and the Montagues. It is impossible to trace the history of these 2 teams and not observe how bitter is the Catholic-Protestant acrimony.

Rangers formed in 1873, while their counterpart, Celtic, formed in 1888. The “Protestant club” was a reference always fixed upon Rangers, while Celtic was acclaimed as the “Catholic club.” Formed from Irish Catholic immigrants who began emigrating to the western part of Scotland in the 1840’s, the 2 teams have never gotten along. In fact, up until 1989 Rangers had never signed a high-profile Catholic footballer.

To be fair, the majority of fans do not get entangled in the religious sectarianism. However, the squeaky wheel always gets the grease, and there is no exception here. The vocal minority is usually the one in the news. The well-publicized factions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland in the 1970’s spilled over into the Scottish League’s 2 Glasgow teams. Many of the Celtic fans came out in support of the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army), while some Rangers fans gave their approval to the actions of loyalist groups. Additionally, Celtic fans waved the Irish tricolour while Rangers fans flew Union flags. The animosity reached new heights in 2002 when some Celtic supporters started sporting Palestinian flags and some Rangers fans responded by waving Israeli flags. If you think these incidents are bad, in 1995 Mark Scott, wearing a Celtic shirt, was stabbed to death as he walked by a pub filled with Rangers fans.

It has only been in recent years that decisive action has really been taken. In 2005 the 2 clubs launched a joint project to go head to head with the religious sectarianism that was tarnishing their sport and their fine city. Money has been raised to educate young people and the wider community about the dangers of religious sectarianism. The Celtic and Rangers football clubs, the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland (Protestant) and the Orange Order have all made inroads into dealing with the issue.

Ok, so I presented a lot of history to bring up one key point: faith is a personal choice and should not be held against an athlete just because it may be different from another’s. As a Christian pastor (Protestant) who plays and coaches, I do not quiz other players as to whether or not they are Protestant (or any religion, for that matter). I will pass the ball just as much to my Catholic teammates as I do to my Protestant ones…and to the guys who don’t give 2 hoots about religion. That being said, I trust that my character, on and off the field, will be something that others will notice and ask me about. I can then share more about why the person of Jesus Christ is the focal point of my life, including my athletic life.

I would like to share with you one more story. Back in 2002 Pope John Paul II made a visit to Canada. Many Ontario Catholics made the trip to Toronto to see the earthly leader of their faith and to participate in festivities arranged for the historic occasion. Included in the celebrations leading up to the Toronto services were events in local communities where Catholic pilgrims from around the world were billeted.  In Wallaceburg, we were blessed to have a number of people from both Ireland and Poland stay in our community. Several wonderful events were planned. Our church, First Baptist Church (Protestant), hosted some beach volleyball and other indoor games. Members of the local Catholic faith community, as well as other Protestant church groups, joined together to be gracious hosts to our international guests.  At one point I was having a conversation with one of the Irish pilgrims who happened to be a priest. What he said to me made me realize both what a great ministerial we have here in Wallaceburg and how different things are elsewhere in the world. “I really appreciate your hospitatlity to us from Ireland” he said. “I can hardly believe I am talking to a Protestant and there is no animosity.” I replied, “Yes, isn’t it great that you can turn around and I won’t be sticking a knife into your back!” We both laughed and returned to the volleyball game…on opposite sides of the net!

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    Brenda tuxford 10 years

    Well written Brian. We are blessed to live in a country where the majority of the Christian community live in fellowship. Laying aside doctrinal differences and and accepting each other just as they are is what we are called to do. I call it being Jesus with skin on. He was and is our example of true Christianity.

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    Jean Antuma 10 years

    If we truly are followers of our Savior… then we do unto others as we would have them do unto us….That’s not just in sports ,but in everything we do …Your sermon on love tonight,really applies to this.
    Jesus said ” but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek , turn to him the other also .
    You have heard it said Love your neighbor and hate your enemy…..But I say unto you ,Love your enemies , bless them that curse you, and do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you,and persecute you.”