5 min read

Idols or idiots? Why sporting stars cannot bear the weight we place on them

Why it’s wise to know their place, and ours, in the universe.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A professional footballer wearign a red top stands proudly beneath a white and black banner.
Marcus Rashford's Who I Really Am video.
The Players' Tribune.

I wouldn’t know, being a fairly average but enthusiastic player of many sports - but the life of a top footballer must be one of extremes. There are the physical sacrifices to be made in hours in the gym, honing skills in daily training, pushing your body towards fitness, maintaining the tuning of your body so it peaks just at the right time on match day. On the other hand, there is the boredom of afternoons after training with little to do but play FIFA 23 on the X Box, or finding ways to spend the vast amounts of money that comes to the average Premier League footballer. 

But perhaps even more, there is the way the public treats you. You swing between idol or idiot pretty quickly. Take Marcus Rashford. Last season, he could not stop scoring - 30 goals in 56 games for Manchester United & England, including three at the World Cup. Confidence was sky high, he was making the runs and finding the positions that enabled him to rack up the goals. This season, it has all changed. He seems listless, lacking in confidence. At the time of writing he has only scored five goals all season, (Erling Haaland has scored 17, Mo Salah 15). Every move or sign of body language is dissected by pundits or on social media, and he is no longer a sure starter for his club – an unheard of possibility last season.  And there was the famous bender that he went on in a night out in Belfast a few weeks ago - a sign that something somewhere is wrong. 

We have always tried to turn sports stars into idols. George Best was perhaps the first truly global, fully marketed star with a public image, idolised by both football fans and women (at the time, the two groups were much more distinct than they are today). Until, that is, his spectacular fall from grace. Soon after he reached the pinnacle of winning the European Cup with Manchester United in 1968, the descent began. He went out too much, lost his focus, made bad choices, left United and after various haphazard spells with a slew of clubs across the world including Fulham, Stockport County and the San Jose Earthquakes (yes, even them), he become a professional playboy, unable to control his alcoholism, appearing drunk on TV chat shows, being jailed for drunk driving until his tragic early death aged just 59 in 2005. 

None of us are capable of taking on the worship of others, because we will always disappoint in the end. 

The ability to do things we ordinary mortals cannot do inevitably leads us to idolise such people. Crowds perform the lowering of outstretched arms in semi-mock worship. Encomiums are written in the media on the extraordinary talent on display. Hopes are invested that this person will lead their club or country to sporting immortality.  

Yet at other times, they are vilified as idiots. The David Beckham Netflix documentary series is a salutary reminder of the astonishingly vindictive public treatment he received after getting sent off playing for England in the World Cup Quarter Final against Argentina in 1998. Perhaps now, with our increased awareness of mental health, the reaction would not be so vile, but the treatment of the England players who missed penalties in the Final of the Euros in 2020 warns us against too much complacency.  

If you’ve ever met a sports star in the flesh and spent any time talking to them (I’ve met a few) what strikes you is how ordinary they are. They may be shy, awkward, embarrassed - a bit like the rest of us, They may be able to perform physical feats that you can’t do, but I bet there are things you can do that they can’t, and that they wish they could do. Your talents may not be so much in demand and not attract as much financial reward, but just like you, they have their fears, anxieties, weaknesses and quirks. As we learnt from Netflix, David Beckham can’t go to bed without cleaning every surface in the kitchen and having his shirts lined up in colour co-ordinated rows. 

Sports stars are neither idols nor idiots. They are people. People who enjoy praise, so that it can go to their heads, but get hurt when they read vile things said about them. None of us are capable of taking on the worship of others, because we will always disappoint in the end. It is why Christian faith is so insistent on the danger of idolatry in all forms – taking something created by God and making it into a god. Theologian James KA Smith warns of the danger for a culture that has given up on God: "it is precisely when your ultimate conviction is that there is no eternal that you are most prone to absolutize the temporal." As St Augustine put it, paganised cultures tend to take created things and turn them into idols, and idols always disappoint, or even worse enslave.  

A vital part of Christian wisdom has always been to know our place within the universe – that we are called to the dignity of taking responsibility for, exercising a kind of benign dominion over the rest of creation, looking after it and caring for it on behalf of the Creator. Yet at the same time, we are ‘a little lower than the angels’ and certainly less than God. We are not self-created, free to rise as high as we can, aiming for the stars.  

On my regular journey into London some while ago, I used to pass a primary school that promised prospective parents that with the help of their teachers, there was ‘no limit to what your child can achieve’. It’s that kind of empty rhetoric that is so dangerous – it is bound to lead to a sense of disappointment when your beloved offspring doesn’t become a hot-shot lawyer, a brain surgeon, a wealthy banker or a sporting hero, but ends up serving behind a till in Tescos, or nursing the sick in a hospital, even though these jobs are just as valuable and essential for society as the better-paid ones. However gifted we are, there are things we cannot do, and will never do. All of us are frail vessels, with remarkable abilities, whether physical, social or intellectual, with the capacity for extraordinary acts of love and compassion, yet also liable to give into temptation to lie, cheat, or steal, as likely to let down our friends as much as to be loyal to them. 

Knowing our place in the world would stop us exalting our sporting heroes too high, or lambasting them as so low – raising them to heaven, or sending them to hell – that was never our job but God’s.  It would restore them as not idols or idiots but people – loved sinners if you like – with a high calling and remarkable abilities, yet with moral frailties and feebleness at the same time – just like us.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)