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Playing the man and not the ball

I’ve been pondering the unwelcome reality of disagreements with friends.

My recent Briefing review of Michael Jensen’s book on Sydney Anglicanism* reflects a difference of opinion between Michael and me that we are still in the midst of discussing. I’m also in the process of writing something in response to John Dickson’s ebook on women and sermons, and this too will highlight disagreements with John about some important issues.

Now, I have known and respected Michael and John for a long time. They are both warm-hearted and extravagantly-gifted brothers in Christ, with whom I agree about most of the important things in life (John’s support for Manchester United not being one of them!).

But how should Christians conduct ourselves when we disagree? There’s lots to be said on this topic, and I’d like to explore just one aspect briefly here—an aspect, I would hasten to add, that is not aimed particularly at Michael or John.

I’ve just been thinking how easy and tempting it is to play the man and not the ball.

For non-football types, this means targeting an opposition player, usually with the intent of putting them out of commission, rather than following the movement of the ball and playing the game for its own sake.

Des Hasler, the legendary Manly rugby league player (and now coach), was renowned for doing the opposite; that is, for playing the ball and not the man. His nickname as a footballer was ‘Sorry’, because after burying an opposing player in the turf with one of his characteristic bone-jarring tackles, Hasler would often mutter ‘Sorry mate’ to his opponent as he shakily got to his feet. You were carrying the ball and trying to score. I had to tackle you. Nothing personal. Sorry mate.

As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.

In my experience, this is not only hard to do, but all-too-rare to encounter (especially online).

Several little indicators give it away. You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

All the same, while we should seek to play the ball and not the man, there’s no getting around the fact that the ball is usually carried by a man. Ideas and arguments do not float in the ether. They are presented by someone, and debating the ideas will almost always affect that someone.

So with the best will in the world, most people do find it emotionally challenging to be criticised or disagreed with, especially in a public forum, even if it is done in a good way. When we critique someone’s work or ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised that it affects them, and our relationship with them, at least in the short-term.

And even if there is no emotional hurt, the most careful and gracious disagreements still generate relational and practical implications. So imagine you and I disagreed about baptism (for example), and had a fair, reasonable and gracious discussion about the issue, without managing to persuade one another. We would hopefully still remain gospel friends and in good relationship, and cooperate in gospel work where possible, given that we agreed on everything else that was important. But we might not be able to be members of the same church or denomination, or speak at the same conferences or events—if baptism were an issue of significance in those contexts. And if our arguments were presented publicly, the outcome might affect our respective reputations or relationships with readers and observers.

All this is a sad but unavoidable reality of life in an imperfect world, it seems to me. Disagreements will almost always be difficult, have unwished-for consequences, and take up our time and emotional energy—even as we seek at all times to play the ball and not the man.

* The review will go online here at The Briefing on March 18.

10 thoughts on “Playing the man and not the ball

  1. “All the same, while we should seek to play the ball and not the man, there’s no getting around the fact that the ball is usually carried by a man.”

    I always assumed the image is taken to relate to soccer, rather than rugby.
    In which case it means more that if, in the course of trying to score a goal, you end up breaking your opponent’s ankle, you haven’t played with enough skill or care.

  2. Tom, I suspect your comment is historically correct. And soccer is less of a contact sport than rugby league! (And I really wish Tony didn’t have to pick a Manly player as the hero of his illustration.)

    Theological discussion is neither sport, nor a contact activity!

    However even in soccer it’s possible that making a genuine and legitimate effort to tackle the one flying forward with the ball at his feet like it’s on a string, you can miscalculate and hurt the guy in your tackle. And maybe there’s some of us who lack the skill to reliably make such a tackle well, but we’re still supposed to try and stop the bloke (cause after all it’s the bloke who’s putting the ball in the net you’re defending.)

    I think the point stands, we don’t deliberately go out to hurt the man. But sometimes, due to lack of sufficient skill, or misjudgment in the heat of battle, or yes, even mixed motives, you play the ball truly but still also hurt the man. And I think that’s inevitable on occasions.

    And so the follow up is crucial, like with Des Hasler!

    • Take your point about Manly, Sandy! I take comfort from the fact that at least Dessie did the right thing eventually and walked out …

  3. Hi Tom

    I’m tempted to say that this is my article and my illustration, and like Humpty Dumpty it will mean whatever I say it means!

    You may be right about the origin of the saying. I don’t know. Certainly the point I’m wishing to make is clearer if you apply the saying to rugby league/union — that is, the importance and desirability of playing the ball, while recognizing that in our world there will still often be bruises.

    • Lawn bowls is too dangerous Sandy, there are more fatalities at lawn bowls than any other sport…

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  5. BTW, someone has pointed out that the paragraph about Des makes it sound as if he is the Manly coach — which of course he no longer is. He’s gone across to another of my least favourite teams: the Bulldogs.

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