Magazine article Momentum

The Spirituality of Sports in Catholic Schools

Magazine article Momentum

The Spirituality of Sports in Catholic Schools

Article excerpt

Does participation on athletic teams inculcate values consistent with our mission to teach as Jesus did?

In graduate school, I lived near the base of Heartbreak Hill, the last of the three steep climbs in the latter part of the Boston Marathon course. I frequently ran Heartbreak as part of my own workouts, and remember reading an interview with a retirement-aged physician who had run Boston multiple times. He said that he had never run a marathon where he had not "encountered himself."

My own experience is similar. Covering 26.2 miles under your own power is more a challenge of the spirit than the legs. More than once I have crossed the finish line and sworn, "Never again." In fact, although St. Sebastian - a third century martyr - is declared the patron saint of athletes, perhaps Elijah with his desire to die (1 Kgs 19:4) ought to be the patron saint of marathoners. Yet I keep coming back, looking for some deeper part of myself amidst the suffering and sweat.

Any high school cross country meet I attend these days is awash in T-shirts with slogans celebrating the suffering involved in distance running, such as "Our sport is your sport's punishment." Pop culture contains a large number of stories about athletes achieving the laurels of glory through their individual desire and will. But, as Catholic educators, we must ask ourselves, what role do organized sports play in our schools? What role ought they play? Is there more than just Stoic suffering, "true grit" and the triumph of hard work to be found in sports? Jesus asked his disciples (and each one of us), "What are you looking for?" (John 1:38). Our most profound responses might include connection, truth, meaning and how to live a good life. Shouldn't our athletic pursuits serve as a help, not a hindrance, in this pursuit?


It is a truism in our schools (and in our culture at large) that organized sports teach important values. But we must ask ourselves, does participation on athletic teams inculcate values consistent with our mission to teach as Jesus did? Increasingly, there is troubling information to suggest that the answer is no. According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, 65 percent of high school student-athletes surveyed admitted cheating in the classroom, as opposed to 60 percent among non-athletes. Varsity athletes report being more apt to cheat than non-varsity athletes, and athletes in high-profile male sports such as football, baseball and basketball report higher incidences of cheating than their classmates in other sports. (McMahon, September 9, 2007). While a number of factors - time pressure, high levels of stress among high-achieving students, using professional athletes as role models, a distorted focus on winning at any cost, just to name a few - help explain this situation, we must return to the question, what role ought organized sports play in our schools?


An adequate response to this question comes only when we spend time wrestling with the question of how we intend to measure success. As teachers and coaches, it is altogether appropriate to set goals that include league championships and college scholarships for our athletes. However, if we intend to teach as Jesus did, our planning and assessment need to include conscious, careful and honest responses to questions like these:

* At the end of the season (or the end of their playing careers) are our athletes more loving than when we began together, as a result of being on our teams?

* Did our athletes grow in compassion for others, as a result of our work together?

* Were our athletes more generous, religious and open to growth, as a result of participating in our sport?

As with our classroom preparation and teaching, we need to be intentional and creative in providing and designing opportunities for our student-athletes to achieve these outcomes. That means making a priority of team activities that are non-athletic in nature, like prayer and community service. …

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