Catholic tradition an antidote to ‘crisis of meaning’ in sports

| Jonathan Liedl | January 24, 2018 | 0 Comments
Super Bowl Football


On Feb. 4, the nation’s attention — and, indeed, the attention of many around the world — will be squarely on the Twin Cities, as Super Bowl 52 plays out at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

But more than just the Lombardi Trophy will be at stake when the New England Patriots square off against the Philadelphia Eagles.

For the players themselves, sizable bonuses hinge on the game’s outcome, not to mention the inevitable boost to leverage in contract negotiations and sponsorship opportunities that can come with a stellar performance on the NFL’s biggest stage. The bottom lines of local businesses will also be in play, as Twin Cities companies are betting that the hard work of hosting the spectacle will pay off with an expected $338 million in Super Bowl-related economic activity. And fans themselves will hope their investment pays off with a thrilling performance after spending nearly $5,000 on average to attend.

With so much money in play and the fortunes of so many at stake, one would be forgiven for forgetting that at the heart of it all is a game of football, a game that’s meant to be enjoyed.

In many ways, though, the astronomical amount of money involved in the Super Bowl is less of an exception than it is an exaggeration of a trend playing out at every level of American sports: From professional leagues to the youth level, sports have become less about the game itself, and more about aims and goals beyond the field of play, such as money and fame.

A rich tradition

According to one expert, that’s an impoverished approach to sports that could richly benefit from the Church’s wisdom.

“The Catholic theological tradition has a lot to offer [on a proper view of sports], especially in our particular context where commodification has taken over,” said Father Pat Kelly, a Jesuit whose research at Seattle University considers sports from a faith perspective.

The Catholic Church has certainly paid attention to sports in recent years: St. John Paul II dedicated more than 30 pastoral statements to sports during his pontificate; Pope Francis shared a video prior to last year’s Super Bowl celebrating how participation in sports can allow a person to go beyond self-interest, and the Pontifical Council for Culture added a dedicated department for sports in 2004.

But the Church’s engagement with athletics is nothing new. As far back as the Middle Ages, Father Kelly’s research shows, sports and physical recreation were staples of Catholic culture. Participation in sports and games as an enjoyable form of leisure took place on Sundays and feast days, which accounted for about one-third of the year. Catholic schools of the time also ensured that their students had the time and space to play. The ubiquity and affirmation of sports is reflected in the fact that games and sports were depicted in the religious art of these periods, from stained glass windows to woodcuts in churches.

Father Kelly, whose interest in the intersection of faith and sports was partly inspired by his own experience as a collegiate football player at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, said several factors contribute to the faith’s affirmation of sports. For one, Catholics have always had a basic view of the material world as good, a gift from God. The Catholic understanding of the human person as a composite of soul and body underscores the need to attend to, not neglect, physical activity.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Father Kelly said, is also a prominent figure in the tradition’s affirmation of the proper place of sports. St. Thomas emphasized the human good of “play” and said that one could err not only in too much play, but also in too little. For St. Thomas, play isn’t merely a means to an end. Rather, he wrote, “Playing has no purpose beyond itself; what we do in play is done for its own sake.” Like contemplation, play is good not primarily because of the temporal goods it leads to, but because of what it is.

Faith in the standsThe Catholic tradition also has something to say about sports to spectators.

In an age of individualism, sports have been celebrated by recent popes as a way to connect people of different religions, races and economic statuses in a common pursuit. Sports fandom can give people a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

“Sports is certainly one of the most important phenomena that could easily pass profound values via commonly understood language,” said St. John Paul II in his Sportsmen Jubilee address delivered in 2000.

But the pope also noted that sports can also be abused in the opposite direction.

“Besides sports that unites exist sports that divides,” he said.

In an era of relativism and skepticism, Father Pat Kelly warns that some may turn to their sports identity as a source of ultimate meaning or purpose in their lives. Fandom can too easily replace faith.

“My concern is that people might expect too much from sports,” he said. “I don’t think sports can bear all that weight in a healthy way.”

As a result of giving sports an existential significance it isn’t meant to carry, fans can begin to view their opponents not as competitors, but as enemies, and winning as an ultimate end.

Father Kelly noted that there are parallels between the way sports and politics are practiced when people place too much of their hopes and identity in them:
A losing outcome can be treated as a near-apocalyptic event.

He said part of the antidote is never losing sight of the humanity of all players involved, regardless of the colors of their uniform. After all, their human dignity comes because they’re created in the image of God, not because they play for a particular team.

“We need to keep the human person front and center,” he said. “We need to remember that each athlete is a person with a family and a life after sports.”

— Jonathan Liedl

Sports for sports’ sake

Father Kelly said this last point — the intrinsic value of play — is vital for understanding sports’ unique capacity to contribute to human flourishing.

“When we treat sports as the game that it is, we experience joy and enjoyment,” Father Kelly said. He points to the work of Christian sociologist Peter Berger, who died last year. He argued that people’s capacity for play was a “signal of transcendence” — the fact that the athlete can engage in sports for its own sake, not as a means to some other good like money or acclaim, indicates that he or she is something more than just his or her material conditions.

Another approach that Father Kelly believes can help society understand the intrinsic value of sports is the theory of flow experiences, developed by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. Flow theory emphasizes that happiness comes not primarily from external goods like money, but the quality of the experiences in our lives. “Flow,” as Csíkszentmihályi uses the term, refers to “the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.”

Flow experiences, which can result in great enjoyment, involve effort, selflessness and a singular focus on the task at hand — not the material benefits they could lead to. In the context of sports, they require people to treat the game itself as an “autotelic” event — that is, as an activity that contains its own goal.

“Why do we play sports? Because at some point someone said, ‘This would sure be fun to do,’” said Father Kelly, emphasizing that sports are a reminder of people’s freedom and creativity. “We make them up, we play them, and the reason we do so is because they’re fun to play.”

Father Kelly is clear to emphasize that a “sports for sports’ sake” approach doesn’t mean participation in sports won’t lead to other goods. As he points out, St. Thomas emphasized that the enjoyment experienced at play is directed to an end: the refreshment or restoration of the soul. Nor does it mean that “winning at all costs” can be justified, because this mentality puts an outcome ahead of the activity. Rather, the Catholic tradition emphasizes that by entering into sports with the simple goal of playing them for their own sake, participants receive not only the joy of play, but also many secondary benefits. It’s a both/and, rather than an either/or.

A similar approach has animated David Johnson during his long career in youth athletics. He’s been the physical education teacher at St. Raphael Catholic School in Crystal for 40 years, and he has also coached high school basketball at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, Totino-Grace High School in Fridley and several Twin Cities public schools.

“I don’t look at wins and losses,” said Johnson, who is affectionately known as “Mr. J” and currently coaches the boys freshman basketball team at Irondale High School in New Brighton. “I look at each day, each practice, each game as a gift from God.”

Johnson said his focus with his players is on “getting better 1 percent each game,” whether that entails working on a skill like dribbling or something broader like playing better as a team. As a natural byproduct of this approach, players grow their capacity to enjoy the game and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Johnson, who considers coaching to be his vocation and carries a crucifix in his pocket during each game, said this kind of approach doesn’t come at the expense of striving for excellence, nor does it prevent his players from giving glory to God through their performance. Rather, it emphasizes that excellence isn’t measured by the scoreboard, but by playing to the best of one’s God-given ability.

“Even though we want to win, that’s not our ultimate goal,” Johnson said. “If we focus solely on the scoreboard, we’ll lose an opportunity to become better young men and a better team.”

A‘ crisis of meaning’

But the approach to sports promoted by Father Kelly, practiced by Johnson and rooted in the Catholic tradition is not in vogue in U.S. society today, a reality Johnson has learned the hard way. He said some schools have relieved him of his coaching duties because he focused too much on life lessons and not enough on winning.

“Sometimes the moves have been hard, because my coaching philosophy may have not been accepted,” he said. He is thankful, however, that each move has allowed him to “bring the light of Christ” to more people through coaching.

Father Kelly said the prevailing mentality is indicative of a “crisis of meaning” in U.S. sports, in which sports have been reduced as a means to other ends. He attributes the crisis to what Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has called the emergence of a “market society” in America, in which all activities, not just economic ones, are evaluated solely by their market value.

In this view, if an activity isn’t leading to an end beyond itself, like making money, then it’s not worth doing. The impact of this outlook, which was classified as the ideology of “total work” by the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper in his influential “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” published in 1948, can also be seen in other areas of society, such as higher education, where science/technology/engineering/math (STEM) majors are increasingly eclipsing the liberal arts.

The effects of the market society are obvious at the professional level, but they’ve also trickled down to youth sports. Participation in sports for the average youth is more intensive, expensive and specialized than ever before. Father Kelly said that this “professionalized” approach to youth sports has led to decreased participation, as children drop out because they’re not having fun.

“If even our children’s games aren’t playful, then we’ve gone astray as a society,” he said.

But Father Kelly said participants who view sports only as a means to an end — like a college scholarship or a lucrative career — are also missing out on some of sports’ positive secondary benefits. Important character traits like selflessness and loyalty fall by the wayside when a young person’s primary goal is catching the eye of a college recruiter or an NFL scout.

While Father Kelly acknowledges that sports have been a vehicle for some young people, including those from minority communities, to attend college and escape poverty, he said this isn’t the outcome for most youths. But by setting unrealistic expectations centered on athletic performance, children in these situations are missing out on broader human development.

According to one Minnesota hockey dad, that’s a concern across the board.

“There’s a lot of talk about developing kids, but few people ask ‘developing them for what?’” said Ryan Wilson, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, who has four children playing youth hockey. “Ninety-nine percent will never play [organized] hockey after they graduate, so it’s important that we allow kids to live in the moment and enjoy the sport they’re playing today.”

Because the market society mentality commodifies all activities based on their material worth, it can put sports participation in competition with other pursuits that contain their own goals, like practicing the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, too often the faith loses.

“The No. 1 excuse I receive for an absence is sports,” said Mariah Smith, the youth and confirmation coordinator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings. “Sports do not just trump class, but often times they will trump Sunday Mass as well.”

Smith said the real tragedy is that the over-professionalization of sports has made something that should be received as an opportunity to thank God into something that competes with him.

“It’s a common human error, I think, that when we find something good that gives us some sort of pleasure, we don’t just enjoy it in gratitude as a gift from God,” she said. “Instead, we make an idol of it and we replace the Giver with the gift.”

Reclaiming sports for Christ

While the crisis of sports in America and beyond is real, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Church. In October 2016, the Vatican hosted a conference on Sport at the Service of Humanity. A regional follow up focused on “Faith and Collegiate Sports” was held at Villanova University near Philadelphia last June.

In addition to academic conferences, several U.S.

Catholic colleges also host institutions dedicated to considering and applying what faith has to say about sports. These include the Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development at Neumann University in Pennsylvania, Seattle University’s Center for the Study of Sport and Exercise, and the Play Like a Champion Educational Series associated with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Most of the impact, however, will occur at a more local level, through the witness and decisions of parents and coaches, administrators and athletes. It can be hard to go against the prevailing approach to athletics, which is why the Twin Cities-based Catholic Schools Center of Excellence is currently developing “4 His Glory,” a unified resource to help Catholic school coaches integrate the faith into sports.

“4 His Glory is a program that will reclaim youth sports for Christ in our Catholic grade schools,” said Gail Dorn, CSCOE president, adding that the program is being led by former Minnesota Viking Matt Birk and will launch in time for the fall 2018 sports season.

The program might not be ready in time for next month’s Super Bowl, but Father Kelly has some advice for those who plan to watch: “Appreciate good team play, appreciate the beauty of a great run or pass. Enjoy yourself. It’s a gift.”

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