Friday, September 14, 2007

Sports and Catholic Schools

Occasionally people express the opinion that sports, particularly competitive team sports have no place in the curriculum of a Catholic School. In order to deal with this opinion it is good to first examine the basis for such a contention.

First of all, there is no doubt that it is possible to cite regular examples of sports figures being less than perfect role models for students. As I write this the McLaren racing team is being subjected to severe penalties for "cheating" against its rivals from Ferrari. The coach of the New England Patriots is apologizing for making videos of opponents signals for the purpose of gaining advantage. Michael Vick might be out of a sports career after charges that he had some role in organizing dog fighting matches. Many fans objected to whatever record Barry Bonds set because of allegations of steroid use on his part. This past summer so many athletes failed drug tests during the Tour de France that the final result became irrelevant in the press. As I write this O.J. Simpson (who has not been a role model for some time) is being questioned over his role in a break-in/robbery at some sports memorabilia event in Las Vegas (does anyone collect Simpson memorabilia?). So, it seems that despite public relation efforts (The NBA cares!) there is lots of evidence that contemporary sports culture does not provide much in the way of role models to young people. On the contrary side there have been examples of athletes who were fine role models of course.

Secondly regarding the role that team sports plays in our culture is the allegation that sports itself has become a sort of religion. That is, people put ultimate value on winning and overcoming the opposition instead of placing ultimate value with God where it belongs. Sundays are increasingly dominated by sporting events at the expense of church..

Thirdly, people say that competitive team sports are incompatible with the Gospel. In the Gospel of Matthew (Chpt 5) we find Jesus saying:

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

These points seem to summarize the case that people make for objecting to competitive team sports in the program of a Catholic school. On the surface these are logical points and it is important to recognize the logical basis for concern regarding this question. Still it is possible to deal with these concerns and make a case for the role of competitive sports in our Catholic schools.

First of all, it seems important to point out that just because contemporary sports is full of examples of behavior incompatible with Gospel values it does not follow that sports is not capable of providing examples of behavior based on the Gospel. So, just as in the past there were examples of athletes being models of dedication, perseverance, and concern for others (team work); it is quite possible that these kinds of examples can exist now and in the future. Christianity has a long tradition of being counter-cultural and if we are aware of the values that ground us it should be possible to play competitive sports in a way that is compatible with the Gospel.

Regarding the passage from Matthew quoted above certain things stand out. First of all, in this passage Jesus is not talking directly about competition. He is talking instead about retalliation and the commentators I have read suggest that he is using hyperbole to make a point. In other words I do not think that Jesus intended all of his followers to be absolute pacifists as the passage suggests. So, what we have here is not a black and white question. The whole question of the attitude of the early Church to soldiers suggests the complexity of our approach to this issue. On the surface of it you would expect the early Church to be strongly opposed to soldiers since they sort of are the atithesis of the Gospel ideal suggested in the passage from Matthew. Still, even in the New Testament we find soldiers being portrayed in a favorable light. The confession of the soldier seeking a cure for his child is still a part of our liturgy: "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof ...". The words of the centurion at the foot of the cross make another example as does the reference to Cornelius in the book of Acts. In each of these cases the author does not explicitly approve of the soldier's profession but does not condemn the profession either. Paul uses military analogies in his writing just as he uses sports analogies (I hope to post something on this in the future) In his book, We Look for a Kingdom, Karl Sommer discusses the complexities of the attitude of the early Church to soldiers. You expect to find a blanket exclusion for soldiers seeking to enter the Church but we find examples of soldiers as Christians from very early on. The point here is if we were taking the passage from Matthew literally and were applying it in a black and white kind of way we would expect the attitude of the early Church to be quite different from what it actually was. The reality is that early Christians recognized that there was much that was morally objectionable in a soldier's life (participating in executions for example) yet there were also values and attitudes that could make a soldier a good Christian. I think that the same point applies to athletics. There are no quotes from Jesus (that I can think of) regarding sports and athletes but Paul does make significant use of sports analogies although again he neither approves of nor objects to sports. I would suggest therefore, that competitive sports does not have to be incompatible with Gospel values. I hope in a future post(s) to explore the ways that competitive sports can be effective ways of promoting some important spiritual values.

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