The National Catholic Review

Cage fighting: two warriors locked in a steel pen, at battle in a mixed-martial arts contest, seek to end the fight by a “guillotine choke” or a “crucifix hold.” Such combat has been hailed by one television reporter as “the dawn of a new era in American sports.” Nor is such violent competition simply for men: women too now engage not only in professional boxing, but in mixed-martial arts for all to see on television.

College softball: a stunned and cheering crowd watches as two women playing for Central Washington University cradle one of their injured opponents, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon, and carry her around the bases. They enable her to touch each base to score the home run that Tucholsky had earned by a hit over the fence moments before her knee gave out as she rounded first. As Mallory Holtman, the first baseman who carried Sara, explained, “She deserved it. Anybody would have done it.... Winning is not everything.”

In the wide world of sports, which way are we moving? Billions around the world enjoyed the Beijing Olympics; millions in the United States watch the baseball playoffs and prepare for what we still call the “World” Series. And Super Bowl Sunday will once again capture our attention come Feb. 1, 2009. Sports is always big news. More and more, it is also big business. How much of our television, newspaper and Internet coverage and conversation are taken up with sports? How many sports metaphors continue to color our language?

In this issue we explore a few aspects of sports, including a look back at how Title IX legislation began to level the playing field for women and an analysis of the way athletic contests are becoming more and more truly “world” competitions, in which the salaries of athletes are matched only by those of Wall Street executives (before the financial crisis). Finally, the topic of sports and the spiritual life gives an opportunity for reflection on the deeper, perennial values of sports.

There is no question that as a culture we are seeing sports in a more and more positive light, not just with regard to our physical health but also for our emotional and spiritual well-being. Health consciousness is at an all-time high and has led to greater sports activity like aerobics, jogging, in-line skating, walking, bicycling and much more.

But our obsession with sports has a darker side. The greed that has brought Wall Street to its knees has also made deep inroads into sports at every level. Professional athletes increasingly earn salaries that are several orders of magnitude greater than those of the fans who foot the bill. On the amateur level, one commentator notes that “college sports is awash in money.” Indeed, many collegiate head coaches earn million-dollar salaries, far more than the best professors at their universities.

Is there a link between this desire for money and the fatal attraction to see brutality and violence in sports? Boxing (with 500 killed in the past 100 years) and football (1,000 football-related deaths since 1931) are two prime offenders. Now we also can find such carnage in extreme sports, the X Games and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Mike Tyson attacks not with his fists, but by biting the ear of his opponent. A knife-wielding fan rushes onto the tennis court to put Monica Seles out of action. Angry parents attack an umpire at a Little League game. Drug abuse multiplies too as part of the drive to win at any cost, as younger and younger players start juicing up with steroids to compete on the track, the gridiron or the diamond. The incentive to cheat also increases as sports becomes more and more commercialized.

What is the way forward? Many groups and individuals must participate in the move, in the words of Pope John Paul II, to enable “sports to be at the service of humanity, and not the human person at the service of sports.” The pope expressed the desire that sports “be a factor of emancipation for poorer countries and help to eradicate intolerance and build a more fraternal and united world.” Legal authorities can work to curb drug abuse and stem the tide of violence. N.C.A.A. officials need to redouble efforts at oversight of college athletics. Various groups, including religious organizations, can lobby for sports that help to develop such values as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity.

Marshall McLuhan wrote many years ago that we “know a culture by how it plays its games.” Indeed, sports reflect the society we live in, and our world is both violent and, as the past few weeks have shown, greedy. We would like to think, however, that sports can and should be the exception and the model. We believe deep down that we are much better than the violence, the cheating, the greed or the win-at-any-cost attitude. In the words of Mallory Holtman, “winning is not everything.”

Comments

Dobie Moser | 10/19/2008 - 11:51pm
Thank you for contributing to a much-needed dialog regarding sports and its role in our society. We likewise need to give serious consideration to the role of sports in our Catholic institutions. How do the sports programs in our Catholic schools reflect or violate our mission and values? How do our CYO programs navigate the minefields of fair playing time, background violence, parents and coaches living vicariously through children, and the pervasive pressure to win at all cost that has filtered down from the highest to the lowest levels of youth sports? Sports are a great way to connect with young people and to help them discover the amazing capabilities of what individuals and teams can do and be. More than a few young people and families have decided that the sports arena and lessons learned therein are more deserving of their weekend time than going to mass. Sports in Catholic settings can be a vehicle for learning moral lessons, catechesis, service to others, prayer and much more. This requires coaches training and working with our Catholic school and CYO leaders to intentionally and strategically integrate our Catholic mission and values into all aspects of our sports programs. The measure of our success in sports in Catholic settings is how we help young people grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Since young people and parents care deeply about sports and invest significant time and resources into sports, the opportunities are plentiful. Dr. Greg Dobie Moser, D. Min National CYO Sports Executive Director
Jerry McGrane | 10/11/2008 - 12:06pm
I have had the great privilege of coaching football and wrestling for eight years. Two lessons I have learned dominate the way I approach sports as a coach, a fan and, as my children take their first steps on the field, a parent. The first is that regardless of the sport, success demands a team effort. In the past, for me at least, this meant the athletes and coaches. Experience has taught me, however, that the team consists not only of players and coaches, but also coaches’ spouses, the parents, students, administrators, youth coaches, and community members. Each contributes to the overall effort. When I look around my state at some of the most successful high school sports programs, it is not just great coaching or great athletes that set them apart. These programs also have the unwavering and unconditional support and effort of the entire community. The second lesson that guides my approach to sports is that sports are not an end in themselves, but merely a means to an end. Winning, while fun and important is not the ultimate goal, but rather a mark of progress on the way to the ultimate goal. Sports teach our young people to work hard with others toward a common goal. The basketball player doesn’t spend countless hours on the court just to be a better basketball player. He or she does so to become a better wife or husband, mechanic, nurse, business owner, vet, lawyer, or farmer. I am fortunate this season to serve as chaplain to the Beckman football team. One thing I have told the players during our prayer services is that we go to practice and to the chapel for the same reason—to become better men. The virtues necessary to be successful in sports are Christian virtues: discipline, self-sacrifice, and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. As members of the same team, we all have the responsibility of instilling these virtues in our young men and women and putting them into practice ourselves.

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