Sports, among other things, always bonded my brother and me in a special way. We were pretty good kids, but not paragons of virtue, with an occasional late hit in a backyard football game, yelling at the top of our lungs that the other was cheating, or ducking an occasional ping-pong paddle that would be hurled in boomerang motion after a hotly contested point. Without calling it virtue, I think we worked at overcoming those things through the years, sometimes after a necessary correction by mom or dad.
After suffering tough losses in the high school state wrestling tournament, my brother and I took different paths. He stopped wrestling and headed to college, and now has a successful career as a lawyer, and most recently a judge. I continued to wrestle in college. The loss my senior year in high school was the impetus for deciding to continue wrestling, eventually leading to placing 8th in the nation during my senior year, an All-American on a small college National Championship Team.
It is, however, easy to allow our passion for sports to become disordered. This can be the case when people allow athletics to supplant the proper worship due to God, especially on the Lord’s Day. We owe God our adoration and worship under the virtue of justice. What is due to the Triune God is our worship, love, and adoration, at all times, but most especially on Sundays.
As parents and coaches, we must not delude ourselves and think that it is acceptable to place virtue and right thinking on the shelf, even for a moment, to accomplish our goals. We have a responsibility to use good language and not be whiners when the calls don’t go our way. We should be helping to build up well-rounded boys and girls, men and women…and yes, to build up saints, beginning with ourselves.
Coaches are called to be role models, mentors, but not in opposition to, or in place of, parents. Parents are called by God to be the primary educators and formers of their children. Coaches, while tremendously influential, should work with parents. Parents, on their part, must be respectful of coaches. Both parents and coaches need to keep in mind that the kids and teenagers they are parenting or coaching are also watching and looking to them. Virtue is crucial – especially the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
While sports can greatly benefit girls and boys, men and women, we need to recognize the legitimate, God-made differences in both body and soul between the sexes. “Male and Female, He created them”…equal and complimentary, but obviously different. Certain contact sports are simply wrong for male and female to compete in against one another like wrestling, boxing, tackle football, and rugby. Sometimes there needs to be separation for reasons of modesty, sometimes for reasons of the sheer physicality, and yes, a certain degree of violence built into certain sports, whether it is a safety running full force into a wide receiver or a wrestler lacing a hard cross-face or cranking a power-half against his opponent, or a boxer connecting with a right hook.
Virtue and right thinking does not take a day off simply for the accomplishment of goals.
Put another way, “a good end is not justified by immoral means.” The Greeks, inventors of the Olympic Games in 776 B.C., had a saying, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive insane.” Let us be numbered among the sane and not trade virtue for a championship, a medal, or even a scholarship. 1Timothy 6:12 calls us not just to fight, but to “fight the good fight of the faith.”
In the previous edition of The Witness, I mentioned the apostolate SportsLeader, aimed at building virtue through sports https://www.sportsleader.org/2016/09/diocese-of-harrisburg-partners-with-sportsleader. It was approved and announced in July 2016 by Bishop Ronald Gainer for all diocesan high schools. It has the potential to bear much good fruit in the Diocese of Harrisburg and is to be implemented in every one of our high schools in every sport, even where other good programs are also being used.
Every high school principal and athletic director at our seven diocesan high schools has received information on it throughout the year, (including information on a “virtue of the week”), and every high school administrative team has had a training session in SportsLeader’s core principles. There will be more to come. SportsLeader’s aim is the evangelization, formation, and growth in the virtues of coaches and student-athletes. Some of our elementary CYO coaches have implemented this program as well. We anticipate more doing so in the future.
SportsLeader has four main pillars: 1) Virtue Formation (104 virtues over two years, or one per week); 2) Intentional coach to student-athlete mentoring, whereby coaches schedule some time every week to talk with every player/athlete on their team; 3) Ceremonies such as “Father-Son, Father-Daughter Jersey Night” and “Letters to Mom Night”, and 4) Catholic Identity.
Just recently, a number of our high school coaches and their student-athletes participated in SportsLeader’s Advent challenge. What was the challenge? It was that our high school sports teams attend Mass together as a team every Sunday during Advent.
There have also been diocesan and school Eucharistic Adoration and Rosary rallies for teams, as well as blessings by priest-chaplains of gymnasiums, equipment, and of the coaches. Every one of our high schools now has the SportsLeader banner displayed (usually in the gym) with the SportsLeader logo, “Virtue = Strength.”
Each of us is a body-soul composite. Our souls act in and through the actions of our bodies. Sports bring this reality out in a most tangible way. We exult in victory. We love to win. We hate to lose. The more we work at sports, the more likely we are to win. If we can translate this into our spiritual lives, the more likely it is that we shall prevail and win the imperishable prize of eternal glory. Let us run so as to win!
(Jim Gontis is the Director of the Diocesan Department of Religious Education and the Director of Sports Ministry.)
By Jim Gontis, Special to The Witness