When Sports Displace Catholic Education

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When I started writing this, the Notre Dame football team was ranked so high in the national polls that many people thought it would play in the national championship playoffs. A certain type of Catholic was standing a little taller in those days, sometimes sporting Fighting Irish gear even at Mass. Now, those same people have instead a Lenten-like look, for Our Lady’s team has lost and is out of the running for this season’s championship.

On the rare occasions when Notre Dame loses, those of us allied with other Catholic schools like to tease the “Domers” – a mask for our envy, of course. For we are all secretly jealous of Notre Dame’s athletic success. Our unconscious envy only reveals what everybody somehow already knows but does not reflect upon: Catholic schools in the United States, both on the collegiate and high school level, are now thoroughly attached to and reliant upon sports programs.

To be sure, like all young people, Catholic students have always loved ballgames; but even the most cursory glance at the history of Christian education reveals that what most clearly distinguishes today’s American Catholic educational institutions from their historical antecedents is the prominent position now commanded by sports teams. I have begun to refer to this phenomenon as the rise of the “American Catholic Sports Academies” (ACSAs).

I write from the Pacific Northwest, where the most visible of the ACSAs is Gonzaga University. This school, which has just announced plans for an expensive new “Center for Athletic Achievement,” is much more famous for its basketball teams than its philosophy department, wherein I teach.

In the Northwest, however, ACSAs are more common on the high school level. The just-completed football season was particularly kind to them: Idaho’s only diocesan Catholic high school won the championship for its division; in Oregon, a Catholic high school won the championship for the largest-sized schools; and in Washington state, the largest two divisions went to Catholic schools.

Some of these Northwest ACSAs have conducted marketing surveys that ask parent/supporters why they send their children to Catholic high school. Among the top items on the list is always “activity programs,” at the bottom is always “faith formation.”

Of course, every philosopher knows that human beings reveal more about themselves through expressing anger than they do through answering marketing surveys. A single sad – if comical – incident will have to suffice to illustrate the point. At one Northwest ACSA, a principal and athletic director recently discovered that major athletic recruiting violations had occurred at their high school. In the spirit of Catholic confession (not to mention league rules), they reported the infractions to conference officials. This resulted in a penance for the school: the forfeiture of games and trophies.

Female athletes depicted in 4th-century A.D. mosaics (Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily)
Female athletes depicted in 4th-century A.D. mosaics (Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily)

But this, in turn, led to the formation of an angry mob of athletic boosters, who demanded the firing of the whistleblowers for donning sackcloth. Weak-kneed archdiocesan administrators ran into their offices, from whence it seemed the only way to emerge in safety was to place lesser sanctions on the whistleblowers and ask for an independent investigation of the whole affair. But, alas, the independent investigation vindicated the whistleblowers completely, and with painful precision; the archdiocesan officials are thus left trying to break the bad news to the angry boosters delicately, and with indirection.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine admits that, as a child, he cheated at ballgames and became angry when he was found out; the ACSA parents of Seattle do such as adults.

There is no real parallel to the modern ACSA in the whole history of Catholic education. To find a true analogue, you would have to turn to the ancient “gymnastic” of Greece and Rome – to the Homeric and Olympic games honoring the pagan deities. With the advent of Christianity, however, Greco-Roman athleticism was transformed into asceticism. The two are not completely dissimilar, but the former aimed at comeliness of body, as well as proportion, muscle, and military virtue. The latter aimed only at improvement of soul – even if it meant with some damage to the body, if necessary.

The striking return of gymnastic to American educational institutions, and especially to Catholic ones, ought not be accepted unreflectively, for even the more thoughtful Greeks knew that an education based solely on gymnastic will produce souls as stunted as those of the Spartans.

Plato suggested that gymnastic could be useful within a sort of “bait and switch” educational scheme. You should introduce gymnastic early in the curriculum, he suggested, using it to develop the soul’s nascent spiritedness into love of victory, honor, and courage. The “switch” part comes next: you have to elevate the soul’s spiritedness away from gymnastic and toward a love of truth, wisdom, and the higher virtues. Such a redirection of the soul, in Plato’s view, was to be initiated through musical education, and then, later, through mathematics and liberal education generally. It culminated, of course, in philosophia, the love of wisdom.

The ACSAs seem to have mastered the “bait” part of Plato’s educational scheme. We use gymnastic to instill the desire for achievement in the souls of our students; in the best instances we also instill camaraderie and teamwork, and even courage, which, if it is not the most sublime of virtues, is still among the most foundational. What we don’t do well is the “switch” part. In the Catholic context, this would mean embracing Augustine’s educational plan, according to which Plato’s curriculum is used a stepping stone into the love of God.

Our ACSAs probably don’t have the resources necessary for such a task anymore, but as Augustine himself pointed out, you never know what God might have in mind.

Douglas Kries

Douglas Kries

Douglas Kries holds a doctorate in theology from Boston College; he is Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J., Professor of Christian Philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Among his published works is The Problem of Natural Law. He is not authorized to speak for or on behalf of Gonzaga University.

  • sg4402

    Interesting column.

    My take: Initially the Catholic school used the application of the natural inclination to sport as a way of gaining entry and fitting into the larger Culture. This goal was important and was given considerable attention. Now that they have become absorbed into that Culture, the ACSA has found a way to continued success, mostly through the ability to recruit. And, like the “academies” of the secular Culture at large, which has assimilated them, the ACSAs have no interest in the development of the soul. They have, for the most part, become a pragmatic lot, focused more on the material than the spiritual.

    Unfortunately, (in my opinion, for the SOUL), the liberal education has been brushed aside by the practical, with courses in engineering, the sciences and business gaining the most interest.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    One recalls Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada

    There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight –
    Ten to make and the match to win –
    A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
    An hour to play and the last man in.
    And it’s not for the sake of the ribboned coat,
    Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
    But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –
    ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’

    The sand of the Desert is sodden red –
    Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
    The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel’s dead,
    And the regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.
    The river of death has brimmed his banks,
    And England’s far, and Honour a name,
    But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
    ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’

    This is the word that year by year,
    While in her place the school is set,
    Every one of her sons must hear,
    And none that hears it dare forget.
    This they all with joyful mind
    Bear through life like a torch in flame,
    And falling fling to the host behind –
    ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’

    It was the Iron Duke who remarked that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Actually the Iron Duke was saved by the flank attack of General Blucher and 80,000 Prussians. Besides Napoleon was sitting on the hopper with constipation. The Duke likely benefited from tasteless British cuisine.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        There is a famous painting, lithographs of which can sometimes still be seen in old country inns, showing Wellington and Blücher, shaking hands at Hougomont. G K Chesterton remarked that “They should have hung up a companion piece of Pilate and Herod shaking hands.”

  • RaymondNicholas

    I have to say, couldn’t disagree more strongly with the two opening paragraphs. Such motives and thoughts do not represent me. However, I think the author is spot on for the rest. I was taught by heretical Christian Brothers in the 1960s and have never forgotten the pride they took in the school’s successful sports and academic programs (like the number of merit finalists and scholarships). I can remember much of it; but not a single teaching moment on the Faith and Doctors of the Church and their philosophical antecedents. I do remember the episcopal minister who taught religion classes and sensitivity workshops, like how to get in touch with our feelings above all things. The point is, the clerics in charge know exactly what the author wants, and they do not want to do it. It doesn’t fit their agenda. We are in a great divide, and Catholic schools that adhere to Catholic teachings are coming to an end (IMO).

    • Chris in Maryland

      Sadly…it is impossible not to agree with this.

  • Manfred

    A post-Catholic Church produces a post-Catholic education. Catholic academia has become just another business which markets itself as any business would. Thank you for explaining how it works in your area.

  • 3C4

    Sports have become a god to our culture. We spend more time and money on this nonsense than almost anything else.

  • Bernard Fischer

    Is not a key component of successful sports programs the emphasis on discipline, persistence, patience, teamwork and self-sacrifice? A successful athlete has to give up hours otherwise spent in the gym and practice field. He has to have the humility to assist his teammates instead of always trying to grab the spotlight for himself. He has to keep pushing in the face of a losing season out of a sense of honor and pride. He can’t eat junk food and can’t show up to the game with a hangover. It would seem these traits could easily be transferred to spiritual matters of prayer, fasting, hope in the face of adversity.

    Not everyone at Gonzaga or Georgetown or Notre Dame is an athlete, however. So the general applicability might be limited. But the athletes could be role models to the rest.

    • Fr Kloster

      You have some good insights. The “transfer” part is very difficult because of the cultural influence. Anything that we do devoid of virtue will implode to the lowest common denominator. Organized sports today isn’t about character building; it’s more about winning at any cost. Watch any sport on nearly any level and the players almost universally will cheat if they think it will give them an advantage. Then the TV and radio announcers echo the refrain “let them play.” I say; no, let them play by the rules. And while they’re at it, they should be a lot more respectful to the referees and officials.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “Organized sports today isn’t about character building; it’s more about winning at any cost.”

        But without the cultivation of at least some virtues, it is impossible to succede at anything. To take a Classical example, the Romans were a people who hated work, despised commerce and lived by plundering and enslaving their neighbours. To be successful at this (and they were very successful) it was necessary to cultivate certain very real virtues: courage, perseverance, self-control, prudence, discipline, constancy in misfortune, devotion to the community.

        So it is with athletics.

    • sg4402

      You speak of the ideal. But, a successful athlete can simply be 6’2″, weigh 220# and run a 4.4 40—all the other qualifiers, notwithstanding. And, much of that is just a natural, God given gift, admired by most all teammates. A ‘natural’—nothing more, nothing less.

      • Dave Fladlien

        I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life in and around professional, and serious amateur, sports, and I’d have to say I have never encountered a person who could win at those levels on talent alone. If they ever existed, the days when someone could do that are long gone. You’re right, the talent is God-given for all of us, but like many spiritual gifts that God gives us, that talent has to be developed, and we need God’s inspiration and guidance in it’s use even after most of that development is done.

        I think that I, and others with strong sports backgrounds, have a huge advantage in life because of the kind of thing that Bernard points out just above. People who show up with a hangover probably won’t need to show up much longer. And the lessons learned from that level of competition, like how to keep going when the going is really tough, last a life time.

        Anything can be abused, and certainly serious sports often is, but the fact that it can be abused in no way shows that it should not be encouraged, nor does it diminish the immense contribution serious sports makes to the lives of those of us who have had the great blessing of growing up in that environment.

        • sg4402

          In essence, I agree with both you and Bernard. My only point is there are exceptions, some glaring. Because raw physical talent can be so dominant, it can “hide a multitude of sins.” As one example, I think of that high school star who, although surely immature, can jump immediately to the professional level on physical talent alone. (Conditioning and team concept, of course, are a given.)

          On the other hand, I can remember Michael Jordan stating that the main reason for his enormous success (my term) was not his physical ability, but his determination and mental attitude.

          There was a natural (who shall remain nameless) in Chicago baseball who did’t go to training camp, showed up late for games, yet was a tremendous player. I personally saw him hit two home runs, 420 ft. over the center field wall of old Comiskey Park, line drives that looked, initially, like they would take the pitcher’s hat off.! A raw physical talent—who would have just as soon been at the race track. And, yes, he would still be a STAR TODAY.

        • 3C4

          Sports are about money. Schools want the money. The masses give money to watch these circuses. Sports, as they are played today, have no business being linked to education.

    • 3C4

      None of that needs to come from sports.

  • Bro_Ed

    I had the advantage of playing grammar school level sports before the grown-ups became involved and turned our pick-up and intramural games into mini pro league happenings with more training, uniforms, expensive equipment, travel, and stress. I met a grand child’s friend recently and asked why I didn’t see him at church any more on Sunday Morning. He said, “I can’t. It’s the only time we can get ice time.” That’s some priority. The irony is that many parents justify all this stress, time, and money on the scholarship to college their child might enjoy in later years. The last report I saw on that subject said that something under 5% would eventually get any scholarship aid at all, and maybe 1% might get a full scholarship. I’m not sure the game is worth the candle.

  • The gymnastic in Greek culture was also invariably homosexual. I suspect strongly that this resurgence plays a role in the new homonormative culture as a recruiting ground for children more interested in sports than in families.

  • Brian Seibert

    Very refreshing to hear of ONE school administrators sense of fair play…One , among thousands who are no different than their secular peers. I myself grew up …in what’s known in the parlance as ‘Subway Alum’ environment. Rooting for Notre Dame football was like rooting for the Christians against the Lions of the old coliseum….And then N.B.C. got involved with vast sums of money and influence in the N.C.A.A…Game over! the world of ‘Real Politic’ enters with all the vengeance and corruption that is ,not second nature to them, but first. And why? “Football Sells”, Never forget the ‘Texas A&M. FIVE’…Five outstanding players were suspended from playing in a ‘Bowl’ game against the Irish, where, they would have clearly dominated…on the eve of the contest. The players were declared academically ineligible. Who’s to blame, does it matter?. N.D. football won that day… But at what cost? N.D. athletics lost the Moral high ground that day . N.D. football lost it’s honor that day, or should I say…sold it…to N.B.C. It has become painfully clear that Sports keep the doors open and the lights on. When,growing up a Catholic kid in the N.E. United States. I always believed it was the Holy Spirit and the intercession of the Blessed Mother who did that!
    As the athletes used to say Notre Dame our Mother …. Pray for us!

  • Fides

    I realize you are addressing a concern. However, from a business stand point, you always look to the hiring person, committee and standard/goal to be achieved. What has happened for the most part is that that hiring has become mechanistic as distinct from teleological in practice and in this instance without consideration of virtue.

    This is not a stand alone problem in education in Catholic institutions on all levels. The fundamental flaw in most educational efforts is that there is a disconnect — rarely do any in the education business assert that education is but a means to evangelize—at least that is in Catholic education. . It’s not about money, loyalty oaths, new programs or even locations or school fight songs. It’s about salvation and the means to accomplish.

    Most failures on all fronts in education and especially in sports is not to understand the role in the salvation effort and how to properly use to evangelize. People who try and teach and those that want to learn forget or don’t care about the why they ought to be there —

    It’s quite clear that comments in response to this article are unwarranted and quite discouraged. The ability to form a cohesive group, to work together towards a common goal is not an easy task to achieve — it is taught. The end that effort is put to is determined by ones virtue and ones willingness to work with others of goodwill — or not.

    I submit that you write an article that addresses the root problem — the hiring practice of virtuously unfit instructors and administrators, which is done in the absence of virtuous standards, and would indicate that the school is having a crisis — one that may require you to step away from — even if it has the pedigree. But! If you went to school to get virtue — then I am at a loss — the moral mechanism to determine the propriety of thing, virtue, is your conscience, the informing of and the exercise of — through the use of the Sacraments. The indictment here is the number of people wiling to pay for privilege and notoriety — cui bono — follow the money.

  • Jon S.

    Aside from the relatively short list of Catholic colleges and high schools that have a strong Catholic identity, most “Catholic” colleges and high schools are devoted to keeping the doors open while getting away with being as politically correct as possible. Schools that were built by and for the Catholic Faith have become the tools of mostly politically correct administrators and faculty who are increasingly successful at converting their board members, alums, parents, other donors, and students to political correctness. So school income–which comes mostly from white, heterosexual, Catholic, suburban, profit-making males–is used to teach their students that most social injustice in the world is caused by white, heterosexual, Christian, suburban, profit-making males, e.g., the “threat” from climate change is taught in “Catholic” schools while the real threat of Jihadism is not. Sports are used kin whatever way will keep the doors open while advancing PC, and most coaches are glad to cooperate–gone is the day when a male coach addressed the issue of masculinity with his male players. Most “Catholic” school administrators and faculty vote for the Democratic Party that would love to put Catholic schools out of business. Political Correctness is Saint Ignatius Loyola’s “Angel of Light.” And now we have a pope who is doing nothing substantive to counteract Political Correctness. May God have mercy on us, indeed.

  • Veritas

    I am happy to report that where I have lived, in a medium sized Midwestern City, the catholic schools, from elementary up through high schools, have very successful athletic programs. Of course the high schools seem to be dominant in certain sports, especially football at the state level, but that is not the only way they are successful. The local CYO organizations provide a great opportunity for the talented athletes to have competition, but also provide a well run and, most importantly, fun experience for everyone involved.

    This has been accomplished, from my experience, without sacrificing faith formation and virtuous character building. The schools are academically strong, offer arts as well as athletics, and are very “Catholic”…. It sounds like that may not be the norm everywhere, but it is the reality here.

  • Dave

    Bravo, Dr. Kries: hear, hear. Parents want safety, academic rigor, great extracurricular programs, and faith formation, in that order. Safety means lower incidences of drug and alcohol problems and fewer unwanted pregnancies, but it also means the kids will not be challenged at accepting tribal presuppositions. What parents want is to have kids educated to be successful — and that’s what the Church does, too, because successful people give money to the Church and her institutions. And so that’s what we get. Kids like the service projects, when they are well designed and moderately challenging, but so many Catholic high retreats resemble corporate team-building exercises: Catholic identity, right? We’re Catholic because we identify as Catholic; don’t challenge what we believe: since we’re Catholic, if we believe something, it’s Catholic. What parents want in Catholic schools are secular schools sprinkled with holy water, like dill or parsley: not too much, mind you, just enough to season the dish pleasantly. And so Catholic schools specialize all too often in graduating kids who are nice, who think they know the Faith, and who too often know really little of it. They are happy, it is true: all too often, they are happy, baptized pagans, and so the reference to ancient, pagan institutions of learning is especially apt. Blame the bishops, who have abandoned their roles as the chief teachers of their dioceses to the NCEA and other Church organs that support the secular — read “progressive” — social agenda, with just a little holy water for seasoning. Blame the parents, and grandparents, who also decided long ago to go along in order to get along. And look hard and wide for an authentic Catholic school. When you find one, it will be spiritually sound, academic rigorous, committed to a sound mind in a sound body, in tune with the arts, and in tune with service to those in need.They’re out there, and they’re worth it.

    • Faithful Catholic

      Thanks Dave, for a fine description of an “authentic Catholic school”. In case any reader might be looking for such a school in Louisville, Kentucky; I can attest that Holy Angels Academy (Co-ed, K – 12) fits that description.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    Someone being intoduced to the Catholic faith and having little familiarity with Western culture might, at first, think that Jesus Christ must at one time have been a quarterback for a major collegiate football contender.

  • Eugene Edward Yeo

    Well put, sir. As someone who considers teaching Rhetoric, only to see the Classics department at my college slashed and more sport-oriented programs on the rise, I’m concerned for the coming generations of students who will seek for an Authentic Catholic Education only to find halls brimming with sweat and empty of Theology.

  • Chris in Maryland

    The parish I got married in is now something of a mini-model of the post-V2 Church:
    The “Spirit of V2” faction of priests and laity openly mock Pope Benedict and literally clown around at Mass…then laud Pope F as some kind of Neo-Katholic-Super-Star…one “liberal” priest openly hawks his books and articles about psychology.

    The self-proclaimed “conservative” faction of laity prefer the “conservative” priests who give homilies about being successful in life…with lots of football analogies…and consider themselves “conservative” because they accept the behavior of the “Spirit-of-V2” faction as a normative manifestation of Catholicism…a sort of flip side “acting-out” that is counter-balanced by the “conservative” quietude and conformity.

    Meanwhile…Christ came to set fire to the earth…I do not think he is very impressed with the fire burning in the post-V2 Church.

  • GaryLockhart

    While growing up, I used to watch the video highlights of Notre Dame football games broadcast on Sunday mornings following Mass, with my father. This was long before Notre Dame had its contract with NBC. A highlight of every fall was the live telecast of the Notre Dame vs. USC game which frequently had implications in the quest for who would be ranked number one in the nation.

    Then as I got older I learned about what kind of terrible people Theodore Hesburgh, Edward Molloy, John Jenkins and Richard McBrien really were and still are in the case of Molloy and Jenkins. I learned that Notre Dame was more concerned with money, secularism and moral relativism than they are with Catholicism. The straw that broke the camels back was the honorary doctorate awarded to the pro-infanticide Barry Soetoro with the heretic John Jenkins at his side beaming with a Cheshire cat grin on his mug while his goon campus police department was arresting protesters; many of whom were simply praying the rosary including Father Norman Weslin. I came to the realization that I had to do exactly what Christ instructed me to do when He said:

    “And why even of yourselves, do you not judge that which is just?” Luke 12:57

    Now I take great pleasure in rooting against Notre Dame along with all other CINO universities who make a mockery of the faith. May they all repent and embrace the truth before it’s too late.

    • absconde_me


  • Steve Kellmeyer

    I wrote about this in my book “Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America” a decade ago. Parochial schools exist primarily because of their sports programs. Even that isn’t saving them. They are fading away at a steady pace, and will be essentially gone by 2040.

  • Micha_Elyi

    I just want to know why law schools outnumber medical schools at Catholic universities.

    • Caddie

      Probably the expense.